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Celebrating First Nations’ pride

Two-spirited group at annual aboriginal fest

Two-Spirited People of the First Nations (TPFN) is gearing up for the annual Canadian Aboriginal Festival, which takes over the Rogers Centre from Fri, Nov 30 to Dec 2.

“[The Canadian Aboriginal Festival] plus the gay Pride parade at the end of June, those are our two big events of the year,” says TPFN’s executive director Art Zoccole.

The Canadian Aboriginal Festival includes powwow ceremonies, drumming, lacrosse competitions and a fashion show. The Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards kicks off the weekend on the Friday evening. Anticipated attendance for the weekend is 40,000.

As in previous years TPFN will be taking part in the two-day public marketplace that happens on the Saturday and Sunday alongside other information booths and vendors’ booths offering art, crafts and food.

TPFN are veterans of the Canadian Aboriginal Festival — Zoccole believes the group has been taking part since the festival began 14 years ago. He says the annual event is a major opportunity for the organization to do outreach and to promote its mission, as Zoccole puts it, “To work toward the understanding and acceptance of who we are within our own communities and also educate our non-aboriginal counterparts.”

The term “two-spirited” was coined to describe people whose gender includes both a male and female spirit in one body, but Zoccole says it is also “inclusive of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed.

“It’s not only about our sexual orientation,” says Zoccole, “but it also includes the part about our spirituality and role within our community.”

Zoccole says that while the two-spirited identity has a long history the term itself is fairly new; it was created in 1990 at the annual International Two-Spirit Gathering. Prior to that, Zoccole says, “In every aboriginal nation, for example Mohawk, Ojibwa or the Cree nation, there would have been specific words to describe people who are two-spirit.”

Zoccole says that while the group has dealt with incidents of homophobia at the festival TPFN’s involvement has been largely positive. He says it can be quite moving for two-spirited attendees when TPFN takes to the field carrying the rainbow flag during the festival’s “Grand Entry” which marks the beginning of the festival’s highlight, the powwow.

“When they see the rainbow flag being marched in along with the other flags it makes them feel happy in their hearts,” Zoccole says. “When people see it, they’re almost drawn to it like a magnet.”

He recalls one year when two women from the US were dining at one of the restaurants overlooking the Rogers Centre field, where the marketplace is located.

“After their meal they came right down to our booth and said, ‘We spotted your flag from way up there,'” recounts Zoccole.

Zoccole says his group’s booth will be situated alongside others doing work in health matters, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS. TPFN brings its own outreach materials and also hands out information for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network and the National Day Against Homophobia.

“We bring the female condom and the male condom and we bring the demonstration models and we have a lot of fun,” says Zoccole.

In addition to the two festival days that are open to the general public TPFN will also take part in Education Day on Fri Nov 30 where classes from around the city come to take in the displays and learn about First Nations culture. Zoccole notes that the display on Friday will be without safer-sex accoutrements.

“If you know preadolescents and children they’ll blow up the condoms and use them for balloons,” says Zoccole.

Heather Kelly, festival spokesperson, says the Canadian Aboriginal Festival attracts both aboriginal and nonaboriginal people. “Really you see everybody… it’s a multicultural cross-section of Toronto,” she says. The festival attracts attendees from other provinces and the US, which she attributes to the large scale and the profile it has built up over the past 14 years.

Zoccole says the festival is an event that many First Nations people look forward to all year and that the same is true for TPFN’s booth.

“Generally people know we’re there every year.”