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Sexual health more than just about sex
Community tries to crack bad stats

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 5, 2015

In Arviat, youth are learning what sexual health means, and it means way more than sex.

NNSL photo/graphic

Alissa Matoo, right, interviews Kesha Karetak, left, and Tyra Suluk on what they know about sexual health. - photo courtesy of Jessica Kwan

"Sexual health, according to the World Health Organization, is not just the absence of diseases," says Jessica Kwan, a practicum student from the University Of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Kwan has been working with an advisory group in the community since May and will complete her time in Arviat in August.

"It has a lot to do with physical health, mental health, emotional health and spiritual health. It has a lot to do with healthy relationships. It all starts with respect and communication, and listening to your partner. It has a lot to do with prevention, how to protect yourself before you get a sexually transmitted infection."

Deborah Viel, a nurse, is the supervisor of community public health nursing in Arviat.

Viel explains that the work Kwan is doing this summer is based on the work of another student who visited the community.

"Gregory Corosky is a master's student from Norway who visited Arviat to listen to the youth's thoughts about sexual health," says Viel. "Gregory heard from youth that they are really interested to learn about sexual health. Arviat has a young and growing population including some mega-talented youth. Jessica is working with youth, elders and the community in a project that combines the interest and talent of Arviat youth into an exciting, fun, informative opportunity to educate the community about sexual health."

To get conversation going about sexual health in a comfortable and safe way, the approach of the project taking place this summer is holistic, culturally sensitive and relevant to the community.

"Jessica has been fantastic. She's gotten to know a lot of people. She's had a really great engagement with the them," says Viel.

As Kwan explains, and as Nunavummiut well know, the rates of sexually transmitted infections in Nunavut are disproportionately higher as compared to the rest of Canada. Teenaged pregnancies are five times the national average and sexual assault crimes are grossly under-reported.

"One of the reasons why some of the public health initiatives that have taken place in Nunavut haven't been effective is because they haven't been culturally relevant and appropriate to the community," says Kwan.

As an example, Kwan point to the GN's I Respect Myself website.

"It hasn't been effective in this community and I think one of the reasons is that there's not a consistent access to Internet," she says, adding that, especially as she has seen in Arviat, social interaction is important and a website doesn't offer that.

"You have to have a person on the ground, actually talking to the youth and community members to actually let them know what you're doing. It has to be a very personal and intimate building of a relationship, building a rapport. The website is very impersonal."

So in every day settings in Arviat, like cooking together, eating together and chatting with elders, youth learn how to discuss these issues twice a week in the evenings.

The elders speak about traditional practices and values related to family planning and child rearing.

"Louie Angolik is one of the elders in the community who is very respected and he's been doing talks like these before in other groups. One of the things he's mentioned is that if he was a young person now he would want to be using condoms."

Kwan says the feedback from the youth indicate they really enjoy hearing the elders talk.

"That's something that's very valued. So we've been incorporating elders in every workshop. I think it's very good for them to hear personal stories. The traditional knowledge is really quite important."

The second part of the summer's project is a film production with the Arviat Film Society (AFS).

"I'm working closely with the Arviat Film Society. A lot of kids involved in the workshops are also involved in AFS. We've been doing interviews with community members, going out and filming them.

"They've been coming up with questions and interviewing community members and asking them what they know about sexual health. So with that we're trying to increase awareness and educate the community about some of the stuff that's going on."

The third part of the summer sexual health project is to screen the production at a community event and to have a panel discussion for youth to tell the community what they learned and to receive any feedback the community might have.

One of the major goals of the project is to get the conversation started around such a taboo issue.

She hopes youth will take on leadership and peer mentorship roles in the future.

"They have a lot of impact on adolescent sexual health beliefs and behaviours."

Viel says there's lots of existing groups that work with young people in the community, such as a leadership resiliency program, a girls' group that meets twice a week and the Arviat Film Society.

"So there's lots of opportunity to plug in with people. There's lots of interest in the topic of sexual health, learning more about it and interacting with people. I'm hoping that the community health representative and myself can engage with some of those groups, now that we know there's an interest," Viel said.

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