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Up Here's Northerners of the Year: FOXY

Up Here's Northerners of the Year: FOXY

They lure teenagers with free pizza. They listen to them. Let them swear if they want to. They answer questions about sex, relationships, health and politics. And that's how Candice Lys and Nancy MacNeill are helping the North's youth face the world.
By Samia Madwar
Dec 01
From the December 2015 Issue

Think back to your teenage years. Or if you’re a teenager, think about how awesome your life is right now. Your body is morphing, you hate the world but don’t know why, and the only way to get your friends’ attention is through emojis and filtered selfies. And there are those first awkward, shy, foolhardy (okay, horrifying) forays into relationships, love and sex…

You’re grimacing. Don’t worry, we eventually—thankfully—grow out of those terrible teens. But then imagine you had someone you could approach with questions too embarrassing to ask your friends, and you’d rather die than ask your parents. Someone a little older and wiser, but totally laid back. 

That’s FOXY—Fostering Open eXpression among Youth. There’s the bubbly and gregarious Nancy MacNeill, who grew up in Yellowknife, and has a hand in organizing everything from giant music festivals to NWT Pride. And the quiet and scholarly Candice Lys, from Fort Smith, NWT, who’s dabbled in sociology and religious studies, conducted community health research projects in the South Pacific, and worked with a travelling group of peer sexual health educators during her undergrad. Together, they’ve built a network of women and girls—and a few men and boys—across the North who encourage teenagers to open up and be themselves. