LAUREEN BLU WATERS (They/Them)
Laureen (Blu) Waters: Istchii Nikamoon: Earth Song, Wolf clan. Cree/Metis/Micmac, Blu is a member of the Metis Nation of Ontario.
Blu’s family is from Big River Saskatchewan, Star Blanket Reserve and Bra’dor Lake, Eskasoni First Nations, Cape Breton Nova Scotia, and the Red River. Blu grew up with their grandmother and learned about traditional medicines, learning healing methods, and care for the sick. Their grandmother also shared her knowledge of the great teachings.
Blu is currently working at Seneca College as an Elder on campus providing traditional teachings and one-to-one counseling.
Blu spent 2.5 years working for the National Inquiry for Murdered and Missing Women as a Grandmother to Commissioner Brian Eyelfson and sits on the Grandmother Circle.
Blu sits on the Thunder Women Healing Lodge as a Director of the Board.
Blu also sits as the Ontario representative for Metis people with 2 Spirits In Motion Board.
Blu also provides ceremony, teaching, and counseling for 2 Spirit People of the First Nations, in Toronto.
Blu was also the national caucus representative for the Toronto Urban Aboriginal strategies for five years working with the community of Toronto and the government. They are also a graduate of DeVry Institute of Technology receiving their business software micro-computer architecture and A+ certification.
Blu’s gifts include: Traditional teachings, giving traditional spirit names, hand drumming, songwriter, creative writings, and full moon conductor. Pipe ceremonies and sweat lodge ceremonies and traditional counseling.
Blu is a 2 spirit person, a mother of 3, a grandmother of 3, a sun dancer, and a pipe carrier.
My Pride Story
“Spirit Doesn’t Have a Gender”: 2 Spirit Ambassador Elder Blu Waters on the 2 Spirit identity, intergenerational trauma and the importance of listening
“When the colonizers came, they gave us their perspective. They eliminated our perspective and forbade it.”Elder Blu (Laureen) Waters
When it comes to the 2SLGBTQIA+ acronym, the 2 Spirit identity is the least understood. Who better to learn from than Elder Blu (Laureen) Waters, this year’s 2 Spirit Pride Ambassador? We sat down with Waters, to learn more about the spiritual aspect of the 2 Spirit identity, how intergenerational trauma factors in, how they support 2 Spirit youth, and how the queer community can best support 2 Spirit folks.
“Two identities coming down from that Sky World”: on the spiritual meaning of the 2 Spirit identity
The term 2 Spirit came to Elder Myra Laramie through ceremony at queer, Indigenous gathering in 1990. At the time, many queer Indigenous people didn’t resonate with the LGBTQ acronym because it didn’t embrace their whole being. “Their spirituality was left out,” recalls Waters. “As Indigenous people, we come bringing gifts into this life to share with our family, communities, and those that we come into contact with. That part was missing – their gifts.”
Over 30 years later, there are still plenty of misconceptions about the true meaning and nature of the 2 Spirit identity. Waters is keen to set the record straight. “2 Spirit means that we bring both the masculine and the feminine spirit, and then carry those within us,” explains Waters. “I like to think of it as two identities coming down from that Sky World. They merge and twist into one.”
Waters notes that the bisexual identity is closest to the essence of being 2 Spirit, as the attraction is to the person, not their gender. For many reasons, not all queer Indigenous people choose to identify as 2 Spirit. And spirituality plays a role here too. “In our own communities, we take care of fire and water. But we’re faced with gender separation through the binary,” explains Waters. “We’ve embraced the colonized teachings of men being superior or women being inferior.”
Waters knows of many individuals who still carry the notion that female-identified people can’t take care of fire, and male-identified people can’t take care of water. “2 Spirit people have both roles to carry. And some people don’t want to do that. It’s a lot of work to be responsible for both those parts of creation! Some Indigenous people do identify with the LGBTQIA acronym.”
“Ask me who I am, and I’ll tell you”: on the importance of asking 2 Spirit people the right question, and listening to the answer
Where all Indigenous people in Canada have been subject to over 500 years of violent and oppressive colonialism, it hits different for 2 Spirit folks – especially the youth. “Now, Indigenous people are reclaiming who we are and embracing our cultures, traditions and languages that were forbidden and taken away through residential schools, the 60s scoop and day schools,” says Waters. “Our youth are brilliantly embracing who they are. They want to wake up the elders and ask, ‘What are my responsibilities? Who am I? Tell me who I am, because it’s been removed from me. There’s this piece of me missing. There’s more to me.’ And that’s our spirituality. That’s our connection to our Indigenous culture and traditions.”
Although more 2 Spirit youth are encouraging elders to discard gender binary notions, internalized colonialism runs deep. Many queer Indigenous youth choose to leave smaller communities and reserves and head to cities, to find queer community. “Our 2 Spirit youth are still suffering, asking, ‘Where are the ones who know that we’ve always been here? Who can help me walk in my journey for who I am, be proud of who I am and not have to hide? I’m not accepted in my reserve, my family, or broader community.’”
When it comes to finding chosen family, it all comes down to asking people who they are. “We’re all looking for families of the heart, people who know and accept who we are,” says Waters. “In the Cree tradition, when we meet someone, we ask, ‘who are you?’ That’s when we need to listen, not look with our eyes and judge.”
For example, Waters has reclaimed a Cree word which means neither man nor woman. “Our youth are saying, ‘Ask me who I am, and I’ll tell you. Don’t tell me who I am. Because you’re going look with your eyes, and your eyes can be very deceiving. Close your eyes and ask me who I am. Then listen to my response. That’s who you should identify me as from that point forward.’”
“We’re trying to unpack 500 years of colonization”: on what the queer community needs to know about living as a 2 Spirit person
When it comes to how the queer community can best support 2 Spirit folks, number one is the willingness to ask 2 Spirit people who they are, and what they bring to this world. Further, Waters feels that a better appreciation of historical factors and Indigenous culture would go a long way.
“When the colonizers came, they gave us their perspective. They eliminated our perspective and forbade it. You couldn’t practice your ceremonies or leave a reserve without going to jail. Your children were taken away without your consent, because it was illegal for you to say no,” explains Waters. “We were not human beings under Canadian laws. We were considered savages and devil worshippers. If that’s all you know, how can you show respect to someone?”
“There’s an Indigenous understanding that we’re made up of four parts: spirituality, emotion, physical and intellectual,” Waters explains. “When one of those are out of balance, we are out of balance. To be open and receive people for who they truly are, you yourself have to be whole. Learning about our culture, traditions and ceremonies brings one back into balance.”
When Waters takes 2 Spirit youth to ceremony, they gain balance and learn an important spiritual truth. “They see that spirit doesn’t have a gender. Spirit is spirit,” says Waters. Recognizing that everything in life has a spirit, means that we can see each other as beautiful spirits too.
As Waters notes, being a good person has nothing to do with religion. They encourage viewing 2 Spirit individuals not as having a separate spirituality, but rather but a way of walking in the world that embraces each person for who they truly are and lifts them up when they need support. “Asking, ‘how can I support you?’ is the easiest way. We all know what we need to be supported. But if nobody ever asks us, how are we going to get that support if we don’t feel confident, secure and safe to be in certain spaces? No one’s asking us – why would we go to their spaces?”
Waters regularly counsels 2 Spirit people in the First Nation. As they have discovered, addressing the impacts of colonialism doesn’t happen overnight. And sometimes, it’s more about listening. “We’re trying to unpack 500 years of colonization – it can’t be done in six weeks!” exclaims Waters. “We meet weekly to talk about what’s going on their life, and how I can support them with traditional knowledge and ceremonies. Sometimes people don’t want you to fix them. They just want you to hear their truth.”
“When I go home, I have to leave my queerness at the door”: on how Waters supports 2 Spirit youth
Passionate about supporting 2 Spirit youth to reclaim their identity, Waters is an Elder at Seneca College. “The youth tell me, ‘I’m happy at school because I can be who I am. I have my own queer community there. But when I go home, I have to leave my queerness at the door. My parents won’t accept me, they won’t welcome me in my own home. I have to live a double life,’” relates Waters.
Waters advises youth to have those tough conversations with their parents. “Let them understand that you don’t see what they see in the mirror, you see another identity. And that everything else about you is the same.”
When she counsels their parents, she has a clear message. “Your child is still your child. You’ve been telling them who they are. The only difference, is that now they’re telling you who they are,” Waters explains. Parents are particularly perplexed when their adult children start to embrace the 2 Spirit identity. “Did they just tell you because now they feel strong enough? Or are they telling you now because you’ve mellowed with age, and you wouldn’t be so hostile to them?” wonders Waters.
