U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

Students win Arctic Inspiration Prize for sex ed program in Northwest Territories

FOXY uses music, photography, traditional arts to inform and empower northern youth

FOXY celebrates with the award cheque on Parliament Hill (all photos courtesy Candice Lys)

A sexual health education program led by University of Toronto PhD students has received the Arctic Inspiration Prize – worth $1 million – at an Ottawa gala on December 11.

FOXY, which stands for Fostering Open eXpression among Youth, is an arts-based sexual health education program that seeks to empower young women living in northern Canada, helping them develop leadership and confidence through photography, music and other traditional arts.

FOXY is the brainchild of Candice Lys, who devised the program as an antidote to the inadequate sexual education she received as a teen growing up in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories (NWT). Lys is now a PhD candidate at U of T's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“The sexual health of northern youth is a serious public health concern, with extremely high rates of sexually-transmitted infections, adolescent pregnancy and sexual violence across the NWT, Nunavut and Yukon,” Lys said in an interview with Nunatsiaq Online.

“We are thrilled to receive this prestigious prize that will support our team of youth, elders, educators, community-based researchers and artists to deliver sexual health education that is relevant and accessible to youth of all genders, in all three territories.

FOXY began as Lys’ PhD research project in collaboration with Gwen Healey. Both students grew up in northern Canada and both are now in the division of social and behavioural health sciences at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

In partnership with Carmen Logie, assistant professor in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, the program recently expanded its scope to better serve LGBTQ youth.

FOXY is now a non-profit organization led by Lys as executive director that has reached more than 500 youth through workshops with young people in 20 communities across NWT as well as two peer retreats that earn teens up to four high school credits. (Below, teens at a FOXY retreat take part in a drum circle.)

Dionne Gesink, who supervises Lys and Healey, says she is overjoyed with the recognition of FOXY and Lys’ accomplishments.

“FOXY is a creative, holistic and fun sexual health program with the potential to do a lot of good,” said Gesink, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “I’m thrilled and tremendously proud of the program and the positive impact that it’s having on young women living in northern communities.”

photo of two FOXY participants near arctic oceanThe Arctic Inspiration Prize was founded in 2012 by Arnold Witzig and Sima Sharifi, founders of the S. and A. Inspiration Foundation; FOXY is the first project to be awarded the entire $1-million prize. 

Lys plans to use the prize to expand FOXY into communities across all three territories and to include a parallel program for young men that is led by a team of male facilitators from the North.

“I always knew that FOXY was a million-dollar idea,” Lys told CBC News. 

The NWT government issued a statement congratulating FOXY and its participants.

“FOXY’s unique approach to participatory action research brings young women together as peers to talk about their experiences and the challenges they face growing up in small Northern communities, and turns that real-life knowledge into practical solutions that are in touch with Northern realities,” said Premier Bob McLeod, Minister Responsible for Women.

“I am pleased to see the value of this approach and the knowledge it can contribute to the understanding of life in the North recognized on a national level.”

Read more about FOXY at arcticfoxy.com. Read the CBC story on FOXY

Nicole Bodnar is a writer with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.