Makenzie Zouboules does not give in to her experiences. This year has been both good and bad for the local activist, as it saw her accepting a $1 million grant from the Arctic Inspiration Prize as one of the people behind FOXY, an organization that teaches young girls (and soon, boys) about healthy sexuality and safe relationships through drama, art and peer mentorship, as well as surviving a sexual assault.
Makenzie chooses to share her story about her assault daily, even though it’s hard. She’s open to discussing it, she explains, because “people put a lot of onus on the folks who’ve been hurting to not talk about it, because it might be embarrassing to them. And I’m like no, the person who should be embarrassed is the person who did that, and fuck them.”
“I’m going through this terrible process. It’s been the worst-best year of my life,” and very quickly she amends, “or best–worst year of my life.” Makenzie is in the middle of legal consultation, so she can’t share much more than she has already about the details of her assault. One thing she notes, though, is that despite having extensive training for sexual assault prevention and consent training, this happened to her as an able-bodied woman while she was sober and with someone she trusted.
This amplifies her frustration with the lack of services for at-risk youth here in the North. And, her outrage with the dysfunction of psychiatric and health services that focus on the technical side of things, like the size of her bruises, rather than taking care of the patient’s emotional well-being.
It makes sense that she’s driven to create a better place to live for younger kids, and for those in the LGBTQ+ community who have either left the North because of homophobia, or have been hurt by their family and society.
“Kids are dying. We have one of the highest suicide rates in Canada. We have really high STI rates. There’s a huge loss of childhood. And then we are losing a ton of people because the rent is high. And I don’t blame people for that. But I am really skeptical of people that just come up and take from our communities and then leave, and are not accountable for the things that they are taking from them.”
At 20 years old she is well-known throughout Yellowknife for being heavily involved in community projects. She started early. At 11, she helped her friend, Jeanne Yurris, fundraise for Relay for Life and together they raised a couple of thousand dollars. Since then, she’s been the volunteer coordinator for Folk on the Rocks, collecting 467 volunteers for last year’s festival, and was the first peer leader at FOXY at the age of 17.
This summer she’s working as a board member and outreach coordinator for NWT Pride while conducting research with FOXY for determinants of health for LGBTQ people in the NWT, under supervision of Candice Lys, an executive director of FOXY, and Carmen Logie, a social work professor at the University of Toronto.
When she accepted the award, she “accidentally” came out in her speech and received a standing ovation. It was a shock to Makenzie, who didn’t realize that people viewed her as anything but queer. After waves of support from friends and strangers, it made her realize that even just existing as who you are can be really difficult. “I think a lot of people underestimate how hard it is to just to be. So this year I’m really excited that the theme of pride is going to be ‘Free to Be’ – it’s going to be just free to exist, and free to continue to be and not having to explain it and not having to justify your existence.”
Even though Makenzie actively challenges established structures that oppress herself and others, she does not call herself an activist, “I don’t know if I would consider myself important enough. I grew up in a house with parents who were really great at being open about various things,” explaining that her relationship with her parents were very open and communicative, and she has been treated with maturity since a young age, “I’ve always been lucky to be surrounded by people who cared about the well-being of others.” Her goal is to extend that approach as far as possible, and to stay on the front-lines to create a safer place in her community.
What is your favourite thing about Yellowknife?
My favourite thing about Yellowknife is definitely the people. I have been really lucky to be surrounded by a lot of amazing mentors and a lot of great community members. I love being a part of the art scene. I love being a part of Pride and I love being a part of the community. And I love that when you’re walking there’s people around you know, or when you’re in the library and you run into people you know, I love being able to chat with people and to stay up to date.
And being able to find things last-minute. When I was volunteer coordinator for Folk on the Rocks, I’m freaking out a week before the festival, because Yellowknife is always so last-minute. We have 150 volunteers sign up in seven days. As ridiculous as it can be – and hard – I love Yellowknife for the people.
What is your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?
The lack of services for LGBTQ youth. There’s a lack of accessibility for mental health services and also for services specific to various groups, that comes from being in small town, for sure, but I also think that sometimes people are very reluctant to talk about the issues that are facing youth specifically. I don’t think that a lot of people realize that people leave Yellowknife because, not that they don’t feel community here, but they don’t necessarily have the support that they need in order to thrive. So what I would like to see is a designated space for Pride, more funding, government specific funding for FOXY. Funding for initiatives that actually do build community and continue to keep youth in the North specifically.
How do you spend your winters?
In Victoria, B.C.! When I’m home I spend it in front of fires. Building projects. And doing… stuff.
How do you spend your summers?
I don’t think I’ve actually had a boring summer my entire life. I’ve been working since I was 12 every summer. Last summer, I spent it putting on one of the best festivals in Canada. And this summer, I’ll be spending it conducting 60 in-depth interviews and 30 body-mapping interviews for research partnership on social determinance of health relative to LGBTQ+ youth. And also as a board member and outreach coordinator for NWT Pride.
What opportunities have you found in Yellowknife?
After this summer I’ll have been to all three capitals of the Northern territories. Because I lived in Yellowknife I’ve been able to be a part of Arctic Counsel Symposium for evidence-based mental health strategies. I’ve been to parliament twice in the last year, I’ve been on 30 planes, I’ll be going to Whitehorse to be a part of the Girl Guide 101 anniversary camp with FOXY, facilitating a workshop with another peer leader on women in media. We’ll be showing photos of Laverne Cox along with Tanya Taggaq. And I’ve been lucky to have a kickass education. I would not be able to go to university otherwise. Being in Yellowknife has been integral to how I position myself in the world. I think when it goes back to education as well, I definitely would not have the education that I do had I not been born here.
Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?
Phew. That is a loaded question. I’m 20. And I think a lot of 20 year olds would probably say “No, I’m going to live down south and I’m going to make myself a life and maybe I’ll come back here someday.” I think for me, I’m definitely a northern lifer, I can’t imagine living lower than the 60th parallel. I love Yellowknife. I love my city. I love my home. I love for the opportunity to continue working with community members to make it somewhere great to live.
In terms of being a lifer? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say that because it really depends on what you consider. There are people who call themselves lifers who’ve been here 10 years, and there’s other people who’ve been here their whole lives, they still use that term. So for me, I think I’d like to live in Yellowknife, it’s the place that I call home and it’s the place that I’m accountable to. And if I’m really going to employ that ethic of care, I think long-term change is what I need to do.