3 min

Northern pathfinder

First Nations gay youth brings support to Smithers

A GROUP OF HIS OWN. Charles Wilson says he's proud of the Youthquest office he single-handedly opened in Smithers last year. Credit: Gareth Kirkby

With one foot still in the closet, 18-year-old Charles Wilson left his Wet’suwt’en reserve 30 minutes east of Smithers, BC, for his first gay youth conference a year ago. Another conference followed, then a third. Now, after spending months online and phoning youth groups everywhere, Smithers, BC (pop 6000) has a Youthquest office-“and we have drop-ins every Friday night,” Wilson smiles proudly.

Wilson says the lack of services available for gay and lesbian youth in his area prompted him to create the office. Before the Youthquest office opened in Smithers, “I did feel alone,” he says. “I didn’t know where the gay people hung out.

“I heard of a support group in Prince George,” he recalls, but in Smithers, “nothing.”

Now his group offers weekly drop-ins and a movie night. Young people travel many miles to attend. “They’re pretty happy there’s a place for them to go and not be called names,” he says.

“I feel proud about it because not many youth can travel to Prince George,” he notes. Smithers is a six-hour drive northwest of Prince George.

Thanks to Wilson, the gay community is no longer invisible in Smithers. There are Youthquest posters all over town now, and Wilson makes sure there are copies of gay publications in places where gay youth might find them. So far, he says, he hasn’t had any bad reactions to the posters and publications.

“Smithers is a pretty accepting place,” he continues, “but not many [First] Nations are accepting of two-spirited people.” Of course, there are some nations that really look up to their two-spirited people, Wilson notes; “mine just doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

But that doesn’t apply to his band council, he hastens to add. The Wet’suwt’en Band Council recently paid Wilson’s airfare to Vancouver so he could attend Xtra West’s Community Achievement Awards, where he was nominated for Youth Activist of the Year.

Wilson says the double discrimination he often encounters as a gay First Nations man when he leaves the reserve doesn’t faze him anymore. “That’s something I’ve been going through all my life,” he says.

Still, the racism didn’t harden him up to the homophobia that eventually made him quit school.

Wilson didn’t finish his first year of high school, finding the situation there intolerable. “There was just too many people calling me names.”

He says homophobic bullying is still a major problem both in and out of school. “There’s a lot of youth who get picked on, on a daily basis,” he explains. “They throw things at us, usually rocks.

“The homophobes try to bring me down and call me names in public,” he continues. “I just try and ignore it. I don’t really care what they think.”

Does he think the onlookers would help if the situation became violent? “Most likely they would,” he hopes.

Still, Wilson isn’t taking any chances. He and his Youthquest friends are now working on a plan to help schools in their area eliminate bullying. “We will try to get onto their agenda in the fall,” he says. The proposal is still in its early stages, he notes, so it’s too soon to get into details.

Wilson’s main focus, these days, is on getting a budget. His Youthquest chapter is currently functioning on no money, and he and his mother have spent hundreds of dollars of their own money on gas. They drive many of the youth back home to neighbouring communities after movie nights, he explains, “because they’re still in the closet with their parents, and [their parents] think they’re just out with friends.”

“My mom is kind of like my chauffeur, she drives me places,” he laughs.

Still, he’s not sure how his mother feels about his being gay. “She’s still a little iffy about it,” Wilson says, “but I’m her son so I guess she just has to accept it.”

His grandmother, whom he lives with, is pretty accepting most of the time, he adds.

His next project is a proposal to the Town of Smithers for $15,000 to set up a new Youthquest office in Terrace. He’s hoping to maintain both offices for a year, but he isn’t confident that the money will be forthcoming. Since one of the sawmills closed two years ago, the local economy has been depressed, he notes. “There’s a lot of tough times still.”

Wilson says he’s looking forward to living in Edmonton or Vancouver one day, where the homophobia is not so steeped in the community around him. “There’s a whole world out there that I want to explore,” he dreams. “Both worlds-gay and straight.”