Children & Youth
Health & Well-being
Human Rights & Equality
Indigenous Peoples & Reconciliation
IN CHARGE OF OUR BODIES,
IN CHARGE OF OUR LIVES
Healthy sexuality for young Northerners
At a talking circle outside Yellowknife, a teenage boy speaks about the ways his father taught him to be a man — to ignore pain and punish vulnerability. “I didn’t know there was another way until now,” he tells his peers: “I’m going to be a different kind of father.”
A Yukon teen doesn’t know what to say about condoms to her boyfriend — so she doesn’t say anything. At a role-playing workshop, she brainstorms with her peers to come up with the words, and the courage, to speak up: “I can tell him what I need.”
These youth, living in far northern, predominantly Indigenous communities, are changing their own and their communities’ mindsets about wellbeing and sexuality. And they’re doing it with the support of FOXY (Fostering Open eXpression among Youth) and SMASH (Strength, Masculinities, and Sexual Health) — arts-based programs to foster mental and sexual health across the Far North.
Well over 65% of the region’s teens have been touched by the youth-led, peer-to-peer programs, which are shaped by Indigenous perspective on the land, arts and culture.
FOXY and SMASH are the brainchild of Dr. Candice Lys, Ashoka’s first Fellow from The Northwest Territories. She provides the sexual education she wishes she’d had as a teen. And she’s thrilled to see how her work is changing lives every day, creating the next generation of leaders in Canada’s North.
Our youth are healing themselves, their families, and their communities. It’s really amazing to watch them begin to understand themselves as powerful agents of change.”
Dr. Candice Lys, Ashoka Canada Fellow
Let’s talk about sex.
Imagine your typical sexual education class: rows of kids sitting in awkward silence while a teacher much older than them explains how things work. Students might learn the biology and facts about sex, but this format does not invite meaningful discussions around sexuality, healthy relationships, and identity.
This is particularly true in communities where colonial abuses have contributed to intergenerational trauma. Youth in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon are vulnerable to sexual health challenges, with extremely high rates of sexually transmitted infections, adolescent pregnancy, and sexual violence.
Having grown up in the Northwest Territories, Dr. Candice Lys saw firsthand how the North needed culturally appropriate and relevant sexual education. Young people didn’t need a lecture about how to use a condom — they needed to talk about mental and sexual health and healthy sexual relationships. They needed land- and arts-based techniques designed to build pride and confidence.
Candice set out to change the education system. In 2012, she launched Fostering Open eXpression among Youth (FOXY) to provide relatable and relevant sexual education to women and gender diverse peoples.
FOXY focuses on sexual empowerment and open expression, helping young people understand their worth and build their confidence. The model integrates local Indigenous knowledge and arts-based methods — such as theatre, beading, and digital storytelling — to allow youth to express their ideas and opinions about sexual health, love and life in general. With the support of Elders, young women pass on knowledge they’ve gained as Peer Leaders, which cultivates a new generation of leaders. FOXY is about giving young people power and confidence to decide for themselves what is best for them and their bodies. It is a holistic approach providing integrated sexual and mental health with accessible and inclusive programming.
FOXY has a plan for long-term, sustainable funding and has scaled the model in all three Canadian territories: the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut — reaching 20 percent of youth between 13 and 17 to date. The work to empower young women and sexual diverse people has been so effective that in 2016, Candice and a team of Northerners created a program for young men and masculine-identifying youth: Strength, Masculinities, and Sexual Health (SMASH).
Candice is changing the education system in the North. She is regularly part of policy discussions at the territorial level and she brokered a formal partnership with the Department of Education in the Northwest Territories to secure official accreditation of FOXY and SMASH so that youth can receive high school credits for completing leadership training. Candice wants to see FOXY adopted as the gold standard for sexual education among all genders, cultures, and locations.