Indigenous Success Stories: First Nations

May 13, 2023

First Nations

Meet Indigenous drag artists trying to ‘offer hope’ to LGBTQ and 2-spirit youth

Anti-drag sentiments aren’t stopping these artists from representing queer identities they never got to see

A tryptich of three Indigenous drag performers.
Chelazon Leroux, King Fisher and Anita LandBack. (Don Somers/CBC, Megan Gialloreto, Athanasius Sylliboy)
Unreserved: 54:00Celebrating Indigenous Drag Kings and Queens

Click on the following link to access the audio:

NationTalk: Strutting across a stage in size-12 stilettos might seem impossible for many. But for drag queens like Chelazon Leroux, it comes with the territory. And as an Indigenous drag queen, balancing on high heels isn’t the most difficult part of the job. “[During a Pride event] I did this performance called Fall in Line which was [a song by] Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato. But it was in reference to MMIW,” Lerouz told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. “People had no clue what it was. They’re like, ‘why is there a handprint over your face?'”

Indigenous drag performers like Leroux, who is Dene and two-spirit, have to navigate their identities in places where they’re not always accepted. And a rise in anti-LGBTQ and anti-drag sentiment has created an uneasy, and sometimes frightening, environment for drag performers.

In spite of these challenges, Indigenous drag artists are choosing to take up space and represent the queer Indigenous identities they never got to see when they were young.

The backlash 

Drag was put on the pop culture map after Ru Paul’s Drag Race launched in 2009. Today, audiences can attend performances ranging from raunchy late night shows to music-filled drag brunches to family-oriented drag storytime events at libraries and bookstores. But more recently they’ve been met by anti-drag and anti-trans protests from right-wing groups and, in the United States, Republican legislators.

In recent months, protestors have targeted drag storytime events for children across Canada. 

Chelazon Leroux has experienced this backlash first-hand.  “They protested that show that I was doing [in Cold Lake, Alta.] at city hall. It was the biggest city hall attendance in the history of Cold Lake because they wanted to protest my show. And the amount of people that were in support outnumbered those that were being critical and ignorant…. That room was packed.”

Local Dene performer will be the first queen from Saskatchewan to compete in Canada’s Drag Race
A performer and social media personality from Saskatoon will be the first queen from Saskatchewan to compete in Canada’s Drag Race, starting in mid-July. Dene and two-spirit, Chelazon Leroux is about to be the representation their younger self always wanted to see.

Click on the following link to access the audio:

Leroux said the protestors had made assumptions about who she was and her intentions. In reality, her conversation with the kids in the audience was professional, she said. It was about her lived experience, what it’s like being on stage and her favourite makeup brands. 

Anita LandBack is a two-spirit Mi’kmaw drag queen based in Halifax. LandBack said that queer Indigenous people need to be visible, not despite the threats or hate directed towards queer people, but because of them.   “With everything going on in the world against trans and non-binary people, right now we need to strengthen numbers the most,” they said. 

Learning to love themselves

When drag performer Tygr Willy was young, the closest example of someone who looked like them was Anishinaabe actor Adam Beach.  “But Adam Beach was rugged and he was in all these war films,” they said. “I never saw someone who was gentle or femme or someone who wasn’t traditionally masculine, [who] wasn’t rough around the edges.”

A non-binary person sits dramatically in a cloud of fog.
Toronto based drag performer Tygr Willy’s name is a play on the name Tiger Lily, the character from Peter Pan. “I just really loved how she just kind of like, did not deal with Peter Pan’s buffoonery,” they said. (Jahmal Nugent)

Willy was born in Winnipeg, grew up in central Alberta and now calls Toronto home. Of Chinese and Anishinaabe descent, Willy was raised by a Scottish-Canadian woman.  There wasn’t a lot of diversity where Willy grew up and they didn’t consider themselves conventionally attractive. So, said Willy, they turned to burlesque and drag as a way to learn to love themselves.

Willy has made it their mission to be the softer, gentler representation of identity they wish they’d seen as a kid.  “If someone who’s young, who’s experiencing gender, who’s experiencing sexuality, who is also curvy and soft and quiet, is looking towards media and they need someone, I would hope that maybe I could offer a bit of a reflection for them, or offer some kind of hope.”

Making room for kings

For King Fisher, the challenges have been similar — but also different. 

The Vancouver-based Ktunaxa drag king identified as a cis woman before they came out as trans. Watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race was an exciting introduction to drag, but left them feeling excluded, Fisher said.  “I recognized that a lot of them would use the word ‘fish’ as a way of being like, ‘Oh, I look very feminine. I look like a woman,'” they said. “It didn’t sit well with me. It felt very misogynistic in a lot of ways.”

