$1 million for sexual health won’t save the world but will save lives

On EDGE: Opinion

Every now and again the universe lines up in a way that fills me with such optimism I think I will burst.

Last night the universe said to me: ‘I know you’re discouraged by the report on CIA torture (an eye for an eye will make the world blind, as Gandhi said) and I know you weep each time a young Aboriginal girl makes headlines for her ungodly mistreatment (Brandy Vittrekwa, 17-year-old Gwich’in student, found murdered on a walking trail in Whitehorse Monday), and I won’t even get you started on Harper; but I need to tell you, FOXY is getting a million dollars! Right now! In Ottawa!

A million dollars to Fostering Open eXpression among Youth (FOXY), a revolutionary sex-ed program started for girls in the NWT as the brainchild of PhD candidate Candice Lys of Yellowknife, will not save the world. But I guarantee you it will save lives.

A distinguished six-person selection committee unanimously awarded the entire $1 million Arctic Inspiration Prize to FOXY out of four projects vying for the cash. Founded in 2012 by Arnold Witzig and Sima Sharifi, the prize is bestowed to teams working on important issues in the Canadian Arctic in the fields of education, human health and social-cultural issues.

No more pressing issue

I would argue there is scarcely a more pressing issue than sexual health facing all three northern territories – but the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, in particular, lead the country in every unsavoury statistic you can think of, from sexually-transmitted infection rates, addictions, sexual assault, and, inextricably tied up in all of that, suicide.

With the money literally now in her pocket – Lys got a cheque for the full amount last night and is free to invest, distribute, hire and expand however she sees fit – FOXY’s founder has committed to bringing its teen-informed-and-led, frank and practical, arts-based sexual health programming into adjoining northern territories, and most importantly, to boys.

Lys conceived the program in 2011 with her friend and now project coordinator, the frenetic Nancy MacNeill, as a means of giving practical advice that teens weren’t getting in school about sexual health, sexuality and relationships. They developed it through trial and error at schools across the NWT, quickly discerning that in order to be successful, teens had to be involved every step of the way. They train peer leaders to travel with them, delivering information and inviting self-exploration through drama, photography, music, video and traditional crafts. The end goal is boosting teens’ self-esteem and empowering them to be able to assert themselves in dicey situations and make healthy, sound choices.

Break the cycle of dysfunction

Naturally, arming boys with the same sense of self-worth, respect and role models will complete the circle and, I anticipate, help break the ugly cycle of sexual dysfunction so pervasive in the North; where our tiny populations have been over-burdened by colonial legacies, such as residential school abuse, systemic racism, and, in Nunavut, the long-reaching impacts of convicted sex offender Ed Horne (who, astonishingly, 85 men have said sexually abused them in the ‘70s and ‘80s when he was their public school teacher or principal).

I see FOXY as part of the long game. It’s a seed right now that has the potential to root itself in our youth and grow and spread, and through them, attract light into the dark corners.

Take FOXY country-wide, into every classroom, into every teenager’s youthful, hormone-drenched brain, and it will help spawn healthy fathers and mothers and families for the future.

Blow up stereotypes

Using art to teach self-worth and artists to teach empathy, blowing up sexist and racist stereotypes, talking honestly about sexuality in a way that does not shame…this is what FOXY can do for youth, not just in the North, but everywhere.

It’s not just me, I know Lys and MacNeill have set their sights on national expansion, and if given the financial means, global domination. I’ve heard MacNeill speak about the acute needs of African men and women, who live in countries ravaged by AIDS and where rape is a weapon of war. It’s time to stop the madness, time to get FOXY.

These two independent women – their non-profit organization unhampered by political whims or bureaucratic hamstringing – have the energy and drive to make it happen. They’re making a difference.

Lys, still starry-eyed, is already plotting how to leverage last night’s cash bonanza into $10 million over the next two years to bring FOXY to all kids who need it.

She will need help, but she can do it. I’m optimistic.

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