The Woman Bringing Unconventional Sex Ed to the Arctic

The Woman Bringing Unconventional Sex Ed to the Arctic

Why you should care

Sex ed rarely gets this interesting — or necessary.

It turned out to be the most pivotal decision of Candice Lys’ life: continue with a research stint in Greenland or return home to Canada’s far north and deliver arts-based HIV-prevention workshops. Lys picked door No. 2.

But at 9 a.m. on a Saturday five years ago, Lys opened the door to her debut workshop for teenage women and felt a chill: “No one was there,” she says. The first participant didn’t show up for two hours, and the program didn’t begin until after Lys asked her sole attendee to text friends to join. “We quickly realized we had to start thinking like teenagers,” says Lys.

Since then, Lys, now 34, and her team meet with adolescents, typically age 13 through 18, to talk openly about topics ranging from gender to birth control. Many also want to know about how to stay safe at parties with drinking or drug use. “Honestly, they raise everything you can possibly imagine,” says Lys. It’s a far cry from what Lys remembers of sex ed in junior high, when her male teacher labeled men’s and women’s anatomy using an overhead projector and played a VHS cassette of a screaming, birthing mom-to-be. “Then he just walked out of the room,” she recalls.

In a region with higher rates of sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy than the rest of Canada, Lys’ unconventional approach — incorporating theater, music, photography, digital storytelling and Indigenous beading — is making an impact. As co-founder and executive director of FOXY — Fostering Open eXpression among Youth — Lys has successfully scaled her organization’s reach to more than 2,000 residents across more than 35 communities in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut. That amounts to roughly 68 percent of northern youth, according to Ashoka Canada, part of a global organization that identifies and invests in social entrepreneurs (Lys recently became Canada’s first Ashoka Fellow since 2014). Lys and FOXY’s other co-founder, Nancy MacNeill, have been named Northerners of the Year by Up Here magazine and received Meritorious Service medals from the governor general — the Queen’s official rep in Canada. Their efforts also secured FOXY an Arctic Inspiration Prize, making history as the first organization to win all 1 million Canadian dollars without having to share it with other groups.

Teenagers can be, sometimes, the most inclusive people, and we have a lot to learn from them.

Candice Lys

Lys has driven some of that money into broadening the organization beyond sexual and health education aimed at young women at heightened risk for unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. She’s taken what MacNeill calls an “extremely organized, very ambitious” approach to making sure FOXY harnesses research to support youth facing mental health challenges, bullying, family violence, intergenerational trauma and sexual assault. Last year Lys launched SMASH — Strength, Masculinities And Sexual Health — a parallel program for young men that incorporates traditional games and sports from the Inuit and Dene peoples. Inclusivity is increasingly key. More non-binary teens are participating in their programs, and a trans man joined one workshop, none of which fazed participants or peer leaders. “I think teenagers can be, sometimes, the most inclusive people, and we have a lot to learn from them,” says Lys.

Raised in a Métis family, a distinct group of Indigenous peoples in Canada, Lys grew up in a sleepy but beautiful town of around 2,400 in the Northwest Territories — Fort Smith, where a river divides boreal plains from the Canadian Shield. As a young teen, she started writing letters to Planned Parenthood asking about women’s reproductive health rights. Later, as a student at the University of Alberta, her interest in sexual education sparked while working on a peer health education team, and lit up during a master’s program in health promotion. “She’s always been a strong advocate for a young voice, a young Indigenous voice and a young Indigenous women’s voice,” says Charlotte Loppie, a University of Victoria professor who supervised Lys’ graduate research. Advocacy, and academia, burn on: September will mark Lys’ eighth year in a public health science doctoral program. “One of the best, and worst, things to happen to my Ph.D. life is FOXY,” she says.

Lys, who has a partner and lives in Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, is among a growing cadre of concerned citizens finding creative ways to disseminate health and sex ed. Ruth Nabembezi launched Ask Without Shame in Uganda two years ago to provide accurate emergency information about sex to youth in Africa using text messages and WhatsApp, while Louise Langheier co-founded Peer Health Exchange in the U.S. in 2003 to help high school students make healthier decisions and reduce unplanned pregnancy and substance abuse. Tens of thousands have used these programs, though much more work remains.

In Canada’s far north, FOXY’s programming has expanded to include one- and two-day school workshops and nine-day retreats for some high school credit. But the approach has yet to make inroads in areas such as northern Ontario, where funding for as many as 20 mental-health workers was recently announced to support an Indigenous community that lost at least four youths to suicide in July. Another community declared a state of emergency last year after more than 100 residents attempted suicide, including 11 people in a single night. “The north has a high suicide rate all over the place, and it’s a reality we often talk about in our workshops,” says Lys. Given Lys’ deep insights, Ashoka Canada’s executive director Barb Steele says the work she is doing “is transferable to many other issues and cultures” as well as “beyond the far north and very likely beyond Canada.”

But first she must find a way to make the organization sustainable for the long run. For now, she’s the lone full-time employee assisted by 20 part-timers, plus contractors. In December, the federal health minister lauded FOXY’s work with Indigenous teens experiencing dating violence and committed more than 1.2 million Canadian dollars in support — but that ends in 2021. Looking ahead, Lys says, “We’re adaptable and we’ll figure it out.” She’s already begun taking steps to think more strategically about FOXY’s longevity, Steele says, while getting support from senior Ashoka Fellows. “She’ll soon be mentoring others,” says Steele.

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People shaking up their fields, old dogs doing new tricks, and those who like to bring the ruckus.