After they started performing as King Fisher — which is a name that nods to the tiny, colourful bird — they felt some anti-drag-king attitudes in the Vancouver drag scene.

A drag king performs on stage in front of a screen of themselves.
King Fisher performs at the 2022 Untoxicated street festival in New Westminster, B.C. (Megan Gialloreto)

“I’ve had experiences with some drag queens, who are wearing those big silicone chest plates, that are looking down at me so much because I’m [assigned female at birth],” they said. “When they’re taking that body that I grew up in and making money off of it.… Like it’s almost like this costume.”

It took some time for things to change. In the last couple of years, the Vancouver community has seen more kings get bookings and make names for themselves, they said.  King Fisher has also learned a lot about drag in the process.  “Having been a part of the drag community, I understand that a lot of it is satire. Like they’re making fun of ideas of femininity in the same ways that I’m making fun of ideas of masculinity and really turning it on its head.”

Representation is ‘vital’

As a queer person, Chelazon Leroux felt like she didn’t fit in on her reservation or in small town Saskatchewan. She only saw negative depictions of Indigenous people in the media.

So Leroux moved to Edmonton at the age of 18. But even in a bigger city with a drag scene, she felt misunderstood.  “There [were] undertones of racism everywhere,” she continued. “And I wasn’t fully comfortable in my Indigeneity yet either.… I never fully accepted it or wore it proudly.”

Leroux said she later realized she has a responsibility as a two-spirit person to be a “bridge between two worlds.” She decided to incorporate Indigenous culture into her drag and educate others about Indigeneity — and to be someone that young, queer Indigenous people can look up to.  Today, she’s glad she has the opportunity to speak to kids.

“I remember the public speakers growing up that I had … I could relate to no one,” Leroux said. “I was that scared little kid growing up in northern Saskatchewan, not knowing where to turn,” she continued. “Representation is not only good to have, it’s vital in terms of mental health and being able to see yourself succeeding.”


Laura Beaulne-Stuebing

Producer, Laura Beaulne-Stuebing is a producer for CBC Radio’s Unreserved. She is based in Ottawa.


March 25, 2023

First Nations

Ten years ago, a group of Quebec Cree youths finished an epic trek from Whapmagoostui to Ottawa: the Journey of Nishiyuu

CBC News: David Kawapit says he learned so many key life lessons about the importance of hope, kindness and connection on what became known as the Journey of Nishiyuu — or the Journey of the People — ten years ago this winter.  He also developed an abiding love for macaroni and cheese mixed with caribou meat. 

On Jan. 16, 2013, Kawapit — with five other youths and a guide — set out from Whapmagoostui, the most northern of the Cree communities in Quebec. They walked all the way to Parliament Hill, about 1,600 kilometres. “The main goal I had was to inspire hope in the youth and I think we did accomplish that,” said Kawapit.

A youth and an elder stand together in the sunlight.
David Kawapit and elder Matthew Natachequan on Parliament Hill, March 25, 2013. Natachequan was a key adviser for the Journey of Nishiyuu. (Alice Beaudoin)

Kawapit was inspired by former Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, who at the time was on a hunger strike to focus public attention on First Nations issues. The Idle no More movement in support of Indigenous rights was also sweeping across the country at the time. “I recall being very cold … the temperatures dropping to about -52 on the morning we left … minus the wind chill,” said Kawapit.

“We were all very excited, but we were all very scared and nervous obviously,” he said. “And saying goodbye to our families for who knows how long.”

By March 25, the original group of seven walkers had grown to nearly 300 Indigenous youth from all the Cree communities as well as different Indigenous nations. They were greeted by thousands as they arrived on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. “I wanted to help inspire somebody to make a change in their life or to be able to give them that little extra boost of confidence to try something they were scared of trying,” said Kawapit, who was 17 years old at the time.

A crowd of people converge outside a towering building.
By the time the walkers arrived on Parliament Hill their numbers had grown from seven to close to 300. They were met with thousands of supporters. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

He says his memories of that time alternate between very detailed and crystal clear and not at all sharp. He also remembers the first week of walking as being somewhere close to hell.  “You have got to get used to going at least 30 kilometres minimum per day in like -30 C temperatures. Surprisingly, blizzards weren’t the worst of it. It was the sunny days that were the hardest,” said Kawapit. 

Group photo in front of tent.
A growing group of walkers leave the last Cree community on their route out of Waskaganish. (Submitted by Ricky Angtookaluk)

After the first few days of walking, the group decided to no longer stop for breaks, as stopping just meant getting a chill to the bone, said Kawapit. Instead, they packed dried meat and would snack while walking. 