They also feel that 2 Spirit youth should be taught about the link between sex and spirituality. “Every time you are sexually active with a person, you’re sharing your spirit. And if it doesn’t work out, you have to call your spirit back. We leave a bit of ourselves with the person that we’re in relationship with, and then a bit of theirs is left with us,” Waters explains. “There’s ceremony for that, to send those spirits back and call yours back, so that you can be a whole person again.”
“They’re punished on top of being violated”: on 2 Spirit incarcerations and their work at the Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society
Waters is a Board Director of the Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society, an Indigenous-led organization providing trauma-informed, culturally appropriate services for First Nation, Inuit, and Metis 2SLGBTQIA+ women exiting the justice system.
Where Indigenous people are highly over-represented in Canada’s prisons, Waters points to the higher risks for 2 Spirit people. “For female-identified people or 2 Spirit people who are both masculine and feminine, high rates of incarceration generally happen because of violence perpetuated against them. And they fight back. They’re punished on top of being violated. Our community members go into these institutions for defending themselves, for choices they’ve had to make to survive. But we don’t find out why they did these things,” says Waters. “The crime is announced, the sentence comes down, and they end up in an institution where they don’t have supports, other than a once a week visit from an elder. The systemic reasons pile up, of why people are in these places where there’s no help.”
When they leave prison, Indigenous women can stay at the Thunder Woman Lodge for a year or more, to reconnect with their identities, spirituality, customs and traditions. “They get supports along that whole journey. They are accepted for who they are and learn about histories that may have contributed to them being institutionalized,” explains Waters. “We talk about how to avoid being reinstitutionalized, including making choices that may not be the best, and giving them opportunities to go back to school and have careers.”
One year is not a long time to heal from such deep wounds. But Waters does see people making progress through the program. “Within a year of being worked with daily, and being in a space where they’re supported, they get a good start. A lot of times, women have lost their children. That’s their number one priority before their own needs. We help them get their life in order so they are able to take care of their children, and deal with the traumas that they experienced in jail, and before they went to jail.”
“My genitals don’t reflect me, my identity reflects me”: what institutions need to learn about different gender identities
Unfortunately, prison is not the only institution that needs more education on how to best support 2 Spirit people. “If you go to a hospital and say that you’re non-binary, they don’t know what that is. They just ask whether you are a man or a woman,” says Waters. “My genitals don’t reflect me, my identity reflects me. You don’t need to know whether I’m a man or a woman, I’m here to get treated.”
Indigenous people encounter a different kind of discrimination in the health care system. “When Indigenous people walk into a hospital, they first thing they say is, ‘Are you here for drugs? Have you been drinking?’ instead of saying, ‘Hi, how can I help you today? What are you here for?’”
When these two health equity issues come together, it significantly reduces the health care access for 2 Spirit people. Waters wonders how much hospital staff can really about gender diversity at 30-minute lunch and learn events. They call for extensive retraining for all staff of health care facilities, agencies and anyone in the service industry. “If you’re in a service-oriented place or an agency of help, you need to be trained on gender diversity in all of its identities. You can’t pick it choose which ones you want to learn, because you’re going to come across all gender identities,” suggests Waters. “We’re no longer dependent on our physical genitalia. We have stores and surgical procedures for that. We’ve come a long way in terms of medical advancements. But we’re still so far behind in knowing what somebody needs to be supported in their identity.”
“We’re not just there to dress up in leather”: on their first Pride and the importance of acknowledging Indigenous lands and people
Believe it or not, Waters has been to a grand total of one Pride event. And that was 5 years ago. Why didn’t they attend earlier? “I didn’t see myself reflected. All I had seen was partying and behaviors that could be violent. I wished that I could go to Pride, I wished that it was a place where I felt comfortable and safe.”
When they decided to check it out, they didn’t like what they saw. Or what was missing. “It was packed. In some spaces, there were certain gender identities who were very visual, which isn’t always appropriate for children,” Waters recalls. “I understand wanting to be free. But you’re not in a space where its just you, or others like you. Children may wonder why one person is hitting another person with a crop, being too young to understand that its part of sexual preferences.”
Even for adults, Waters feels that this can send the wrong message. “We’re not just there to dress up in leather. We’re more than that. But if that’s the first visual you see, you may conclude that the space isn’t what you thought, and then all the other beautiful parts of Pride get missed. For me, it wasn’t a space that I wanted to go to because of the crowding, and not seeing myself represented.”
