Fly your flag

Lawyer, activist, and community organizer Tuma Young is this year's Halifax Pride ambassador. Photo: Submitted

It’s fitting that Tuma Young is the ambassador for this year’s Halifax Pride festival.

From the Malagawatch First Nations community in Inverness County, Young is a L’nu (Mi’kmaq, using the pronoun nek’m, which means both she and he) who has been a trailblazer for many years.

Young became the province’s first Mi’kmaq speaking lawyer when was called to the bar in 2001, the first Native and openly two-spirit president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (NSBS). By holding that position, Young was also the first Native person to serve as president of any law society in Canada.

Along with John Sylliboy, Young co-founded the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance in 2011 with the goal of improving the lives of the 2SLGBTQ+ people. Young has particularly advocated for health, passionate about HIV/AIDS activism, and is an assistant professor of Mi’kmaq Studies at Cape Breton University.

Transitioning from a being a young person at heart to thinking about retirement, nek’m offers a unique perspective on Pride and First Nations issues.

Systemic racism: “Being two-spirit and a First Nation person, everyday you are almost running into some sort of racism or discrimination … You just think, ‘What the hell can I do about it?’ or you fight back, get angry. You realize systemic stuff impacts upon me more differently than others. In the early 1980s, the first Pride parades, we fought the John Buchanan government to include sexual identity in the Nova Scotia Human Rights Code. I was parked there, and I was helping to fight everything … It took another 20 years before I was able to get the Human Rights Code amended.”

Being Pride Ambassador: “It means a lot; I am very humbled and honoured to do so, but it’s also a lot of work… I’ll also be able to meet in the halls of power. Not only will I bring First Nations issues to that, but I will also bring it to 2SLGBTQ+ issues. We’ve come a long way but we haven’t completed the journey yet. We still need some stuff, some issues on justice, where the two-spirit and LGBTQ+ community interacts with the justice system, not just on the criminal family, but on the civil and education, wills, estates … As a First Nation person, you have to be careful that is there any impact on Aboriginal treaty rights, so I will be wearing to it a lens that is multifaceted.  I want to be able to show people you need to look at all these issues not just from a lens of equity and diversity, but you also have to look at it from a critical race theory, critical race impact and not just to government or systems, but to also our own communities.”

Pride’s theme of reconnection: “As the 2SLGBTQ+ community, we’ve gone through pandemics (before). This is not our first rodeo in a way, and we’ve learned lessons from it, getting together, creating and reconnecting in our relationships. Our relationships are the foundations of all of our society and community, so when we all reconnect, are we restoring or renewing our relationships with each other, whatever form or shape they may take? That’s what I see permeates through my culture as First Nation person. Relationships is the key and foundation. We need to reconnect with the land. We need to reconnect with the animals … Reconnecting and then reminding ourselves that we have obligations to everyone in the 2SLGBTQ+ community and we also have obligations to the greater in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and international communities. We have multiple layers of obligations.”

Importance of First Nations at Pride: ” I was there at the first Pride Parade in 1988 … We’ve always been a part of it. Over the last 25 years, there’s been a stronger, much more cultural, component to it. In the last 20 years, we brought our who we are as L’nu and First Nations people. Where previously thought if you were going to be gay, you had to give up your indigeneity or if you were Indigenous, you couldn’t be gay. We’ve now said ‘No, this is who we are and in order for us to live our authentic lives, we bring the totality of who we are, to where we go.'”

 Young (centre) has been on the front lines of Pride for decades, in 1990 serving as a grand marshal at the 1990 Toronto Pride Parade, riding on a dusty a dusty old station wagon called Beatrice instead of the usual convertible. 

Establishing Wabanaki Two-Spirit Alliance: “I’ve always been actively involved in health education — HIV and AIDS. I started up the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq AIDS Task Force … When I left that in the mid-1990s, I decided to go back to school, and I worked toward being lawyer. Once I graduated and started working in professional fields, I was advising communities and councils. The Mi’kmaw community was hit with a suicide epidemic in the early 2000s … My cousin came over to me one day and said, ‘You know I was at the crisis meeting last night and we talked about it and brought up the subject that maybe some of these suicides are not related to drugs or alcohol, but they’re related to sexuality’ … Out of the 10 suicides, four were lesbians … I met John (Sylliboy), and on day one, we formed the alliance.”

How the alliance worked: “We need to reclaim our role in our societies — some of us were already doing it — and we need to teach what our roles are to the next generation. We spent four days teaching over 55 two-spirit people from all over Atlantic Canada … their cultural aspects and telling them that you belong in the community. You don’t have to run to the big cities, you can be who you are, and live your authentic life in First Nations communities.”

Challenges for First Nations and two-spirit people: “There’s going to be a constant healing from trauma. People really need to understand that we are not just focusing on one thing like the residential schools and truth and reconciliation, but the Indian day schools, the child welfare thing, colonization going right straight through. There are some multiple layers … How do we all heal from it? We’re not going to get there in one day.”

Changing attitudes: “When I came out and was outed when I was a little kid, the nuns told me that I was a sodomite … The history and trauma of colonization in Indian day and residential schools made being gay a terrible thing and it was equated to what the priests were doing at that time.  So literally, my brother was chased off the reserve. Then, 10 years later when I came out, it was still legal to discriminate.  When my nephew came out, it was legal to get married. When my grandchild came out as trans, it was OK. There’s a lot of journeys along the way … I remember one time this one woman told her staff that she didn’t want me to come up through a reserve and do a health/HIV-AIDS workshop because I was too gay. Fast forward 30 years later, her granddaughter comes out as lesbian … And she became a two-spirit activist. People can and do change and I’ve seen that.”

Inclusion and diversity in the justice system: “We still have a long ways to go. In 1988, the Marshall Report came out and recommendation number 12 says that we will appoint more people of colour to judicial appointments. They have done that but I have to remind them that it’s not just traditional appointments. It’s also administrative bodies, like the Nova Scotia Human Rights Tribunal adjudicators. I was the first (Native) small-claims court adjudicator. There’s now three of us and there might be one person of colour as a Human Rights Tribunal adjudicator, none on the Utility Review Board, Social Assistance, and Housing. I’m not talking about the board itself, but the adjudicator who actually make the decisions. I tell them we can point to success appointing people on the bench, but it’s these administrative bodies that severely impact the every-day lives of every-day folks.”

Five years from now: “I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be celebrated and, in a way, that pride is great. Here in Sydney, Cape Breton, we had a queer prom and there were threats still. We need to still work on many things here, but the fact is that they had a queer prom. We need to remember Pride is really a ceremony to celebrate who you are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, to remember the past about all of the good, the ugly and the wonderful stuff and to reconnect ourselves with our sexuality or gender identity. I like to tell people ‘Fly your freak flag.’ Whatever it is, as long as it’s between consenting adults and you’re not hurting anybody, fly it.”

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