One of the things the now 27-year-old remembers clearly and very fondly is the group of female cooks who prepared food for the growing group of walkers. The walkers called them ‘moms’, adding macaroni and cheese mixed with all kinds of meat — from bologna to caribou — was a crowd favourite. “One of the communities sent us several caribou while we were on the walk. So we cut that up into little pieces and we mix it in with our Kraft Dinner. It was so good,” said Kawapit.

Hundreds of supporters gather on Parliament Hill, in support of a group of young Indigenous people who travelled 1,600 kms on foot from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Québec on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)
Johnny Abraham of Whapmagoostui, Québec sheds tears as he speaks about the 1,600 kilometre trek he and a group of young Indigenous people from the James Bay community undertook (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)
David Kawapit and Isaac Kawapit in the crowd on Parliament Hill (Gloria Harmon)
A group of young Indigenous people who travelled 1,600 kms on foot from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Que. celebrate their arrival on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 25, 2013 (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)

The original walkers were Kawapit, Stanley George Jr, 17, Johnny Abraham, 19, Raymond Kawapit, 20, Geordie Rupert, 21, and the late Travis George, 17. 

There was also a guide, the late Isaac Kawapit, 47, who would become known as the “White Wizard” because of his white hooded jacket. Isaac would die of substance abuse in July of 2013, just a few months after the triumphant arrival of the group on Parliament Hill.

Johnny Abraham, now 29 years old, was a young first-time father when he decided to join the journey. He remembers deciding to join just the night before the original group left Whapmagoostui. He wanted to walk for his own personal reasons and to support Kawapit, his cousin. “The first few days were harsh for us,” said Abraham, adding his baby son was a huge motivator for him on the walk, as were the other Indigenous youth who joined along the way.

When the original seven walkers arrived in the first community of Chisasibi, it became clear to them that what they were doing was inspiring others. About 20, mostly Cree youth, joined the journey in Chisasibi and then a steady stream joined at each community along the route.  “At first, we didn’t really know how much it had blown up on social media,” said Abraham. “When we arrived at the first destination (Chisasibi), we saw the people supporting us from the other communities. It was very touching.

“I met a lot of people who had similar types of struggles that I went through. Then we kind of helped each other … to support each other not to stop.”

Young man holding small boy in a crowd.
Johnny Abraham with his young son Brayson. Abraham was one of the original seven walkers. (Submitted by Johnny Abraham)

More and more youth joined in at every community — Eastmain, Wemindji and then Waskaganish, the last Cree community on the route. In Algonquin territory, Indigenous youth from other nations began to join. 

Kawapit remembers the excitement of seeing the journey grow and evolve, but also the worry. “I remember being super nervous about where everybody’s going to be sleeping and how we’re going to feed everybody,” he said, but thankfully there were donations coming in and many supporters across the Cree nation and elsewhere. 

Smiling man holding plant.
The original seven walkers included a guide, the late Isaac Kawapit. Kawapit died in July of 2013, just a few months after the walkers arrived in Ottawa. (Submitted by Migon Wabanonik)

Matthew Mukash is a Whapmagoostui Cree elder. He’s also a former chief of the community and a former Grand Chief of the Cree Nation. He advised some of the walkers back in 2013 and co-produced a documentary on the walk called The Journey of Nishiyuu, directed by Benjamin Masty. 

The journey has had an important and lasting legacy, particularly in the Cree communities, Mukash said. “A lot of stuff has changed since then. There are more land-based activities for youth … and young adults,” he said. He said most of the Cree communities now have yearly winter journeys that have become an important chance for healing and cultural connection.

“That was the purpose, for people not to forget their connection to the earth, because our culture is land-based. Indigenous culture is land-based and for the youth also to be given the opportunity to continue the ancestor way of life,” Mukash said. 

He also believes the journey contributed, along with movements like Idle no More, to creating a wider understanding in Canada of Indigenous history, trauma and culture.

A throng of people in summer.
By the time the group arrived, hundreds of supporters had gathered at Parliament Hill. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The day the Journey of Nishiyuu walkers arrived on Parliament Hill, on March 25, 2013, is one of the days David Kawapit remembers as though it was yesterday. He remembers being both sad and relieved that they were arriving at their destination.

And he remains grateful for the important lessons learned on the journey, still very active in him. “I had to come out of my introverted shell during the walk. I had to talk to so many people. Because of the walk, it helped me be able to voice my opinions on certain things and to be able to make new friends,” said Kawapit, who now works at the local co-op in Whapmagoostui. 

