UMFM is currently in the midst of some special programming practices due to COVID, please read the update below or follow our socials for the latest updates!

Listen Live

On-air now: Bang & Whisper 1:00pm–2:00pm

Up next: Pastoral MIDI 2:00pm–3:00pm

Program Directory

Talking Radical Radio

John Syl­li­boy is Mi’kmaq and he grew up as part of Esak­soni and Mill­brook First Nations in Nova Sco­tia. He is also the act­ing exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Wabana­ki Two Spir­it Alliance, an orga­ni­za­tion of Two-Spir­it peo­ple on the east coast that has been mak­ing space, reclaim­ing cul­ture, pro­duc­ing knowl­edge, and speak­ing up for more than a decade. Scott Neigh inter­views him about his own expe­ri­ences, about Two-Spir­it iden­ti­ty, and about the alliance.

When Syl­li­boy was 20 years old, he had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go to Cos­ta Rica as part of a Cana­da World Youth pro­gram. It was a tremen­dous expe­ri­ence – he learned a lot, and he found the cul­ture there res­onat­ed in many ways with Mi’kmaq cul­ture. He end­ed up doing an under­grad­u­ate degree in Cos­ta Rica and spent 17 years liv­ing and work­ing most­ly there.

One part of Sylliboy’s jour­ney was that he began to come out as gay ear­ly dur­ing his time in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. He moved back to Mi’kmaqi – the ter­ri­to­ry of the Mi’kmaq peo­ple – in 2007 to become a pol­i­cy ana­lyst for the Atlantic Pol­i­cy Con­gress of First Nations Chiefs Sec­re­tari­at, and at that point he came out to his fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty. It was, he said, a mat­ter of con­fir­ma­tion rather than rev­e­la­tion,” and his fam­i­ly was very supportive.

Not long after that, he first encoun­tered the term Two-Spir­it,” which had ori­gins in an inter­na­tion­al gath­er­ing of gay and les­bian Indige­nous peo­ple in Win­nipeg in 1990. While it is an Eng­lish-lan­guage term and it is pan-Indige­nous – mean­ing, it brings togeth­er peo­ple of many dif­fer­ent nations that had many dif­fer­ent ways of doing gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty before col­o­niza­tion – it is nonethe­less embraced by many Indige­nous peo­ple as a way to assert their his­to­ries and present-day real­i­ties that are quite dis­tinct from LGBTQ set­tlers, while using it as an entry point to the vast diver­si­ty with­in Indige­nous expe­ri­ences. It was a term that Syl­li­boy was drawn to and even­tu­al­ly took up and began using.

In 2010, a par­tic­u­lar Mi’kmaq com­mu­ni­ty expe­ri­enced a num­ber of peo­ple dying by sui­cide in a rel­a­tive­ly short time, and four of the ten peo­ple who died were Two-Spir­it. Many Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties expe­ri­ence trag­i­cal­ly high rates of sui­cide con­nect­ed to the ongo­ing trau­mas of col­o­niza­tion. In this con­text, Syl­li­boy and his friend Tuma Young decid­ed that they need­ed to take action with an eye specif­i­cal­ly to the ways in which col­o­niza­tion impacts Two-Spir­it peo­ple in their region.

To do so, they began the process of found­ing an orga­ni­za­tion that even­tu­al­ly took on the name Wabana­ki Two-Spir­it Alliance. Wabana­ki is a term that encom­pass­es a num­ber of Indige­nous peo­ples and their ter­ri­to­ries in Nova Sco­tia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, New­found­land and Labrador, the Gaspé region of Que­bec, and Maine in the Unit­ed States.

They knew that their ini­tial pri­or­i­ty had to be heal­ing and com­mu­ni­ty build­ing. They had to scrounge for fund­ing, but Syl­li­boy and Young had plen­ty of con­nec­tions to net­works with­in Indige­nous ser­vice, gov­er­nance, and aca­d­e­m­ic spaces, and they were able to both find resources and estab­lish a broad reach for their work. They orga­nized a pow­er­ful ini­tial gath­er­ing, and then many more like it over the years.

In the decade and more since the orga­ni­za­tion was found­ed, their work has also includ­ed things like build­ing capac­i­ty in com­mu­ni­ties, research, knowl­edge shar­ing, and advo­ca­cy. They cen­tre cul­ture in their work. They do their best to sup­port Two-Spir­it peo­ple doing sim­i­lar work in their own local com­mu­ni­ties. They have worked a lot with main­stream LGBTQ orga­ni­za­tions to build rela­tion­ships and to steadi­ly push to expand under­stand­ing, spaces, and resources for Two-Spir­it peo­ple in those contexts.

Their research work has done things like cap­tur­ing the needs of Two-Spir­it peo­ple in order to artic­u­late them to ser­vice providers and fun­ders. Their advo­ca­cy has includ­ed push­ing for more for­mal and ongo­ing inclu­sion of Two-Spir­it voic­es in First Nations gov­er­nance struc­tures. They have been heav­i­ly involved in the col­lec­tive effort to push the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to take action in response to the calls for jus­tice in the final report of the Nation­al Inquiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered Indige­nous Women and Girls, which includes actions specif­i­cal­ly focused on Two-Spir­it peo­ple. They are devel­op­ing their own ethics frame­work to guide out­side researchers who might want to do research involv­ing Two-Spir­it peo­ple in the region. And they are chal­leng­ing main­stream data gath­er­ing orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Sta­tis­tics Cana­da, to do bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing the real­i­ties of Two-Spir­it people.

Syl­li­boy has been par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased to see, over the last ten years, the exten­sive involve­ment of elders in the ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tions that have been think­ing through Two-Spir­it expe­ri­ences and iden­ti­ty in terms of cul­ture and teach­ings. He is also encour­aged that the alliance has been part of broad­er efforts that have led to sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tions in sui­cide by Two-Spir­it peo­ple in the region. And last year, the alliance got fed­er­al fund­ing and was able to hire staff for the first time.