Melillo questioned about gender-affirming care at First Nations wellness conference

A youth from Treaty 3 recently tried to get to the bottom of a controversial topic important to her people, but to no avail.

During the First Nations Community Wellness Conference in Toronto on March 21, which was hosted by the Chiefs of Ontario, Kenora MP Eric Melillo was asked about his party’s stance on access to gender-affirming care, and the apparent double standard they have for supporting individual autonomy when it comes to vaccines but not when it comes to gender-affirming care.

“Communities in the north struggle with access to care, never mind care that’s gender-affirming,” and the need to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria to get that care “negates the lived and living experiences of two-spirit, transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary and other queer folks,” pointed out Winter Dawn Lipscombe at the conference.

“How do you suggest we support and improve mental health within the riding and for First Nations when there isn’t a strong support for gender-affirming care within your party?” she asked Melillo.

Melillo responded by saying that he supports “everyone’s right to be who they are and live their life,” and that “that speaks for itself.” But Lipscombe, who is from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation (Rat Portage) and is a former youth representative on Treaty 3’s youth executive council, isn’t satisfied with that answer.

“I really wanted to use my opportunity in that space for some accountability,” Lipscombe to the Miner and News. She wants to know from Melillo: “How are you promoting our voices? And how are they reflected in the work that you're doing within your party?”

Over the last few years, there has been an increase in anti-trans rhetoric across North America resulting in legislative action, with Florida Govenor Ron Desantis introducing a slate of regulations on gender-affirming care for minors, bathroom usage and pronouns at school last May, and similar policies being imposed over the past few months in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

During the Conservative Party of Canada’s convention last September, 69 per cent of the delegates, which are party members representing their region, agreed that young people should be prohibited from accessing gender-affirming care. Gender-affirming care refers to options like hormone treatments to delay puberty or help develop certain features, as well as top or bottom surgeries.

It is important to note that bottom surgery, or genital reconstructive surgery, is already only available to adults in Canada, and data suggests that most of the youth referrals for top surgeries, or mastectomies, in Alberta where they are now banned, have been around the age of 15 or 16. At this point it's unclear which treatments would be banned federally if the proposed policy is adopted.

At the same convention, 87 per cent of delegates voted to support the creation of a plan to demand single-sex, women or “female persons” only spaces, in an effort to keep them free of trans and other gender-diverse people. Speaking in Kitchener, ON, in February, Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, showed support for the idea, saying “female spaces should be exclusively for females, not for biological males.”

Mental health issues are already a concern in many First Nation communities across the region, but trans and queerphobic rhetoric and a lack of access to care will only further contribute to that, said Lipscombe.

“Our region does experience significant mental health crises, and we have a lack of access to care and to mental health supports," she said. “But what they don't realize necessarily is that gender affirming care supports positive mental health outcomes because people feel supported and empowered in who they are.”

As a transgender and two-spirit person, Lipscombe’s partner, Kieran Davis, needs to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a doctor to receive gender-affirming care, he said. “I'm not okay with being diagnosed as mentally ill.”

What two-spirit people in Treaty 3 really want is “the recognition of our rightful and spiritual place in ceremony that was taken away from us,” said Davis. “We're promised these engagements and to be listened to and heard, only when it makes them comfortable.”

Many two-spirit people feel separated from ceremony, whereas pre-colonization, they had been included. "Due to the residential school system and everything that the government has put on us, we lost those teachings,” Davis explained.

March 18-23 was Two-Spirit Awareness Week in Lac Seul First Nation, where Davis is from, about three hours northeast of Kenora, and despite being invited to participate and support the programming, Kenora's MP did not.

“We weren't asking for anything other than recognition, and we were refused,” said Davis. “We were told that they recognize June as Pride Month.”

Lipscombe, who is now in a management role with Grand Council Treaty 3, expects Melillo to meet with and listen to people in the riding, and to attend their events.

“You may not personally support something, but you still have a responsibility as our elected leader to make a presence and to hear voices even if they're different than yours,” she said. “You still have a responsibility to represent and protect their rights.”

The Miner reached out to Melillo’s office for comment but did not hear back before the print deadline.

Serena Austin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kenora Miner and News