The West Block – Episode 16, Season 12

Click to play video: 'The West Block: Jan. 8, 2023 | Advancing Indigenous rights and surging anti-LGBTQ political rhetoric'
The West Block: Jan. 8, 2023 | Advancing Indigenous rights and surging anti-LGBTQ political rhetoric
Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – January 8, 2023 – Jan 8, 2023


Episode 16, Season 12

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President

Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen


Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: New year, same old politics? We’ll take a look at the stories that we think should be on Ottawa’s agenda in 2023.

I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.

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The road to reconciliation: What are the next steps in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples?

And what’s behind the alarming rise in anti-trans and anti-gay hate in Canada?

As the new year gets under way, we’re focusing on stories here in Canada that often fly under the radar until something big happens that grabs our attention, but then sometimes we lose sight of them just as quickly.

Last year, we saw a historic apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse suffered by Indigenous people at residential schools, and we also saw a growing awareness among Canadians about that painful legacy. But when it comes to housing for Indigenous Canadians health care, and murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, it’s clear that there is still a lot of work to do.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Pervasive and systemic issues generated by our colonial past cannot be overturned overnight. The full benefits will be felt over years to come, but only if we don’t let up on our work. We need to continue to push together through this with even more urgency.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Cassidy Caron is the president of the Métis National Council and she says making progress on some of those issues will be a priority for 2023. President Caron joins me now. Thank you so much for joining us, Cassidy. How are you?

Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President: I’m doing well, thank you.

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Mercedes Stephenson: We just listed a bunch of issues there and really, Indigenous stories were in the news in 2022, last year, in a way we hadn’t seen. But there’s a tendency, especially for those of us in the media, to focus on something when it pops up and it doesn’t necessarily address the systemic issues. What’s your feeling on where reconciliation is now at the beginning of 2023 versus last year? Are we making progress?

Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President: Bit by bit, I would say we are making progress. And, you know, in 2022, there was a lot of conversation that was continuing on from 2021, when the 215 unmarked graves were uncovered in Kamloops. That was a watershed moment for Canada, where Canadians, you know, they really started to pay attention. Citizens from around the world started to pay attention. They wanted to learn about Canada’s true history and they wanted to know about the issues that continue today and how we can create change. The conversation piece, that energy that has been building over the last couple of years, is so critical to continue. We need to continue having these conversations if we’re going to crate the systemic changes that need to occur in order to change the lives of Indigenous people to ensure that, you know, for us specifically, the Métis nation, moves forward in a really strong and prosperous way, but we can’t lose sight of the work that needs to continue in order to create those changes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Cassidy, I was really struck watching the tragedy unfolding in Winnipeg of the state that we still face for Indigenous women in this country and the attention that their family members and daughters were able to bring by being so strong and so articulate may make the difference there, but there are many, many more women who are vanishing, and who have died and have been murdered and it just sort of goes as a blip on the radar. As long as I’ve been in Ottawa, people have been talking about this issue. Why do you think it is that it feels like we’re on a treadmill with it and there is commitment after commitment at various levels of government, but then we continue to see it be this incredible tragedy for Indigenous Canadians and for all Canadians that this is happening?

Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President: Such a massive issue that permeates every corner of our society and I think that because of it is such a massive issue, it paralyzes so many people they don’t know what to do. But you’re absolutely right. People have been talking about this crisis that we face in Canada for years now. And it’s so unfair to family members, to continue to have to go to the media and tell their stories, over and over again, for it only to pick up steam for a couple of weeks, maybe a month and then for it to drop off until again, it becomes a big news story. We’ve seen this happen time and time again in Canada, where Indigenous people are telling their stories. They’re telling their truths, you know, with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and even most recently as a Senate report on the forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls. People are telling their stories and it’s time for Canadians, it’s time for politicians at all levels, to listen and to really dedicate the time, the resources and just the care, to create the change so that we can move forward in a good way. There’s so much work that needs to be done. I understand that it is paralyzing, that it is challenging to know where to begin, but these stories have been told. There are actions that have documented in all of these reports and it’s time that we figure out where to go next. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Cassidy, another issue we’ve talked about a lot on the show has been the situation for Indigenous kids. There are still so many First Nations in communities across this country, where kids have to leave their parents and their homes to get an education. They have to go to North Bay or to another city at a very young age, 13, 14 years-old and what a choice to have to make. We’ve talked about the number of Indigenous children who end up in foster care, who are taken at birth from their mothers in hospitals. This is still going on. Can you update us on what the state of the system is there and the state and how it is treating Indigenous kids, and if that’s something you think that we can make progress on in 2023?

Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President: I think so. Canada had a plan. That plan was Bill C-92, which is an Act Respecting First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, essentially looking at how to give back jurisdiction over the child welfare system to our communities. We know how to take care of our children. We know what our children need. That bill was going to move towards that progress that we need to see. Unfortunately, it was challenged in the courts and is being seen through at the Supreme Court of Canada right now. The Métis Nation is an intervener in that case and we hope to see it go through. We need to see it go through. Everything that we can do to move back towards the respect of Indigenous rights is going to be progress towards building a brighter future for our communities. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Cassidy, in 2022, we had the historic papal apology. For some, that was healing. For others, it simply wasn’t what they needed. Residential schools continue to be a legacy that haunts so many people in Canada. Where do you see that path going in the coming year?  

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Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President: You know we have, like I said, made progress on reconciliation as it relates to residential schools, but the apology wasn’t the end of that journey. We, as the Métis Nation, specifically have so much more work to do. There are many Métis residential school survivors who continue to go unrecognized, unacknowledged for the harms that they endured during their time at a residential school, a day school, convents, all of which sought to do the same things that residential schools did to many Indigenous children across the country. Ile-a-la-Crosse and Timber Bay are two schools that continue to go unrecognized by both the provincial government in Saskatchewan and the federal government as residential schools which did harm to Métis students. We will continue to advocate for that recognition this year and then, you know, move from there. But until that recognition is made and those students and those children, the survivors of those schools, get the recognition that they deserve, we won’t see the progress towards reconciliation that we need to in this country. 

Mercedes Stephenson: Cassidy, what would you like to see the federal government have as its number one priority for this year? 

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Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President: That’s a big question. I don’t know that I can specifically pinpoint one thing. But one of the big pieces that we’ll be watching this year is the implementation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. Bill C-15 is that act that is moving Canada towards harmonizing all of its laws with the recognition of Indigenous rights. We are in the process of co-developing the action plan, the implementation plan of that bill right now with the federal government that is due by June of this year, and from there we’ll be looking to see how we can continue to create systemic change by using that as one of those mechanisms. 

Mercedes Stephenson: Cassidy Caron, thank you so much for joining us, president. We will be back with you throughout the year, I’m sure, to continue to track these stories.

Cassidy Caron, Métis National Council President: Thank you so much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, as mainstream representation increases, the LGBTQ+ community is facing growing threats and violence.

Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action: “I don’t think we’re as bad as the U.S., but I think…I, I really worry in Canada that we imagine we’re so different, that there’s something uniquely Canadian that protects us against this hate. I have never been as worried as I am right now about the future of 2SLGBTQ rights and acceptance in this country. And I’ve been doing this work as a queer trans advocate for a decade; it’s never been as scary out there as it is right now.” 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Canada was one of the leaders in legalizing same sex marriages in 2005, with widespread support across the country. But in today’s very different political climate, anti-trans and anti-gay hate has skyrocketed.

Ron DeSantis, Florida Governor: “They support sexualizing kids in kindergarten.”

Mercedes Stephenson: In the U.S., some politicians are attacking trans people by calling them pedophiles and groomers. Most Republicans voted against the same sex marriage protection, which ultimately passed under President Biden.

Joe Biden, U.S. President: “Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, they’re all connected. But the antidote to hate is love.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Here at home in Canada, hate crimes targeting queer Canadians are the highest they’ve been at in five years. Trans Canadians and drag queens are getting the brunt of it, facing threats of violence and guns.

Joining me now to talk about the challenges the community is facing and where to go from here is Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action executive director, and drag queen Kyne, the math whiz from RuPaul’s Drag Race Canada. Thank you both so much for joining us for this discussion.