Two smiling people hug.
David Kawapit poses for a photo in Ottawa. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Kawapit wants the legacy of the Journey of Nishiyuu to remind people about the importance of kindness.  “I truly hope that people are just generally kind to each other,” said Kawapit. “Because that was the atmosphere that happened on the journey. Yes, there were ups and downs, but in the centre of it all, it worked because everybody helped each other.” 

A line of people on snowshoes stand in rising darkness as the sun dips below the horizon.
The Journey of Nishiyuu walkers just before sunset on Jan. 23, 2013. (Submitted by Matthew Mukash)
About the Authors

Susan Bell: Susan Bell has worked with CBC News since 1997 as a journalist, writer-broadcaster, radio host and producer. She has been with CBC North since 2009, most recently as a digital producer with the Cree unit in Montreal.

Marjorie Kitty: Marjorie Kitty is Eeyou from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi and is currently working as the host of Eyou Dipajimoon with the CBC North Cree unit in Montreal.

September 23, 2022

First Nations

Meet the Voices of Youth Indigenous Leaders 2022 participants

NationTalk: On September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation honours those who survived Indian residential schools, their families and the children who never made it home.

To mark the first anniversary of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, five Indigenous youths have been invited to testify before the Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples about what Truth and Reconciliation means to them.

These youths are participating in the Voices of Youth Indigenous Leaders program, which spotlights young Indigenous peoples who are making a difference in their communities.

Read more about this year’s Voices of Youth Indigenous Leaders participants.

Meghan Beals (First Nations – Nova Scotia)

Dr. Meghan Beals is a Mi’kmaw from Glooscap First Nation in Nova Scotia who currently lives on Epekwitk (Prince Edward Island). She works as a family medicine resident in New Brunswick and P.E.I. As an Indigenous physician, she strives toward reconciling Western and Indigenous medicines. She is looking forward to continuing to share her journey to becoming a physician with Indigenous youth and hopefully become a role model.

Taylor Behn-Tsakoza (First Nations – British Columbia)

Taylor Behn-Tsakoza is a proud Dene woman from the Fort Nelson and Prophet River First Nations in British Columbia Treaty 8 territory. She holds a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education with a major in physical literacy and double minor in Indigenous studies and business. She is the community liaison for Tu Deh-Kah Geothermal and is serving as the female youth representative for the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations. She was co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council in 2021–22. As an intergenerational survivor and youth advocate, Taylor speaks on reconciliation across the country. She had the privilege to travel to the Vatican in March 2022 to speak with Pope Francis on the Catholic Church’s role in reconciliation. Taylor is thankful for the teachings and stories passed down to her by her grandparents, parents and survivors in her family and community. She is guided by their resilience and hope in the future generations.

Gabrielle Fayant (Métis – Alberta)

Gabrielle Fayant is an off-settlement Métis woman, whose family is from Fishing Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta, one of the eight land-based Métis settlements in Canada. Gabrielle has won awards for her work in community, youth empowerment, and Indigenous rights awareness. She has worked with several Indigenous and non-profit organizations and is currently a Helper and Co-Founder of Assembly of Seven Generations (A7G). A7G is an Indigenous owned and youth-led, non-profit organization focused on cultural support and empowerment programs and policies for Indigenous youth while being led by traditional knowledge and Elder guidance. Gabrielle is passionate about cultural resurgence and justice for all Indigenous peoples.

Jama Maxie (First Nations – Saskatchewan)

Originally from White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, Jama grew up in the child welfare system in Toronto. He is now a full-time student studying psychology at York University who also works as an addiction counselor at Addiction Rehab Toronto. He is currently developing a youth advisory circle for Dnaagdawenmag Binnoojiiyag Child & Family Services. He does public speaking for Indigenous children aid agencies across the province. Jama was inspired to get involved with this work because of his lived experience in the child welfare system and overcoming his battle with addiction. He works as hard as he does so that he can help Indigenous youth find hope.

Tyrone Sock (First Nations – New Brunswick)

Tyrone is the youth coordinator for Mawiw Council Inc, a non-profit organization that supports the development of the three largest First Nation communities in New Brunswick. His latest project is the development of a hockey camp for over 60 Indigenous youth aged six to 15. The purpose of the annual hockey camp is to honour the legacy of his late father/coach, Craig “Jumbo” Sock, but also to give back to the local communities and to teach the youth the benefits of hockey — including teamwork, leadership and healthy attributes such as physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

May 15, 2020

Dr. Stanley Vollant founder of Puaman Meshkenu

CBC – launched a new youth ambassadors program aimed at giving 11 First Nations and Inuit youth work and public speaking experience. Dr. Stanley Vollant who founded Puaman Meshkenu has spent much of the last decade travelling across Quebec sharing his message about healthy living and reconciliation, but he hopes to pass on that role to the next generation of Indigenous leaders.

