This story is over 5 years old.


On Campus with Saskatchewan’s Two-Spirit, Gay, Cree, Transgender Student Union President

Jack Saddleback represents a lot of different identities that many students—especially those coming from small towns or other countries—have never come across before.

Jack Saddleback, in green shirt and blazer, welcomes U of S students during orientation. Photos by Geraldine Malone unless otherwise stated

While shaking hands, handing out day planners, and getting students to vote on a silly costume he would have to wear, University of Saskatchewan Student Union (USSU) president Jack Saddleback also tries to answer many questions about himself.

Saddleback faces a lot of queries because he represents so many different identities that many students—especially those coming from small towns or other countries—have never come across. Saddleback is a Two-Spirit, Cree, transgender, gay man.


"I find with my own identities and how they intersect, I take on that responsibility to just be open about myself because I think about what my life was like when I was growing up. I think about that young person going through those school systems and I think about how alone I felt at that time," Saddleback told VICE. "I don't want that for another youth, I don't want our future generations to have to go through that. I want them to see themselves in these places, in these institutions, in our society as a whole. I find it's important for me to be able to speak out and be proud about who I am, and those struggles I've had to go through are a part of my story."

Saskatchewan has a complicated history when it comes to Saddleback's Aboriginal heritage and his LGBTQ identity.

With 20 different schools throughout the province, the last federally-run residential school only closed in Saskatchewan in 1996. Saskatoon's history includes the dark legacy of Starlight tours, and recently the stories of residential school survivors published on the New Yorker's Instagram account have reminded people that the struggle for many who call Saskatchewan home isn't close to over.

At the university, Annie Maude (Nan) McKay was the first Aboriginal graduate in 1915. She held a BA degree with honors in English and French, and soon after worked in the university library. Although there's no record of McKay talking about her gender identity, on campus there is actually a photo of McKay and another woman known as "Hope" kissing behind Saskatchewan Hall residence in 1914.


By 1971 a small activist organization was formed on campus called the Gay Students Alliance. But in 1975 the U of S Dean of Education suspended a graduate student named Doug Wilson from supervising student teachers in the public school system because of his identification with a proposed campus gay group. That led to a major legal and political battle that played out in national media, which Wilson eventually lost.

There has clearly been a lot of progress since then, but even as recently as 2005, 600 people came out in Saskatoon in support of a traditional definition of marriage. The March for Marriage included speakers like Conservative MPs Maurice Vellacott and Brad Trost.

At 26, Saddleback has seen a lot of these changes, both forward and backward, play out before him, "The openness to understand about complexities of the human experience was not at a point where people were willing to learn," he says. He grew up on the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alberta, in a traditional Cree family which practices non-interference where "as long as the child is happy, the community and the family are happy. "I was able to go about and be the gender-queer kid that I always was," Saddleback adds.

"As I got older and as I got into the actual elementary school system, that's when my family really started to encourage me to fall into the female gender binary because I was born a female. To go into the school system and constantly have other kids ask are you a boy or a girl? I always had to identify by what was between my legs as opposed to what was in my heart. That created a lot of anxiety, a lot of feelings of isolation, and not feeling as if I could relate to anyone else because I couldn't see anyone else like myself as a young person."


When Saddleback started to go through puberty, the societal pressures became too much and depression took over.

"It was almost as if I was at a cliff and I had to either conform or not conform, and that not conforming was very volatile, it was scary, and I didn't know that I could transition at that time," Saddleback says. "My only understanding that I had was suicide. I was hospitalized twice after I started puberty because I had tried to take my own life. That put a lot of hinderance on my own ability to finish school, to actually feel like I could go to school, to relate to my peers and the people around me."

He ended up dropping out of high school and living in Calgary. Although his family supported him in whatever ways they could, Saddleback was lost in himself and in the world. Youth suicide rates for Aboriginal people are six times higher than the national average and roughly two-thirds of trans* youth think about suicide and around one in three attempt it. Saddleback says he "was a part of that statistic."

"I had to battle with my gender identity and kind of figure out and question, 'Am I really OK being this miserable for the rest of my life?' Then I met another trans* individual in a queer youth group and it dawned on me that I can be happy all the time," Saddleback says. "That's when I decided at the age of 18 that I'm going to go for my dreams and I'm going to go with what feels right inside. I am a man and here I am."


That moment completely changed his life and he decided to move to Saskatoon to get his high school diploma. The next step was applications for scholarships and eventually his first steps onto the campus grounds—something he was reminded of last week.

"I would have never been able to see myself sitting behind the USSU president's desk. This is just something that's so surreal to me even from the time when I was thinking about coming to university," Saddleback says. "I never would have thought I would be in a post secondary education institution. I didn't see my skin color here, I didn't see my gender identity here, I didn't see my romantic orientation here. Therefore, I couldn't really imagine myself in this position."

Saddleback quickly got involved on campus as the Pride student coordinator, then the USSU Vice President of Student Affairs, and was part of the group in 2014 who worked to change the university's discrimination and harassment policy to protect transgender people.

He won the USSU presidency last March and is the third consecutive Aboriginal president in four terms but the first trans* and Two-Spirit president in the university's history. After researching universities across the country it also seems safe to say he is also the country's first Two-Spirit student union president.

"That would be interesting if I was. It would be really humbling and eye opening for individuals that we finally have something like this taking place," Saddleback says.


Having so many intersecting identities and representing multiple minorities on campus is a responsibility Saddleback doesn't take lightly. Many of the approximately 18,000 students are coming from smaller communities throughout the province where they may have never met an Aboriginal person, gay person, or transgender person, let alone someone who recognizes all of those identities. Moose Jaw had it's very first Pride parade this summer, Prince Albert's first parade was in 2007, and even in 2013 a transgender bride-to-be was asked to leave a store in Saskatoon as she shopped for her wedding dress.

"I'm from a small town just south of Prince Albert. We didn't have a lot of Aboriginal people and—not that I know of—was there anyone who was transgender," fourth-year commerce student Chelsea Harrison, says.

"It's great to come to campus and see someone live openly like that… You don't really hear about trans* people much in the media in these leadership roles. I think it's great that he can be in a position of power like this and he can give other students someone to look up to."

"I think it's really important in that he's a role model for people who are transgender so they feel comfortable with who they are," says third year physiology and pharmacology student Ashley Palmer.

"I think him having that position is important for him to be seen as a role model for people who are not transgender… If you've never seen a transgender person before, it would be a really good impression."

Saddleback blushed a little as he heard his name again. Although he has taken a role in the spotlight, it's not a natural one.

"It's kind of weird. I'm actually like a really shy guy. I look like I'm really calm and cool but inside I'm like, 'Oh my God they are recognizing me.' I fanboy over their fanboying," Saddleback says with a laugh.

"At the same time it's really humbling. I just think about that young Jack who decided to put the knife down and said 'This is not my time.' I think about where I am right now and realize now is my time, now is my time to shine."

Follow Geraldine Malone on Twitter.