‘You belong in this world’: Two-Spirit survivors share their stories

Two-Spirit people have largely been left out of the discussion of residential and day schools. A new project highlights their voices, experiences, and journeys
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Jun 23, 2021
Connie Merasty (fourth from the left) with (from left to right) her sister Patricia and her nieces Treena, Ramona, and Veronica on her grandmother’s bed, ca. 1973. (Courtesy of Connie Merasty)

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“When we came back, the village was quiet,” recalls Ma-Nee Chacaby. “We went in the house. My mother started crying — screaming and crying — and she grabbed my stepdad. They were consoling each other.”

It was around 1964, Chacaby says, and she was 12 or 13 at the time. She had just returned to Ombabika, the northern Ontario community she grew up in, from the bush, where she’d been trapping muskrats and weasels with her stepfather. “My sister was gone, and my brother was gone, and they said, ‘They came and got the kids. They waved a piece of paper at us, and they took the kids.’”

Her older sister, Alice, was taken to the Shingwauk Residential School, in Sault Ste. Marie, and her younger brother, Moe, was taken to the McIntosh Residential School, in northwestern Ontario. Chacaby attended day school in Ombabika. “When they took all the kids from the community, people didn’t like us kids that didn’t go. So we got treated really bad,” says Chacaby, who identifies as an Ojibway-Cree Two-Spirit Elder.

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She remembers feeling alone after her siblings and cousins had been taken. With no children to play with, she spent hours on the trap line with her stepfather. Meanwhile, she was trying to survive physical and sexual abuse — a byproduct of trauma in the community following the devastating loss. 

Chacaby was one of eight participants in a storytelling project that included sharing circles and creative workshops specifically focused on the experiences of Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ survivors of residential and day schools. It was organized by Fierté Canada Pride and supported by the organization’s Two-Spirit advisory circle. From March until May, each of the participants worked toward creating a creating a video, accompanied by photography or clips, in which they tell part of their story. 

(left) smiling older woman in the woods; (right) smiling younger woman
Ma-Nee Chacaby identifies as as an Ojibway-Cree Two-Spirit Elder. (Courtesy of Ma-Nee Chacaby)

The project is in part an effort to highlight Two-Spirit voices — which, many say, have been largely absent from the mainstream conversation surrounding Truth and Reconciliation and the impacts of residential and day schools. 

“In a lot of ways, we are left out,” says Charlotte Nolin, who is Two-Spirit, Métis, from Manitoba and part of the Two-Spirit advisory council for the project. “Even when they did the announcement of the final report [on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls], there are still people that choose to ignore Two-Spirit LGBT2QIA people. We’ve been fighting for years, and these are some of our leaders and they choose to ignore us.” 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 4,000-page final report does not contain a section dedicated to the specific experiences of Two-Spirit people at residential school or to the needs of the Two-Spirit community in moving toward reconciliation. In fact, Two-Spirit people are mentioned on only half a page. There is no mention of the Two-Spirit community in the 94 calls to action that came out of the commission. (In the final year of its mandate, the commission, with the support of Égale Canada Human Rights Trust, organized a forum with survivors in the Two-Spirit community.) 

Ma-Nee Chacaby talks about Two-Spirit identities. (OurStories)

Before colonization, residential and day schools, and religious influence, Two-Spirit people were highly respected in Indigenous communities. “We were the ceremony keepers, we were name givers, we were the medicine people, and people looked at us with honour and respect,” says Nolin, who is also a day-school survivor. “Being Two-Spirited is like being a pipe carrier or being a lodge keeper: our lives are for the people. When you’re young, you don’t know these things. I had to learn from life itself — how to adapt, how to carry myself being Two-Spirited, and how it would affect other people.”

Being Two-Spirit is not a mental, emotional, or physical concept, Nolin says — it’s spiritual: “Being Two-Spirited means you walk with both the male and female, and you acknowledge both that male and female spirit, and you thank them for the gift that they’ve given you.”

TVO Explainer: What is Two-Spirit identity?

The project’s coordinator, Jennifer Lafontaine, says the stories participants have shared indicate that Two-Spirit children were the target of increased physical and sexual violence and verbal abuse and that their suffering at residential and day schools was distinct from that of other children. They were forced into gender roles that didn’t fit their worldview or existence and were taken from their culture, communities, families, and Elders who could have guided them as they grew into their Two-Spirit identity. “The things we know about residential school — about segregating girls and boys, naming things so clearly as girls and boys, and nothing in between — that is a fracturing of a worldview,” she says. 

Residential and day school affected not only the individuals who attended but also children who were left behind, relatives of survivors, and the Indigenous communities that children were stolen from. 

In the 1990s, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples called residential schools “a significant cause of family violence in Indigenous communities.” A 2017 paper released by the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health says, “recognizing the legacy of residential schools has been key to understanding patterns of violence both because of the physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse that Indigenous children endured [at residential school] and because of family disconnection that the schools created.” 

“I’m pretty confident that the alcohol use and just turning a blind eye to the child sexual abuse that occurred in the home — that was a direct result from residential school,” says Sempulyan Gonzales, a program participant from the Musqueam and Squamish nations in British Columbia who identifies as a Two-Spirit man. Gonzales, his six older siblings, his parents, and his grandparents all attended residential school, day school, or both, creating an intergenerational impact that rippled through the family.

a boy stands with an older woman
Sempulyan Gonzales, 5, with a teacher from St. Paul’s Indian Day School in 1966. (Courtesy of Sempulyan Gonzales)

Participant Connie Merasty, a Two-Spirit member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, in Manitoba, and a survivor of the Big Eddy Indian Day School, says that, because of day school and growing up with abuse, “you didn’t know what boundaries were because they were always being overstepped.” Intergenerational and community trauma, she says, resulted in a warped sense of self, sexuality, and relationships.

