Thank you for being here. Having you here now, it’s- I am just so glad.”  This 16 year old student, Ash*, recently came out as queer to their mom.  It’s been tense and it’s been tough.  There are daily conversations where emotions run high as they try to reconcile their worldviews and negotiate who gets to determine what is in the best interest of this queer youth.  This experience isn’t unique for queer youth, but it is unique for many rural youth to have an advocate in their classroom making sure this issue, their experience is affirmed. It is a gift and an honour to get to be a team of diverse queer folks who are proud to stand up and share real stories of the awkward, nerve-wracking, funny and, ultimately hopeful experience of living our truths.

Ash held hands with a friend while tears spilled down their cheeks during each film.  They said seeing queer youth stories that involved tenderness and care (and good soundtracks), where endearing characters could disarm their classmates- that mattered.  In our presentation we ask all students to think about how they could use art to create safer school communities.  Ash’s eyes lit up.  Journaling and writing queer and trans characters into their writing assignments has been a lifeline to imagining what is possible and processing what is real. They were awed that confident, funny (well, we try) queer adults stood up in front of the class and challenged and charmed them into thinking about their responsibility in specific ways versus sweeping sentiments- that mattered.

In all seven schools we visited, queer youth thanked us for opening hearts and changing minds and then actively engaging students in considering what their role and responsibility is in using their language and behaviour to build safe school communities. In those moments of vulnerability, these students expressed what it meant to them to have advocates there to help catalyze important conversations. It is one thing to be somewhat aware of issues on sexual orientation and gender, but it’s entirely different to actively to engage whole classrooms in an affirming dialogue.

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We are incredibly grateful that it is, as always, a mutual learning experience. The youth-led safety and community initiatives throughout the island are innovative and important. There was a youth-led community healing rally on suicide and mental wellness during our time there.  The student emcee, Dion, invited youth, elected leaders and elders to share openly and honestly about the ways in which doubting the decision to stay alive has impacted their lives and the ways in which the presence of community healing can work with the grief and loss that goes along with the absence of someone after suicide.  Sandra Dan, a mental health and addiction counsellor with the Old Masset Haida Health Centre, spoke about how powerful it was for this event to led by youth, “I’ve done mental health conferences for many years, and for this to be organized by our young people is important – it’s us elders that need to listen and support them.”

The speakers at the rally each spoke to the importance of how talking to each other is part of the healing process; as a way to destigmatize the experience and strengthen support networks.  Queer and trans youth are often at far greater risk for considering and choosing suicide. It was illuminating for us to see the ways in which youth were stepping up not to ignore, but to address the community in ways that fostered connection and authenticity.

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The rally was added onto the annual three-day Haida Gwaii Youth Assembly.  The Council of the Haida Nation engages Haida Gwaii’s youth to identify important issues and potential solutions and strategies the council should adopt to address them.  The event builds relationships, develops youth capacity and strengthens Haida policy. For one of their challenges, teams of youth created short films with filmmaker Patrick Shannon that addressed challenges facing their community.  The youth videos took clever and insightful approaches to issues ranging from north-south island transit, pipeline opposition and inter-community stereotypes. Of course, we loved seeing film used as their medium of choice…but we might be biased! We were so honoured to be invited to witness a young generation of Haida come together to express their love and their visions for their community, their culture, and land. You can see for yourself how much fun they had and how brilliant their ideas are here!

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Whether in schools or at the youth assembly, we were thrilled to partner in sharing and learning with C.A.L.L. Out, a capacity building and wellness initiative that seeks to create more welcoming and inclusive communities for LGBT2Q+ youth across BC by strengthening their existing support networks – clearly a match made in heaven! Lau Mehes, the Education Coordinator, facilitated informative and engaging workshops with parents and GSA start-up workshops with youth.

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We partnered to support an all-day professional development workshop for teachers from Skidegate and Queen Charlotte City. Lau illuminated important information about gender diversity and the impacts of social exclusion on the health and well-being of students. The teachers were curious and compassionate and asked amazing questions on how they can be better allies to LGBTQ youth in their communities. Of particular interest was how to support transitioning youth. We discussed normalizing concepts of self-determination, preferred pronouns, safe washroom choices and gendered language and programs in schools.

Alicia Embree, the program coordinator for the Child Care Resource and Referral program for the Islands Wellness Society was also at our workshop. She’s been working in Haida Gwaii for over four years and recently she’s been delivering sexual health education classes in schools. “You folks really energized me in the work I am doing in Haida Gwaii around sexual health. I learned a lot from the Professional Development day. I know that our students learned so much from you and since you were here I have been asking the students and teachers if they have noticed a change in terms of the kinds of language being used and they say they have. You are making a difference and I hope you can all come up again soon!” There’s no doubt that Alicia will continue to be a great resource and ally in Haida Gwaii.

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Another star of our tour was Out in School’s newest Regional Facilitator, Meghan Brady, who brings a wealth of experience from her facilitation and counseling at Positive Living North, her own life in queer community and also her ability to make angels weep with her ukulele playing skills (seriously, get her to play Harvest Moon!).  It is important for queer youth to hear from someone who can speak to queer community life in rural British Columbia.

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Brandon and Meghan ventured onto Prince Rupert and there, they presented at both Charles Hays Secondary School and Prince Rupert Middle School. Meghan was a natural at connecting with the youth by sharing some of her stories about the difficult nature of keeping confidentiality in small towns. One student at Charles Hays who was having difficulty coming out with their family asked to stay and watch our presentation twice, “I just really need to be here. It means a lot to be in a safe and welcoming space…to be able to talk about what it’s like being me.” We can also happily report that since our visit, the Prince Rupert Middle School is actively trying to establish a GSA with guidance and mentorship from the high school students at Charles Hays.

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As we look back over our time on tour, we come to a loss of words to adequately describe our experiences. We want to recognize the land and territory of the Haida, of Eagles and Ravens, and the land of Tsimshian First Nation and to both nations for allowing us to visit and work in their communities.

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We want to thank Steven Querengesser, a teacher who is responsible for bringing us to Haida Gwaii in 2011 and 2015. We look to build our capacity by nurturing our partnerships with the Haida Gwaii schools and communities, C.A.L.L. Out, and by sending Meghan to more schools across the north of the province. We look forward to returning to Haida Gwaii more regularly and to visiting other rural schools for the first time so that we can lead conversations about homophobia, transphobia, and bullying in all BC communities – big, small, rural or urban – and lead the way towards making our schools safe, inclusive, and welcoming for all students.

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*(denotes that a pseudonym is being used.)


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