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: Thank you for having me.

Fae Johnstone: Thanks for having us.

Mercedes Stephenson: I want to start with you, Kyne, and to get your opinion as well, Fae. What has the year 2022 been like for your community?

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: I think it’s been a weird year with all of, you know, this hate and these protests that have been going on. On a personal level, it’s been a year that I’ve been able to thrive as a drag queen. Drag these days, is becoming more and more mainstream and it is becoming an event that people are starting to want to bring their families to, because we’re seeing drag everywhere and we’re seeing queer people just getting some more visibility. And I think with the added visibility, there comes with—it comes with some backlash.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And you look absolutely fantastic by the way. And I took my father, who passed away this year…

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: …to his first drag show in his 90s and he loved it, and it was a very different perspective because a lot of Canadians haven’t experienced. They haven’t had contact with someone who’s a trans person or a drag queen and they don’t really have a perspective on who you are.

And I know that this has been a year where you’ve suffered from so much hate directed, Fae, as a trans person. When you look at this year, what are the concerning factors for you and what do you feel are sort of the things that bring hope?

Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action: You know, I think the concerning factors are that we’ve seen an unprecedented raise in anti-2SLGBTQ hate and associated hate crimes all across this country. For the first time in my adult memory, I look and I see drag events that are being protested. I see a tax on 2SLGBTQ community organizations that are supporting our kids, that are supporting our communities and so I think this has been a really hard year for our community. You know we are seeing some really great changes in terms of acceptance in society, but most queer and trans people I know are still worried about their safety. They’re worried about experiences of daily discrimination and I feel like it’s actually getting worse now, even as we imagine it should be getting better.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Why do you think that is? What is sort of fanning these flames of hate?

Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action: You know, I think all across the world on a global scale, we’re seeing a revival of the anti-gay hysteria from the 1970s. I think, you know, former president Trump, the far right in North America, both the U.S. and here at home, are surging in ways that many of us didn’t predict and I think that is a lot of what’s driving this. They’re recognizing that most people don’t know a trans person. There are less of us than there are gay folks. And so it’s easy to paint a picture and easy to drive a wedge when at the end of the day, trans folks are just other people in our community who maybe our lives look a little bit different than other people’s but we deserve the same rights and safety as everyone else.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I think for a lot of people watching today, they’re wondering what’s the difference? Kyne, what’s the difference between a trans person and a drag queen?

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: A drag queen and a trans woman are definitely not mutually exclusive. You can be trans and also perform in drag and you can be trans without being a drag queen. I’m a drag queen and, you know, I present as a woman maybe on my shows, but this all comes off and I identify as a boy in my day-to-day life.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And Fae, what’s—how would you explain the difference to folks at home?

Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action: Trans is an identity, it’s a part of who you are. And drag is it’s a performance. And there’s a lot of value in both, but there is a difference. However, if you look back, one of my favourite things to share is that before we had language like trans, you did see more overlap in the 70s and 80s. And so over those decades, we’ve seen an evolution as people understand what trans means more and we share a lot of the same history, but there is a fundamental difference often between a profession and an identity. But just as Kyne said, there is a lot of overlap there as well. 

Mercedes Stephenson: And looking at these numbers, I mean when we were talking about putting this panel together, there was a sense that there was more hatred out there just from what we were seeing on social media. It was anecdotal for us. And then when we started digging and found those statistics that you mentioned in this incredible spike in hate crimes, it’s deeply concerning and it seems like something that’s not even necessarily that well tracked in Canada, but it’s something that I know you experience. Kyne, can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve seen things change over the past few years in terms of hate that’s being directed at you?

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: Yeah. Well for a little bit of context, aside from doing drag shows, I also teach math online. I have an audience of almost 2 million people and I make videos talking about math because that’s what I went to school for. And I’ve travelled around Canada and the United States, talking to universities and teachers and schools, and pretty much every time I do that there’s always some sort of backlash online. You know, I get called a groomer, a pedophile, a freak. Every organization that brings me, there’s calls to fire them, a waste of taxpayer money. And so that’s sort of what I’ve been experiencing and I’m just talking about math. You know, I can’t think of a more wholesome subject to be going around talking about.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And Fae, where do you think that that—I mean it’s an association that’s being put there, to try to create hate. This association is being put there without any evidence. Where are these words like groomer and pedophile coming from? Who is attaching those to the trans community and what do you want to say to parents who see that on social media and are concerned?

Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action: You know, I think it comes from homophobes and transphobes, right, like it comes from folks who see our communities and want to roll back our rights. I think often we think of hate as, you know, just somebody who is ignorant, but there are people in this country who are pushing an agenda and it’s an agenda where my rights are restricted. And so I think groomer, allegations of pedophilia, they are again, those tactics in the 70s that folks are realizing they can use in these moments. I’ve lost track of the amount of times that I’ve been called a pedophile and a groomer in my Twitter mentions and there are organizations, I think, you know, the True North Centre, for example, that are targeting 2SLGBTQ events. They’re looking for anything that they can light a fire under. My message to parents is, trans folks aren’t a threat and our young folks need, desperately need support. We know that when young trans people are supported by their families, the exponential rates of suicidality of concerns about suicide plummet in a massive way. And so the biggest message to parents is trans folks are not dangerous. We’re just a different kind of human being and we deserve the same support, the same inclusion, the same acceptance that every other child or adult deserves. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: And there tend to be these moments that become a focus of media attention. I’m thinking of the trans teacher in Ontario, she wore a breast plate to school with very large prosthetic breasts and this sort of became this defining moment.  

Kyne, you’re teaching math to kids online. What message do you want to send to parents? 

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: My message to parents is that school is a place that prepares you for adulthood, and in adulthood you are going to come across trans people. You’re going to come across gay people. You’re going to come across people of all kinds of walks of life and I think schools should prepare students for that. What I find, you know, so ironic is that lots of parents they don’t want their kids to turn out gay or trans or queer, partially because there’s a stereotype associated that queer people can end up homeless, can turn to drugs. But what do they do? They will kick the queer children out of their homes. They’ll try to get queer people fired from jobs. So it’s a feedback loop that just makes more queer people turn to homelessness and be shunned away from their families. 

Mercedes Stephenson: Fae, do you think that it’s as bad here as it is in the U.S. because there’s been very serious shootings, hate motivated shootings in the United States. And I know when we were talking to people behind the scenes before this panel, we were hearing a lot about concerns about safety. 

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Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action: Absolutely. I…I worry, you know, I do a lot of public speaking. I do a lot of work with social workers and educators, and I worry, I mean, every time that I do an engagement that something horrible could happen, you know that there is a risk that somebody will show up and that that hate will shift from a virtual context to an in-person horrifying and terrifying experience. I don’t think we’re as bad as the U.S., but I think—I, I really worry in Canada that we imagine we’re so different that there’s something uniquely Canadian that protects us against this hate. I have never been as worried as I am right now about the future of 2SLBGTQ rights and acceptance in this country. And I’ve been doing this work as a queer and trans advocate for a decade. It’s never been as scary out there as it is right now.

Mercedes Stephenson: Kyne, what needs to change going forward and how does that happen? 

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: I think that we just need for more people to stand up for us. We need to feel support from the community. You know what’s funny is that every time I do these events and I go around talking to schools and to teachers, I’m always met with so much positive feedback, being told we loved your talk, we’re so inspired. They love it. And then I go online and there’s all these trolls threatening to bring guns and it’s very scary. And as Fae said, we like to think that we’re safe and that these are just people who are a tiny minority online, but it is scary for our safety and what I’d like to see is for the community to really stand up and stand with us. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Kyne and Fae, thank you both so much for joining us. This is certainly a topic that we’re going to be keeping a close eye on as 2023 unfolds. We appreciate both of your time and your personal experiences being shared with us and your perspective.

Kyne Santos, Drag Queen: Thank you so much.

Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what we’re watching this week: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to Mexico City for the North American Leader Summit. 


Mercedes Stephenson: The prime minister will join the U.S. and Mexican presidents at the North American Leader Summit on Tuesday. The leaders are expected to talk about trade, security, the environment and China. We’ll be keeping a close eye on that, but that’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you here next Sunday. Have a great week.

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