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2017 Kick-Ass Activist: Peyton Straker

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For Yellowknife’s Indigenous youth looking to learn more about their cultures, Peyton Straker highlights the importance of land-based education

Peyton Straker was a five-time high-school dropout when she took a job as an Indigenous support worker at the public school board in Yellowknife. Straker, 23 and Anishinaabe, knew from experience many of the ways the education system failed her. As a youth she felt displaced in schools where she couldn’t see herself reflected in the curriculum, and often instead of feeling supported, Straker got the message in school that she was somehow a problem.

When the job first came up online, Straker thought, “That sounds terrible, and I also am really under-qualified for that,” she says. She applied anyway, hoping to make a positive change. “Two weeks later I was starting the job.”

Straker began reading and learning about land-based education when she was 17. She completed an intensive immersion course at the Northwest Territory’s Dechinta Bush University, where she camped in a small isolated group, studying decolonization and experienced her first moose hunt. “Seeing the way that being on the land informs your decolonization process and your identity was what made me decide that that was what I wanted to do,” she says.

When the new position required bringing absent students back to school, Straker decided instead to go about creating something new. But it wasn’t easy. In her first days on the job she inquired about her budget. The response: “You don’t have one.” As the only person in a job that no one had ever done, Straker turned her focus toward getting what she wanted: money to improve cultural education for youth. Though she had never filled out a funding application before, she raised enough to buy a snowmobile and other supplies, and gave birth to the Traditional Mentorships Program.

The program’s purpose was to connect youth more deeply with land-based ways of life, and nurture cultural resilience. Run by and for Indigenous people, Straker saw it as an opportunity to create something she didn’t have when she was young. At first, she wrestled with questions about the school system: “Is a conventional colonial space really a space for decolonization?” she asked. “But whether or not I think that it’s the appropriate place, it’s where the kids are.”

Most teachers and parents were supportive. The students in the program would leave class from half a day to overnight to take part. “The teachers were not worried about them missing their book work,” Straker says. “It didn’t mean they got extra homework. It was just part of their week, and it was valued just as much as their science class.”

Although most of her students had some traditional knowledge, Straker noticed it was patchy. She wanted the program to give youth tangible skills they could use into adulthood. “The whole point of our knowledge systems is to pass them on,” she says. From trapping and fishing to Inuit games, the students immersed themselves in opportunities, including a week-long moose-hide tanning camp. “We also wanted to give the students the opportunity to see that the land isn’t far off, it’s not way out there somewhere,” she adds. “We live in Yellowknife. You walk across the street and you’re on one of the biggest lakes in the world.”

Straker was able to grow the program and hire one of her own former instructors, Kyle Enzoe, to teach. “It was an opportunity for us to also create jobs within the community for people who have knowledge that you can’t put a number on,” says Straker. “It’s very hard to get paid to share your traditional knowledge.”

Enzoe’s involvement gave the kids in grades 6 to 8 an opportunity to connect with someone not much older— Enzoe was 33—who was both deeply traditional and modern at once. Enzoe holds the most knowledge of anyone she knows when it comes to the land and trapping. At the same time, “He has Facebook,” Straker says.

Since its inception, the Traditional Mentorships Program has had a far reach. Straker often presents about land-based education at conferences. After seeing the positive changes this type of education had in her own life, she wants to do the same for others. “I’ve seen my life completely transform and change the more that I’ve fostered my reciprocal relationship with the land,” she says.

Although land-based education can seem trivial to some, without it Straker says she wouldn’t have ever understood why land matters. “I didn’t see myself within the land, and I didn’t see the land within myself,” she says.

She has seen similar transformations in others. “All of our collective issues within the Indigenous community—none of them exist without the land, and without land disputes.” Any conversation meant to further reconcilitation or create spaces for Indigenous youth must involve a land base, she says. Still, there is a lack of funding for such education.

If the government wants to make more money, Straker says, educating people puts them in a higher tax bracket, and that’s what land-based education has the capacity to do. “It can change our economy and our knowledge economy in the North,” she says.“Funding is really, really necessary, and it’s hard to get our hands on.”

Aside from her work at the school board, Straker also spends time making jewelry from animals she and Enzoe have harvested using traditional protocol. She’s also part of a collective called ReMatriate that works to interrupt culturally appropriative fashion and take back control over Indigenous women’s visual identities. Straker’s work is a powerful reminder of the importance of the land and its place in people’s lives—another reason for greater education.

First published in Jan/Feb 2017 issue of This Magazine

https://this.org/2017/01/25/2017-kick-ass-activist-peyton-straker/

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Questionable Sex Ed: What’s being taught in Manitoba’s schools

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-december-january-2014-15/questionable-sex-ed/

Promoting abstinence in sex education is what Candace Maxymowich, a Winnipeg public school board trustee candidate, did during her campaign, before she lost by a wide margin in October’s election. But her discussion on infusing the value of Christian-style abstinence into education begs the question: what are kids learning in sex ed in Winnipeg’s schools, and are they learning anything about same-sex and trans issues?