Waters is encouraged by how they see Pride changing, such as having dedicated spaces for children, families, seniors and different gender identities. But there is one more change they would like to see. “Pride is being held in Toronto on the land of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and the Anishinabeg people. Where is their representation? You can’t acknowledge the land without acknowledging the people.” Waters also points to the impact of having a police presence at Pride. “My community is fearful of police. In the interactions we have with them as Indigenous and 2 Spirit people, police violence is at a much higher rate.”
Waters has been engaging with Pride Toronto to put these views forward. And – Waters is truly looking forward to attending Pride this year. “I’m going to see so many people face to face that I’ve been talking with virtually over the last two years. I’m excited about the programs, and sharing space with other 2 Spirit people,” says Waters. “We’ll be able to see ourselves, and can encourage others to come down so that we can be together with one intention to be a good person to another person.”
“If you don’t understand the land, you’re not going to respect the land”: on environmental sustainability in the queer community
For Waters, the struggle for environmental sustainability all comes back to our disconnection from the land. “If you don’t understand the land, you’re not going to respect the land. Because that’s what environmental sustainability is – taking care of the land, and having the land sustain us for generations to come.”
At Pride itself, they advocate for refillable water stations to avoid plastic water bottles, more garbage containers to avoid littering, and more well-placed respite stations, to take care of the land, and each other.
Waters encourages the community to advocate for issues such as clean drinking water for the many Indigenous communities currently on boil water advisories, and more greenspace. “It starts with each of us. We can send an email or use social media platforms to advocate. Some people have no access to land for ceremony. We put up buildings everywhere because we have the population need. But we’ve stopped creating green spaces. Where are the places that people can take their families to, to learn about the land, the plants, the birds and the animals? Sustainability involves educating yourself to taking care of the environment and how to make a difference.”
Ultimately, the land can be a place of healing. Waters has their own lodge up north. They recall bringing a group of youth there to do ceremony, make drums, sing, make art and learn about the medicines on the land. “This is where life is, life is land. If I need to be replenished, I go back to the land. Whether I’m walking in a park or along the street, if I see a tree, I lean up against it. I ask that tree to take my heaviness away.”
“Treat each other as a beautiful gift”: on fighting racism in the queer community
When it comes to fighting racism in the queer community, Waters has a clear solution. “The very simple way to address racism, is to treat each other as a beautiful gift, as a human being. And not to think that we’re superior to anybody else.”
They point to the importance of unlearning and unteaching racism. “Racism exists because we haven’t unlearned it. The generations are still there, perpetuating that understanding with their children. How we unteach racism is to speak out when we see it happening,” says Waters. “Racism isn’t just name calling and separation. It’s not letting people into spaces where they have a right to be. It’s not welcoming people for who they are, because they bring their gifts from wherever they come from.”
“If not you, then who?”: what keeps Waters advocating and celebrating
As they gear up for their first Pride in many years, what keeps their 2 Spirit advocacy fire lit? “Having young people tell me that my words and teachings have made a difference to them, keeps me going. My grandmother used to say, ‘If not you, then who?’” Waters recalls. “If I’m not willing to do this work, am I willing to leave it up to somebody else? No. I’m going to keep doing it because this is what I know. Helping people heal, identify who they are, and supporting them to walk their journey as good human beings.”
This year, Waters will be 62 years old. “If I don’t share the information that people have given to me over the last 60 years, it’s going to disappear. A very important part of our journey is not just to learn for ourselves and our immediate families, but to get it out there and share it with everybody. Because if we don’t have conversations, we won’t make change.”
Regarding their work with the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls National Inquiry:
- One of the things that broke my heart, was that you would have a family member that came to testify, and they were looking for their 26-year-old son who went missing five years ago. But in fact, that 26-year-old son has been living in Toronto for the last five years as their daughter. And so, the community in Toronto is looking for a 26-year-old male, when that person doesn’t exist. A 26-year-old female exists. And that’s a big problem. When they find a body, they’re going by their genitalia. Your genitalia doesn’t depict who you are. That’s not necessarily your identity. And so that’s a huge problem.
Social Media and Website Links
- @_bluwaters_ (Instagram)
- @Laureen-Blu Waters Traditional Counselling (FB)
- @Laureen_Blu (Twitter)
My Pride Story written by: Anna-Liza Badaloo (she/her) is a writer and consultant working at the intersection of health, environment and social justice.