The Vancouver Pride Society is expecting more than half a million people to turn out for Sunday’s Pride Parade, and there, at the front of the festivities will be Orene Askew, the first-ever Squamish Nation member to be named a grand marshal of the parade.
Askew, who also goes by her professional name DJ O Show, said the magnitude of the role started to dawn on her at Vancouver city hall on Monday, where she was one of the guests of honour for the reading of the Pride Week proclamation and raising of the Pride flag.
“When we were all on the stage, the dignitaries from the three host nations ... I remember looking at the backdrop of the mountains and I got a little emotional because I’m really, really excited. It’s so amazing how everything has come together,” said Askew. “It’s a huge honour to represent my people.”
Askew is two spirited, a sexual identity exclusive to Indigenous people. Prior to colonization and the arrival of Western religious and legal customs, and the residential school system, they were revered.
“Two-spirited people, I’ve been taught, are very special because they can see from two genders, two perspectives. There’s a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit that live inside of me,” Askew said.
Not everyone grasps its meaning right away, but Askew, who was born and raised on Xwemelch’stn (Capilano 5) and now is an elected member of Squamish Nation council, said she relishes the opportunity to teach.
“I’m actually really flattered because they actually want to know where it came from or what it’s about. I feel like it’s really important for me to educate people on that because a lot of people don’t know about it. It’s been almost hidden. But it’s 2019 now and people are starting to understand about non-binary, and gender and how it’s fluid, basically,” she said.
Askew was nominated for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity anonymously, and accepted with the blessing of the Squamish Pride Society. The society got its start in 2017, when Squamish Nation member Charmaine Thomas organized a first-of-its-kind ceremony dubbed Nch’ú7mut or “one love” specifically to restore some of that support and reverence that had been lost.
“We invited all the two-spirited people in our community to come and be blanketed in our cultural way,” she said. “The blanket represents protection and comfort. … We understand a lot of the hardships that they’ve faced and wanted to offer them some comfort.”
Twelve members stepped forward to be blanketed, but more than a 100 people attended to witness. With so much support, Thomas founded the Squamish Pride Society and started seeking volunteers for the first-ever Squamish Nation float for the 2018 Pride Parade.
“We’re one of the host nations in Vancouver so we thought it was important that we were represented there,” she said. “And, oh my gosh, it was the best time. It was so fun. And it was really fun to see some of our two-spirited people feel so much support. There were thousands of people there cheering on our two-spirited people. ... You just felt it in your heart. This was amazing.”
Despite having a safe and loving home, Thomas said it took her son almost 24 years to come out. And statistics show LGBTQ2S+ youth are still more likely to face bullying or harassment targeting them for their sexual or gender identity. Things are getting better, she said, but “we still have a way to go.”
“I would like to see more acceptance and people who are two-spirited feeling safe to be who they are and not have to try to hide it or repress themselves in any way,” she said.
That’s exactly what Askew hopes she will be achieving as grand marshal.
“A lot of our young people are coming out right now, which is an amazing thing to hear. That’s why I do what I do, so they can see ‘if Orene’s doing, I can do it too.’ Be comfortable and be themselves,” she said.
The 2019 Pride Parade starts at noon in the West End.