Among all of Winnipeg’s school divisions—some more progressive when it comes to sex ed than others—curriculum is mandated by the province. The physical education and health curriculum are the sections that apply to sex ed. The province’s website details a framework on how schools are to deal with “potentially sensitive content,” of which sex ed is a part.

Requiring a planning process that includes parental involvement, school divisions make independent decisions about sex ed, including content, how it is taught, how it’s graded and what resources are used to teach it. Not teaching it at all is an option, as the framework gives school divisions the power to decide how much depth and breadth to give the topic. There is also an opt-out for parents who’d like their children to learn the subject by another means if they disagree with what the school’s doing.

Winnipeg’s schools are many, and range from Dakota Collegiate, which is hosting an upcoming national gay-straight alliance conference in May, to others that have faced controversies over Bill 18 and over transgender students.

When it comes to sex education, what is being taught varies widely as well.

“It’s division-to-division on what kind of language they use,” says Roselle Paulsen, program director at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC). She was consulted on the health curriculum when it was created and published in 2000. “There are different approaches to how people interpret the student learning outcomes. So if you see a word like ‘diversity,’ or those kinds of things, people are going to interpret them differently.”

Paulsen points to a couple of examples in the curriculum. The first, a learning outcome for Grade 7, tells teachers to “identify effects of social influences on sexuality and gender roles.” Topics like violence against women, media ads, gender equity and culture are generally covered under this topic, Paulsen says. But “Somebody who wants to take more latitude could say that when we talk about gender roles we could delve much more deeply into things like gender identity and social morays.”

It’s up to the interpretation of the school divisions. Another example is in grade five where the curriculum talks about celebrating all kinds of families—again open to interpretation. By Grade 9, sexual orientation is named explicitly. Since it’s included, Paulsen says there should be no reason for schools not to talk about same-sex issues within the context of sex ed, although some don’t. “The frustration with this sort of document, is on the one hand, sexuality education within the health curriculum is mandated. On the other hand, the department says, but each division in the province can determine, based on their own community needs, the depth and breadth of what they provide. That’s the problem.”

Vycki Atallah has also seen a wide variation between what is taught in sex ed. As co-ordinator of Klinic Community Health Centre’s Teen Talk program, she’s invited into schools to give sex ed talks when schools want more. “It can really look a lot different in different schools and communities. For some schools and communities, we’re really welcome, and come in, and some classes get multiple workshops from us; and other schools and school divisions simply don’t book us; don’t extend an invitation for us to come into their school.”

Teen Talk approaches sex ed in line with the provincial curriculum, but from an anti-oppressive standpoint, which includes education about healthy relationships, and the range of genders and sexuality. Their workshops make it clear that all types of couples are valued on an equal level and that body parts can belong to people of any gender, says Atallah.

She says Seven Oaks School Division and Winnipeg One are among the most progressive on these fronts she’s worked with.

Anastasia Chipelski, who works with service providers who talk to teens about sex in her capacity as health educator at Nine Circles Community Health Centre, says she doesn’t think the majority of teens are learning their sex education in schools anyway. The teens her clients are in contact with are way ahead of any adults who are teaching them about sex. “Who knows where the teens are learning it from?” she says. “They’re not learning it in schools.” One guess she has is they’re getting information from well-informed peers.

Perhaps one piece of the puzzle is that the curriculum schools are teaching needs updating, says Paulsen. “Everybody agrees that it [does],” she says. “Things have changed a lot.”

“We have a spectrum of how people identify and their attractions, and all of those kinds of things.
If we’re going to be inclusive and comprehensive and provide a safe space for all students, then it is time to be realistic and pragmatic, and let’s not pretend that this isn’t an issue.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Dec 2014


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Making connections: Bridging racial divisions in the GLBT* community

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-september-2014/making-connections/

GLBT* rights have come a long way, and we know there’s still a long way to go. Yet some things are continually overlooked, like the glaring gap in conversation and action around race.

“It’s a major problem,” says Uzoma, a Winnipeg woman who identifies as black, and prefers to go by first name only for safety reasons.

212-12b-making-connectionsShe’s the initiating force behind a new queer people of colour (QPOC) group that held its first dance party for QPOC and allies during Pride this year. Although Winnipeg has many strong GLBT* groups, most are white-dominated. “There’s a danger with the queer community just because the experience of being queer in itself is an experience of existing on the margins,” says a local queer woman of colour who is using the pseudonym Jill for fear of backlash.

“There can be a tendency to think that because we exist in this space, we don’t have to deal with the issues like racism, or we’ve figured that stuff out. We haven’t.”

Ray Hogg’s experience as a local black gay man and artistic director of Rainbow Stage, is one of finding himself in a homogenous Winnipeg culture, where the environments he works in every day are mainly made up of white people. He attributes this partly to Winnipeg being a small city. “I haven’t directly been on the receiving end of any overt racism in the queer community or any other community in Winnipeg. But I am on the receiving end constantly of systemic racism…. Those who have straight privilege or white privilege or cis privilege… naturally and without thinking, discriminate against me and fail to recognize that they’re doing that.”

Asagwara says the QPOC group is necessary because, “(It) triggers a conversation that people (who are not directly facing the issues) have not been having.”

