As hundreds of First Nation chiefs gathered in Winnipeg this week to elect Perry Bellegarde as new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, one Manitoba organization hoped to put two-spirit rights on the agenda.
“The Assembly of First Nations is not doing enough to acknowledge Indigenous two-spirited people,” says Albert McLeod. Originally from the Nisihawaysihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, McLeod is the co-director of an organization called Two-Spirited People of Manitoba.
In Indigenous cultures, those who are balanced spiritually in terms of gender are referred to as two-spirited or two-spirit people. While historically honoured by their nations, two-spirited people now frequently face discrimination from their own people and racism and prejudice from Canadians.
“The lack of recognition over the years by AFN leaders has been glaring and disappointing,” says McLeod. His organization sent letters to each of the three candidates vying to be the next national chief, asking how they would end discrimination against two-spirited people if elected.
Leon Jourdain, formerly grand chief of the Grand Council of Treaty #3, and Ghislain Picard, AFN Quebec regional chief, did not answer.
The only candidate to respond was Perry Bellegarde, AFN Saskatchewan regional chief. He affirmed the 2001 commitment the AFN made to education on two-spirited people and stated that gender violence against two-spirited people is a senseless crime “rooted in colonial attitudes from which we are all in various places of healing.” Bellegarde said that regardless of the outcome of the election, he will meet with Two-Spirited People of Manitoba in the future.
“We did try to originally engage with the national chief in 2010, but there was no response from him,” says McLeod, referring to Shawn Atleo, at the time an AFN candidate. “In 2012, at the AFN election [in] which he was one of the eight running, we sent a letter to each of the eight candidates and none of them replied.”
McLeod would like to see more recognition of two-spirited people at the national level. Since a resolution on two-spirit rights passed at an AFN meeting in 2001, little if any action has been taken. “I did recommend to each of the candidates they establish a two-spirited council at the AFN level,” says McLeod.“We would like to see our rights protected as any other.”
A two-spirit human rights rally was held Tuesday on the first day of the 2014 AFN .
Vanessa Tait, originally from O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation in Manitoba and a band councillor for her community, was at the rally. As a two-spirited person, Tait says she is unhappy there are no two-spirited representatives or role models at the national level, especially for Indigenous youth to see. “I don’t think we should feel that we’re a minority, because we are people too,” says Tait. “People need to know two-spirited people have a voice and want to be acknowledged and respected.”
Dec. 10 marks the day of the AFN election and international Human Rights Day, “an appropriate time to address two-spirited peoples’ rights,” says McLeod. “It’s been 15 years now. It’s time to see what’s been done.”