Today, Two-Spirit people continue to suffer stigma, exclusion, and abuse in their own communities. “I really think it is a colonial mindset,” says Merasty. “In residential school, people were brainwashed into believing that God was almighty… it was all very, very sin-based, and whatever you did wrong in your life, you would go to hell. So with this pathology that they brainwash our people with, people still have all those fears, all those mechanisms that that keep them within that mindset.” 

Merasty, though, says she “didn’t accept the status quo about religion … didn’t accept the

a person in a red dress with one arm outflank
Connie Merasty is a Two-Spirit member
of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, in Manitoba.
(Courtesy of Connie Merasty)

status quo about sexuality.” She believes that’s partly thanks to her mother, who accepted her desire, as a child, to play with dolls and dress differently from other boys. “My mother spent a lot of time with us as children and her job — what I realize she was doing — was instilling core values in us about how we were to treat people.” 

Most members of the group, Lafontaine says, spoke of the impacts of rigid notions of sexuality and gender: “The recovery from that to become a Two-Spirit person who is confident and safe and secure was far longer and greater because you just had a whole system negate who you are.”

The journey of claiming identity has not been easy for many Two-Spirit individuals, especially those who survived residential or day schools. “People always want a coming-out story,” Merasty says. “I didn’t have that because there was so much abuse; there was so much violence … all you’re thinking is that I want to survive today.” 

Nolin says she started living as a young woman when she was 17 and realized after a few years and some violent incidents that it was a dangerous path. “I didn’t want to be dead, so I went back in the closet when I was 24,” she says. “I lived as society wanted me to live, as a heterosexual male, became a father, bought houses, opened up businesses, did everything that society said was okay.” 

Merasty, Gonzales and Chacaby echo this experience, speaking of becoming parents at a young age, marrying many times — often to make other people happy — and trying to fit into societal expectations about gender and relationships. “Because of how I grew up, I was so terrified of offending anybody that I chose not to do anything for many, many years,” says Merasty. “But I wish somebody had told me, ‘You belong in this world, you’re a part of this world, you’re a part of creation, and you have every right to be on Earth.’”   

Sharing these stories and finding commonalities between their experiences was a core part of the storytelling project. The other purpose, says Nolin, is to share their knowledge so that people will understand some of the things they went through and why: “We didn’t know how to cope with life, because we didn’t understand life. The day schools and residential schools, and the Catholic schools, they all taught us the same thing: that it was wrong to be who we were.” 

During the workshops, Lafontaine led circles and exercises to help participants determine which part of their story they wanted to share, and how. “We were given all these ideas and all these different ways we could tell a story and so that’s how we workshopped all those stories together and talked and talked a lot about our own experiences in our families. A lot of it was really, really emotional,” says Merasty, adding that, at times, the stories of the other participants were so heartbreaking, she couldn’t find the words to respond.

Over the next three months, there will be a number of screenings of the digital stories, with the storytellers in attendance, to honour their stories and the gifts they share with us, says Lafontaine. The first screening will take place on July 22 in a joint presentation with Fierté Canada Pride and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. There will be additional sharing events announced. 

Sempulyan's Journey (Community Story Strategies)

“My digital story talks about me loving to swim in the ocean,” says Gonzales. “And then in residential school, I was raped in the ocean, so it made me very fearful of the ocean, and then my cousins in Musqueam, they raped me down by the water, so the water became a really fearful place for me. I started my healing journey, and getting into the canoe, in 2009 — my goal is to get back in the ocean, learn how to swim, and take my power back.”

Gonzales says he wanted to share his story “because I know a lot of people think that because of the abuse that I received growing up — prior to residential school, going to residential school, after residential school — [they think] that was the reason why I turned gay or Two-Spirit and that was never the case. The Creator made me Two-Spirited. He didn’t create me to be an evil or bad person; the Creator created me to be beautiful.”

(left) a smiling person in a hat; (right) a smiling person waving a multi-coloured fan
Sempulyan Gonzales performing a Kayachtn (welcoming) for North Shore Restorative Justice (left) and at the
 Vancouver Pride Parade in 2019 (right) . (Courtesy of Sempulyan Gonzales)

Just as Gonzales spoke of returning to the water, other survivors also spoke of finding their place in ceremony and community. For 16 years, Nolin danced on the men’s side at the Nokomis Sundance Ceremony. In 2018, Nolin, then 67, danced in between the men and the women for the first time. She also hopes to soon host a Sundance ceremony by Two-Spirit people, for Two-Spirit people.

“For most of us Elders, we started this journey 30 some years ago, our healing journey. And we’re still on that journey. We probably will be until we leave and return home to the spirit world,” Nolin says. “Canadian society as a whole has to be able to recognize who we are and what it’s done to us — the government and the churches and the schools — what they’ve done to us. They should be coming to Indigenous people and asking for forgiveness. A lot of us are willing to forgive. But we’ll never forget. How can we?”

Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

The University of Toronto Libraries offers a list of resources for Two-Spirit people in Ontario.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman

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