Ma-Nee Chacaby’s grandmother could tell that her young granddaughter was different long before Chacaby herself came to the same realization.
“I was a Two-Spirit child, which means I had two spirits in my body, mind and soul,” she explained. “She said they’ve existed way back seven generations – when she was four years old, she was told people existed like that.”
Traditionally, Chacaby says these people – known by other names prior to the introduction of the term ‘Two-Spirit’ in 2010 – were revered in First Nations communities; seen as those who walk with the Great Spirit, and often called upon to lead ceremony.
Despite this early designation, Chacaby recalls her earliest memories of ‘pride,’ as memories of resistance.
“My first pride was about being denied to go enjoy my life,” she said. “It was a rough road for the first three years of my coming out.”
“When I came out as a lesbian woman in 1988, I had a lot of battles with the First Nations and had battles with white people because they didn’t like me being who I was,” Chacaby added. “But I didn’t care – I was prepared to die for my own cause. For my own who I am.”
With the same raw conviction chronicled in her autobiography, ‘A Two-Spirit Journey’ – a French version of which was recently published in Quebec – Chacaby came to Montreal ready to lead the charge at this year’s gay pride festivities as a Parade Grand Marshall.
“I live by love. Respect. And to honour yourself, who you are,” she said.
Amidst scrutiny from racialized and marginalized groups, Fierté Montreal adopted a new mandate in 2019: to diversity and attempt to Indigenize their festival offerings as part of their bid to host World Pride in 2023.
As the most-attended Pride festival across Canada, it was no small feat.
“One of the main priorities was to meet as many different cultural groups I could, and to get to know their needs, and get to know what I could do to help them and to do as many projects as possible this first year,” explained Félicia Tremblay, Fierté’s newly-appointed Director of Diversity and Community Relations.
“As a black Cherokee Two-Spirit person, someone who’s grown up in much oppression around a very non-cultural environment, I feel it’s very personal for me to listen well – not to speak for the others, but mostly to listen well to them,” Tremblay added.
One of the more visible offerings new to the festival this year was the “Two-Spirit Space” – a teepee, designed and constructed by Innu artist Serge Ashini, with assistance from his partner, MMIWG Inquiry commissioner Michele Audette.
Throughout the festival, the Two-Spirit space was occupied by a knowledge keeper, available for advisement and questions, as well as an interactive art installation overseen by members of the 2S Circle of Montreal.
Even during the festival’s opening ‘Reconciliation Ceremony’ – held on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – the Two-Spirit space was the epicenter of a flurry of activity.
“It’s hard for me to talk about it without getting emotional, because every day it’s like there’s a new beautiful that happens,” Tremblay added. “Seeing Two-Spirit families, hearing feedback from people who feel less alone because they went to an activity where they felt heard.”
Although Tremblay concedes they’re already thinking of ways to up the gamut for next year’s edition of the festival, starting to consciously showcase Two-Spirit identities is an indelible step towards reconciliation.
“Statistically we are growing in numbers in these cities; it’s important that we also take those spaces,” John Sylliboy, a Two-Spirit researcher and doctoral candidate at McGill University, explained.
While delivering a panel discussion with Chacaby, Sylliboy – hailing from the Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation – presented crucial facets of his research into what ‘Two-Spirit’ means within Indigenous cultural identity and language, as well as how those elements are impacted by life in urban settings like Montreal.
“Elders are saying ‘we need to learn this and re-learn a lot of it so we have words, vocabulary, terms and phrases that young people could use to self-identify for their own well-being,’” Sylliboy explained.
“In Quebec it’s a process by which a lot of people are stuck between identity of language and identity of culture – but a lot of that excludes indigenous culture. A lot of that excludes indigenous identity or even Two-Spirit identity,” he added.
It’s hard to deny that Quebec’s politics still draw a dividing line.
Premier Francois Legault attended the weekend’s festivities, despite a petition signed by hundreds dubbing him a “false ally,” and calling for him to opt out altogether.
Many believe Legault’s leadership is bolstering division among cultural communities, and fuelling far-right vitriol.
Even with diversity at the forefront in 2019, Fierté says they’ve logged thousands of hateful online comments across social media platforms since May – an “unprecedented” amount, according to festival President Jean-Sébastien Boudreault.
“There’s so much work to do when you want to love somebody,” Chacaby said. “That what I’m trying to teach the young people; I want them to learn that love is the most important thing. Love can conquer evil. Love can conquer hate.
“Hate adopts you. You adopt it so quickly. But love? You’ve got to work at it.”