Virtual gathering helps to build Island LGBTQ2S+ connections

From left, Amazing Race Canada host Jon Montgomery stands with Anthony Johnson and husband James Makokis, a two-spirit couple that won the 2019 show. The couple will be presenting at the upcoming virtual Mnaamodzawin gathering.

AUNDECK OMNI KANING – Youth on Manitoulin Island and beyond are invited to attend Creating Connections Gathering, a first-of-its-kind online event for two-spirit and LGBTQ+ individuals next Saturday, January 23 when Mnaamodzawin Health Services will host a free virtual gathering that includes guest speakers, two-spirit teachings and opportunities to meet Islanders who identify as LGBTQ2S+.

“Having that community acceptance is something that is super important for mental well-being,” said Aaron Bowerman, a long-time LGBTQ2S+ advocate from Sheguiandah First Nation who will serve as emcee for the event. “If I had something like this (when I was younger) I feel like I would have been able to accept myself a lot sooner and I would have been able to start my life sooner.”

The event is open to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous attendees and is targeted primarily at youth aged 13 to 25 on Manitoulin Island, though it is open to others as well.

“What we’re trying to do is to create a community and help people recognize there is a community they can be part of,” said Jacquie Allen, mental health counsellor at Mnaamodzawin and a co-organizer of the gathering. “One of our goals is to help people feel like they’re not alone, to feel like there’s other people in the community who are supportive.”

The gathering runs from 10 am to 5 pm on the Saturday. Although this is a one-off event for now, Mnaamodzawin hopes to gather feedback from participants so it can work toward creating future youth support groups and other initiatives. The health centre is also seeking information on the supports that parents may desire.

The point of this meeting is to offer young people opportunities for socializing and possibly winning prizes, all while learning about the supports that exist for LGBTQ2S+ individuals on the Island.

In places like Manitoulin, where communities and support services are spread apart, discovering one’s identity and feeling supported during that process can be challenging. Ms. Allen acknowledged that LGBTQ2S+ conversations need more visibility in a local context.

“We need to be able to have people feel comfortable and to be open about their sexuality at all ages, and I think that’s something we don’t see a lot,” she said, adding that these topics sometimes come up during the counselling sessions she facilitates.

Part of that effort requires inviting community members, such as Mr. Bowerman, the emcee, to take part of the process. He identifies as two-spirit and actively works to strengthen communities through harm reduction, sexual health promotion and HIV education in Toronto.

“I didn’t hesitate when they asked me to be emcee,” he said. “Initiatives like this conference help to promote diversity and inclusion, challenge social norms around sexuality and build community acceptance on Manitoulin.”

Keynote speakers at the event will be two-spirit couple James Makokis and Anthony Johnson, Cree and Dine (Navajo) men respectively, who gained fame as the first two-spirit team on The Amazing Race Canada. During that season and beyond, the team raised awareness and advocated for two-spirit, LGBTQ+ and First Nation issues.

Another speaker is Métis, Cree and Mi’kmaq elder Laureen (Blu) Waters, wolf clan, whose spirit name is Istchii Nikamoon (Earth Song). She works at Seneca College as an elder on campus, providing traditional teachings and one-on-one counselling. She is part of the grandmother circle in the National Inquiry for Murdered and Missing Women and is grandmother to commissioner Brian Eyelfson.

Finally, queer and Indigenous advocate Teddy Syrette, whose spirit name is Ozhawa Anung Kwe (Yellow Star Woman), of Batchewana First Nation, will also be part of the event. Mx. Syrette has received awards for their advocacy work, including from the Bonham Centre, Planned Parenthood Toronto and the YMCA. (Mx. Syrette uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns; Mx. is a gender-neutral honourific.) Their work has focused on gender and sexuality diversity, as well as Indigenous histories and experiences, and has set Mx. Syrette on a healing journey for themself while also helping others learn.

Ms. Allen, who is the parent of a two-spirit person, has been organizing the event since November alongside Ken Lander, a mental health clinician at Mnaamodzawin.

“I’ve been on the Island for a couple of years now and I’ve been to the pride events; I think they’re great but the Island is so geographically large so it’s hard to create connections in the first place,” said Mr. Lander, who is gay. “A lot of challenges and barriers can be helped through the strength of knowing you’re not alone. That was my personal motivation to really become a driving force behind this.”

He acknowledged that there are both accepting groups as well as some resisters on the Island to LGBTQ2S+ people. Mr. Lander said he hoped people would foster a sense of community through this event.

“There seems to be a little excitement brewing already,” he said.

Organizers are hoping for about 60 people to turn out to the event, though its online nature will allow for as many as 200. The interactive event will also be accommodating to those who don’t wish to turn on their camera or who wish to use a different screen name.

To register and for more details, visit surveymonkey.com/r/registration2slgbtqgathering or call 705-368-2182, x269. Please see the ad on Page 15 of this newspaper for more information.