Sexual health, empowerment and social responsibility – these are the themes Nunavut youth in Pangnirtung, Iglulik and Iqaluit explored in late April and early May.
“There’s very standard sex ed stuff. We talk condoms and STIs (sexually transmitted infections), healthy relationships. To branch out of that we really talk about their power of choice, the way that their decisions can affect their lives and other people’s lives now and in the future,” said co-founder and facilitator for FOXY and SMASH Nancy MacNeill.
FOXY (Fostering Open Expression Among Youth), founded in 2012, and SMASH (Strength, Masculinities, and Sexual Health), launched in 2016, are sexual health education programs developed with Northern youth, for Northern youth.
The mission is to use the arts to enhance the education, health, and well-being of Northern and Indigenous youth.
“High rates of STIs in the Arctic have been a focus of recent research, and youth are believed to be at greatest risk of infection,” notes Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre’s Gwen Healey in a research paper published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health in February 2017.
“In 2013, Nunavut’s rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were more than 10 times higher than that of Canada, and still remained high in 2014/15.”
MacNeill says these statistics are non-negotiable.
“I think when we talk about social responsibility and the fact that our health care choices aren’t just about us, but that in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut we do have the highest rates of STIs and STI transmission in the country, it’s easy to draw a very straight line between one person’s choices and the ongoing effect in the community.”
And the Nunavut youth she encountered at Attagoyuk Ilisavik in Pangnirtung, Ataguttaaluk High School in Iglulik, and Aqsarniit Middle School and Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit get that.
“Talking to youth who already understand that idea … it’s really easy for them to put two and two together about how their choices about health affect the health of their community,” said the Iqaluit-born MacNeill.
Describing how she and peer leaders Kendrick Bolt and Jacob Schiller engage youth “who see this stuff through a masculine lens,” MacNeill says it starts with play.
“We play a lot of games to help break the ice and help everyone realize that it’s a safe space, and that they’re allowed to goof around and at the same time learn about sex,” she said.
MacNeill says there’s no shame in feeling awkward.
“Because of the way our society is set up, people do feel awkward the first few times they talk about sex. And sometimes forever. I know adults who still giggle when you say the word penis, or vagina. I get it,” she said, recalling the first time her teacher pulled out a wooden penis to demonstrate condom use.
“I laughed. Of course, I laughed.”
But she notes it’s the students with the giggles who end up being the ones who are most attentive.
“They’re asking really good questions, and they’re really engaged. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we get nervous about the things we care about,” MacNeill said.
While MacNeill, Bolt and Schiller led SMASH workshops, FOXY peer leaders simultaneously led workshops grounded in the female gender.
Nunavut youth head to peer retreat
FOXY and SMASH run retreats at Blatchford Lake Lodge in the NWT in the summer. That’s where youth deepen their sense of being powerful and develop their leadership skills.
“They do a lot of arts training and leadership stuff. There’s a lot of opportunity for them to step up and take care of things,” said MacNeill. “I think a lot of youth feel very underestimated. A lot of teenagers really want to feel that power, and every time you give them some tools and knowledge that give them that power they really attach to it.”
Candice Lys, the Fort Smith woman who conceived of FOXY, said more than 20 Nunavut youth had applied for the retreat ahead of the May 31 deadline, and she was expecting more in the final hours.
SMASH received $1 million from the Public Health Agency of Canada May 15.
“Specifically that fund is going to help SMASH do more travel within the NWT and offer our retreat program, which frees up additional funds for us to come back to Nunavut,” said MacNeill.