Organizers of a project that provides two-spirit people in B.C. with medicine bundles containing safe sex resources and traditional medicine say they aim to bring back the mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of sexuality.
The Medicine Bundle pilot project is being organized by the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC), a Vancouver-based charity that works with two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (2SLGBT+) people.
It's part of a research project funded by various organizations including the First Nations Health Authority. The project started in May and is set to end Aug. 26, depending on supplies.
Jessy Dame, a Métis registered nurse and the two-spirit program manager at the CBRC, says the project was conceived by and for two-spirit people after consultation with the queer and trans Indigenous community.
"One of the biggest needs identified was access to sexual health services and safe access within rural and remote communities," Dame said.
"Through many conversations, and through our two-spirit guidance committee … the medicine bundle was born."
The bundles sent out to two-spirit people include rapid HIV and STD test kits, safe sex resources including condoms, and traditional medicines such as sage, cedar, sweetgrass, lavender, bear grease, and Labrador tea.
Medicine bundles symbolic and historic
Dame says medicine bundles have historic and spiritual significance for two-spirit people, and that the project aims to reconnect two-spirit people with the spiritual aspects of sex.
"A big part of the feedback [from two-spirit people] is current state sexual health services are mainly just physical," he said.
"In order to challenge the legacy of stigma and shame, it needs to be beyond just physical testing and physical assessments. It needs to be spiritual, mental, emotional."
Dame said most of the traditional medicines included in the bundle — which participants can choose depending on what is appropriate for them — are not used in a sexual context.
However, they can be used for spiritual healing and re-connecting with one's roots, which line up with what the project is aiming to do. Dame also said the bundles were blessed by an Indigenous elder before being shipped.
"We are sexual beings and [medicine is] a sacred piece," he said. "This was the start of some folks' healing journey ... to regain or take back control of their own sexual health.
"Through colonization and religion and a number of things, we've shamed and stigmatized it. This bundle is the attempt to bring back the medicines ... it is a part of us."
Dame says sex is not just about a physical exchange, but rather "an empowerment."
The pilot program has seen tremendous uptake so far and the community response has been "extremely positive," he said.
About 150 of the 200 kits have been sent across the province.
Hopes for a 'two-spirit resurgence'
With Pride celebrations this weekend in B.C., Dame said he hopes the project and the group's work will increase the visibility of two-spirit people in the larger 2SLGBT+ community.
"There's been a long legacy of two-spirit people being brought in last or attached at the end of an acronym. Even though we've been here the longest," he said.
"Hoping that, in this Pride season, we are seeing a huge two-spirit resurgence, which is so powerful. And I hope to see that to continue through projects like this."
While there is no specific category for two-spirit people under Canada's census, the figures for 2021 showed more than 18,000 people in B.C. identified as transgender or non-binary.
The participants in the project are protected under research confidentiality, but the project also employed "trusted messengers" from Indigenous communities to deliver resources to two-spirit people.
"To know that I am responsible for a medicine bundle, that will support my Indigenous family members far and wide, helps me connect to my true essence as an Indigenous person," read a statement from Ryan O'Toole, one of the messengers from the Gitxaala Nation in northern B.C.
Dame said he hoped the medicine bundle project would be adopted by other sexual health providers across the country, even as the pilot project winds down.
"It shouldn't just be replicated," he said. "Our hope is that other folks will work with us or will adapt the model to their community's needs."