Workshop aims to bring respect to sexual health

Slave River Journal, April 3, 2012

A two-day workshop in Yellowknife last week aimed to arm educators with tools they need to better instruct youth about sexual health and help them make informed, healthy choices. NWT Health and Social Services unveiled a six-part lesson plan kit that educators and nurses across the territory will use to complement the existing high school health curriculum.

As part of the Respect Yourself campaign, now three years running, the sexual health lesson plan kit was developed in conjunction with the department ofEducation, Culture and Employment.

Forty educators and nurses converged on Yellowknife to learn about the new kit and get tips on how to teach sexual health. ”A lot of people have a little difficulty in comfort level teaching about healthy sexuality and about STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and sex in general,” said Wanda White, a communicable disease consultant with Health and Social Services.

The lesson plan kit is the result of two years of work with NWT teachers, and can be viewed at

White said the kit was in need of an update. The previous territorial sexual health curriculum dated back to the early 1990s, focussing mostly on the dangers ofHlV, and barely covered overall sexual health and making healthy choices.

The Respect Yourself lesson plan kit complements the NWT’s sexual health promotions of the last three years. The government’s efforts have often focused on reducing STIs, but the kit goes beyond that. Although sex educator and media personality Sue Johanson recently criticized Canada as a whole for its high school sex education initiatives while speaking at the University of Calgary, she was particularly critical of the NWT. However, White said sexual health awareness initiatives have actually caused a reduction in STIs in the territory. A report detailing STI rates is expected in mid-April.

“We’re actually seeing our STI rates drop, so we know that these initiatives are effective,” White said.

The kit is broken up into six modules covering basic facts about sex and sexual health, the use of contraceptives, STI prevention and more. The goal was to develop a sexual health curriculum providing concrete information that’s easy to teach.

“I think you have to be very current. I think you need to know what’s going on inthe community. I think you have to listen and be. respectful,” White said.

As the lesson kit is rolled out, a pilot project also aimed at helping youth make good sexual health and relationship choices is winding its way through the territory. Currently running under the working title Promoting Sexual Health and Healthy Relationships through Youth-led Drama, Role-Playing, and Vignettes, the workshop is being tested in high schools in Hay River, Fort Smith, Yellowknife and Inuvik before being finalized for wider usage in the school system.

Candice Lys, project lead from the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research (lCHR) in Yellowknife and a PhD candidate at the University ofToronto, and project coordinator Nancy MacNeill also attended the lesson kit workshop.

“I did find it quite useful, actually. There was a lot of information not necessarily related to what we’re doing here with the drama workshops, but how to facilitate talking about and educating youth. It was helpful,” Lys said.

The ICHR project helps youth understand sexual health and healthy relationships using an art and drama approach. Youth develop body maps, which begin as the tracing of the individual’s body on a piece of paper, before going through a series of guided visualizations about their past, present and future, MacNeill explained. It helps them consider their priorities and what they hope to do in life to make them feel powerful and make good decisions.

“It was really fun because we got to write our feelings down and we got to figure out who we really were artistically,” said Victoria Heron, a student at P. W. Kaeser High School in Fort Smith.

Fellow student Katelynn Holtorf echoed Heron’s comments, saying it was fun because they weren’t faced with rules imposed by others, and got to make up their own rules for the workshop.

Sexual health initiatives are not unopposed. When teaching sexual health in middle school, a notification goes to parents, who decide if their children will participate. White said few parents exclude their children, but it does happen. There are also ongoing challenges in the Catholic school system regarding limits on what can be taught to students about sex and sexual health, she said.