Skip to main content

Growing up, Alexa Lesperance saw low youth attendance at sexual health education events in her Naotkamegwanning First Nation in northwestern Ontario. So at 17 years old, she hatched a plan and, with NYSHN behind her, she made sex education sexy.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

This is one of four stories exploring culturally relevant First Nations sex education. Read the other stories:
-
A nature-based program provides a powerful First Nations metaphor for lessons on consent
-Indigenous languages recognize gender states not even named in English
-How the traditional indigenous practice of beading can lead to frank talk about sex

Growing up, Alexa Lesperance saw low youth attendance at sexual health education events in her Naotkamegwanning First Nation in northwestern Ontario. High rates of sexually transmitted diseases and infections, suicides and teen pregnancy characterize some Indigenous communities but, Lesperance discovered, there's often little to no engaging education to address the problem.

So at just 17 years old, she hatched a plan and, with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network behind her, she made sex education sexy. And so far, it's been the most popular project the Network has seen.

Story continues below advertisement

Lesperance's Sexy Health Carnival has been to over 30 Indigenous communities and draws anywhere from 80 to 1,200 people.

At a carnival in Naotkamegwanning First Nation, a young Anishinaabe mom pushes a stroller through a gymnasium packed with tables cloaked in bright cloths and giant colorful displays behind them. Teens around her giggle as they compete for prizes. She's smiling as she makes her way to a booth that offers games and space for little ones while the parents walk freely around. Then she heads over to a red display and a sign posing the question, "How can you protect yourself?" Underneath that is another sign reading, "Our culture is strong; break the silence, talk about HIV."

"Learning should be pleasurable. It's not just Sexual Health 101, like 'This is how you put on a condom,'" Lesperance says from Ottawa, where she attends Carleton University with the goal of attending medical school to become a health practitioner providing culturally safe care for her nation.

For young people who have gone through standard sex ed in high school, where putting a condom on a banana is boilerplate, the Sexy Health Carnival is a game changer. It may look like just a lively trade expo of sorts to adults looking in, but its engaging questions and disarming activities make it magnetic to youth.

An Indigenous teen throws a dart at a wall of balloons and when a red one pops, a card inside is revealed with a question he must answer – "True or false, is oral sex risk free?" Another balloon bursts, revealing another question – "Can you get HIV from a toilet seat?" For Alexa, it is all part of making awkward and uncomfortable subjects more approachable, and fun.

"I wanted to create a space where young people could teach each other and talk about the real hard stuff but also celebrate our strengths and learn in fun, non-shaming, interactive ways."

At another table, a girl spins a small prize wheel with numbered sections. The clicker lands on the number four, corresponding to an activity she must do. The person behind the table reads out the instruction: "Name one thing you are proud of in your culture."

Story continues below advertisement

For Lesperance, learning about culture goes hand in hand with knowledge about sexual health and health in general. In other activities, youth are asked to say "sex" or name body parts in their Indigenous language.

"If they can reclaim language, then they can also reclaim spaces, their homes, and their bodies," Lesperance said. "These little things can actually lead to decreases of shame in culture and the body. They can also lead to important conversations about consent."

Lesperance wrangled her entire family – her siblings and her mom – and then her community to create the Sexy Health Carnival. She wanted to make it inclusive not just to youth, but all members of the community. So at every SHC, there are activities for all ages – for grandparents, kids, babies, moms and dads, and all ages attend. "Healthy relationships were broken down and taken away for centuries, I think trying to navigate and provide safe space is really a big step," she says.

Reflecting back, Lesperance says she learned that at the heart of what she was doing was providing young people with the knowledge they needed to make informed decisions, something she says her ancestors taught her community to do well.

"I've seen the real impact of what happens when we shame those in our community, and the difference it makes when we support them, so I guess another part of why I was inspired to make the Carnival was to create this as a tool for all Native youth, so that we could spread the love and the care a little further."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.