Hogg would like to see people take the responsibility of actively empathizing. “As a community, the queer community is an oppressed community; it’s a misunderstood community and it’s being discriminated against. And so it behooves us as gay people, or whatever you want to call us all, to think about other marginalized members, and care for them.”

Albert McLeod has seen some of the ways marginalization plays out on the front lines with the most vulnerable, in his work with two-spirit youth.

“For aboriginal youth coming into the (queer) scene, a lot of places they get exploited,” he says.

In his work as a co-director with Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, and the AIDS movement, McLeod has seen a lot. “There’s been a history of many aboriginal youth—they come to the city, they’re HIV-positive within a couple of years, then get discarded and then they move away to other cities, and that’s where they die. It’s life on the very fringes of society.”

Winnipeg is home to the largest urban aboriginal population in Canada, and Manitoba as a whole encompasses the territory of at least 63 First Nations.

Part of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba’s advocacy work is bridge- building between the aboriginal community and broader GLBT* community. The organization also offers workshops to schools and does research on two-spirit people’s experiences.

The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be.

212-12a-making-connectionsTwo Spirit People of Manitoba at Pride Winnipeg 2014. Photo by Albert McLeod.

One academic project published from the research, titled Aboriginal Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Migration, Mobility and Health, draws a parallel: “Colonization is sometimes presented in public policy discourse as a thing of the past.” The result, according to the report, is that indigenous people are rendered invisible and current colonization is ignored and enabled. “Similarly, some people may underestimate the effects of homophobia given the advances that have been made in Canada regarding same-sex rights. Yet the results from this study clearly show the continuing impact of colonization, racism and homophobia on many people’s lives,” reads an excerpt from the study.

“The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be,” says McLeod, quoting a friend.

Denying that racism is a problem in Winnipeg’s queer community can only perpetuate it, says Uzoma, but being willing to feel uncomfortable means being willing to grow.

The QPOC group in Winnipeg will be working hard to bring more events to the community as the year moves ahead. Dance parties, Sunday pickup basketball, open-mic nights and more are in the works.

Uzoma says from there, “We’d like to formally put together a presentation for other LGBTQ organizations… on the unique issues of queer people of colour.”

recognizing racism

Racism isn’t always obvious, but it is always wrong. Here are seven tips to recognizing racism and battling it.

Recognize the difference between centering people of colour and indigenous people’s concerns versus tagging them on. Being truly inclusive means opening up and being willing to transform. It also means taking leadership from queer people of colour and indigenous people.

Show solidarity—don’t date/sleep with people who write things like “no Asians” on their Grindr/ online dating profiles. That’s not a preference, it’s racism.

Recognize that experiences of homophobia and racism compound to make life harder and more limited for the people who experience them. Know that being queer does not make you immune to experiencing white privilege. It is easy for GLBT* people to see homophobia and transphobia, how social systems favour heterosexuals and cis people, and the suffering that causes. Understand how whiteness gives or denies privileges as well.

Do not make statements to the effect that gays are the last oppressed minority. That’s not true. Don’t pit racial and cultural struggles against struggles for GLBT* liberation. The movements are intersected and can make each other stronger.

Recognize that people of colour and indigenous people are not responsible for educating white people about the suffering they experience due to racism. Do your own research and reading and don’t ask invasive questions.

Start conversations about race with your white friends with a focus on creating a supportive space where you can ask questions and make mistakes.

If someone tells you you’ve been racist, don’t take it personally or get defensive. Instead apologize and commit to doing better next time. Take the time to reflect following the incident and learn why it was racist.

fighting racism

Our interview subjects offered the following advice to being more inclusive:

Think about where your organization is located and whether people of colour and indigenous people live there, too. Are you inaccessible, or white-dominated, because of your location?

Know that people of colour and indigenous people are the experts on their own experience. Listen.

Recognize that two-spirit is not necessarily the same as being lesbian, gay or queer. It’s a culturally-specific term from another context. Also, some indigenous people identify primarily as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, etc. Just because someone is aboriginal doesn’t mean they identify as two-spirit.

Know that most racism is subtle and systemic. Overt discrimination does not need to occur for something to be racist.

Expose yourself to diversity.

Ask people of colour and aboriginal people what their needs are and how you can meet those. Take their answers to heart and take action to reflect that.

Hire aboriginal outreach workers in your service organizations, and make sure they are not tokenized. Reflect on what makes or does not make your organization a place people of colour and aboriginal people want to work.

Work on incorporating Elders and elders (seniors) into the GLBT* movement.

Do your homework on language: terms like berdache are colonial terms used by Europeans (and subsequently academics) to refer to gay men and two-spirit people at the time of contact. The term two-spirit is a word used to reframe colonial history, since two-spirit people predate settler society.

Be willing to be nervous and uncomfortable. Crossing the social lines that divide communities and uphold racism takes courage, commitment and time. Forge genuine relationships with people of colour and indigenous people.

Published in OutWords Magazine, Sept. 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a writer of German, Scottish and English descent who is committed to social justice and believes privilege at the expense of others hurts everyone.

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