For the first time in its nearly 50-year history, the Eskasoni First Nation's annual winter carnival pageant is open to transgender women and girls.
The Eskasoni Winter Carnival has been running for decades as a fundraiser for the local Holy Family Parish. The pageant is one of the most popular events of the festival in Cape Breton.
"To have this as one of the biggest symbols of gender affirmation for people who are trans is a total success and a very historic moment, not only for Mi'kmaw people, not only for people in Eskasoni, but for transgender women and girls all across this world," said Geordy Marshall, who is with Pride Eskasoni.
Marshall is also the communications person for the Eskasoni First Nation and sits on the organizing committee for the winter carnival.
He said about two dozen participants spend a month working on things like public speaking and confidence for the pageant. They bond as friends to encourage each other and learn from elders.
"It's an opportunity for young women to learn who they are and learn from the finest women in our community to become women. It's almost like a coming-of-age type of event," Marshall said.
So far, one transgender participant has signed up, Bella Marie Poulette. She and her sponsors decided she should wait until after the pageant to do interviews to make sure the pageant is fair for all participants and to allow her to have the same kind of experience as everyone else.
"She is excited and she's felt overwhelmed by all of this emotionally," Marshall said. "She's just overfilled with joy. This is something she's dreamed of all her life to do."
The winter carnival will take place Feb. 20-23.
Maryanne Junta, 19, won the title of queen in the 2016 pageant. She said she loves that transgender girls are now allowed to enter.
"Trans girls are girls and it shouldn't be any other way," she said. "They should be allowed to join pageants, they should be allowed to go in the girls bathroom, because they're girls. They should be able to experience life as a girl, as they want to."
Marshall said the community's reaction has been mixed.
"There were people who celebrated and rejoiced on the wonderful day, but there's also a lot of people who expressed their transphobic beliefs and were totally against it," he said.
Marshall said many transgender teens struggle with poor self-esteem, which is one reason being able to enter the pageant with other young girls is important.
"It's hard to live in a world where it's full of lateral violence and residual effects from residential schools and Indian day schools and colonization. A lot of these young girls deal with a lot of pressure in their lives," he said.
"This is one of the great things we get to celebrate as a community. We see all of their hard work paid off and we truly honour them on that day. Whether they're a crowned winner or not, they're all our princesses."
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