Vollant was the first Indigenous surgeon in the province. In 2016, he founded Puamun Meshkenu (also known as the Way of a Thousand Dreams) after completing a 6,000 kilometre-walk across eastern Canada, stopping in Indigenous communities along the way to talk about healthy living.

September 3, 2019

Indigenous Youth Pilot Project

Government announced an Indigenous Youth pilot project delivered by the Canadian Roots Exchange that incorporates some of the recommendations from the final report submitted to the government by the Indigenous Youth Council (youth advisors representing the voices of Inuit, Métis and First Nations youth with recommendations on how Indigenous youth want Call to Action # 66 implemented.

The Indigenous Youth Pilot program is “a distinctions-based national network of Indigenous youth to help inform government policy and programs and support community events”.

August 1, 2019

PM Youth Council first meeting in North

Youth Council members are meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, this week for the Council’s first-ever meeting in Canada’s North. During the three-day meeting, council members will take part in local activities, including a service activity, traditional ceremonies, and meet with local Elders and Indigenous youth.

June 10, 2019

Indigenous Economic Progress Report: Youth Recommendations

Released today by the National Indigenous Economic Development Board (NIEDB). The Indigenous Economic Progress Report presents a thorough, in-depth analysis of the economic realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Using 13 measures, it assesses three core indicators: employment, income and community well-being. Using 19 additional measures, it also examines five underlying indicators of economic success: education, entrepreneurship and business development, governance, lands and resources, and infrastructure. It also recommends the development of youth-focused educational supports to help Indigenous peoples finish high school and continue on to post-secondary education, as well as skills development programs to help Indigenous employees of high-wage industries increase their earning potential in higher-paying roles.

Youth specific recommendations from the report include:

  • Entrepreneurship should be promoted and supported as a valid career option for youth through the mentorship and showcasing of Indigenous business leaders and ventures.
  • Government-funded Indigenous youth entrepreneurship/start-up financing should also include essential business services training and coaching/mentorship services.
  • We specifically recommend that the Government create urban Indigenous healing and employment hubs;
  • invest in basic education infrastructure;
  • develop distance education training;
  • create an alumni fund to enable mentorship;
  • and invest in Indigenous scholarship funding to support post-secondary education.
  • Given this strong influence of parents and family on education outcomes – it is important to consider family and community when creating programs that promote education and employment skills for youth. Community inclusion in the development of programming will be essential.

June 1, 2018

Indigenous Youth Voices

“Indigenous Youth Voices, A Roadmap to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action # 66” is released. The Report revolves around five main themes:

1. Acknowledging the past
2. Healing
3. Improving Relations
4. Treaty and Land Claims and
5. Equity

The report proposes the establishment of Indigenous Youth Voices as a permanent, arms-length, non-profit, national agency, with a mandate to inform, implement, and build on the TRC Call to Action #66.
The report also highlights immediate next steps for the government to fulfill the mandate of Call to Action # 66 including immediate and ongoing commitments as well recommended Program areas of focus:

  • Identity, Language and Culture
  • Networking
  • Life promotion/Suicide Prevention /Mental Health Support
  • Two-Spirit/LGBBTQ2SIA – Focused
  • Sports
  • Health and Well-Being
  • Capacity Building for Youth Leaders

October 18, 2016

We Matter

We Matter, launched on Oct. 18, 2016, is an Indigenous youth-led and nationally registered organization dedicated to Indigenous youth support, hope and life promotion. Our work started with the We Matter Campaign – a national multi-media campaign in which Indigenous role models, youth, and community members from across Canada submit short video, written and artistic messages sharing their own experiences of overcoming hardships, and communicating with Indigenous youth that no matter how hopeless life can feel, there is always a way forward.

Through our national projects and programs, We Matter

  • Connects Indigenous youth with positive messages of hope, culture, strength, healing, mental health and life promotion
  • Gathers, connects, and amplifies Indigenous and Indigenous youth voices and stories
  • Creates space and opportunity for Canadians to celebrate and honour the voices and experiences of Indigenous youth
  • Creates and distributes materials and resources designed to encourage and support Indigenous youth and those who work with Indigenous youth
  • Builds Indigenous youth capacity in schools and communities by helping to implement Indigenous youth-led initiatives and enabling peer-to-peer support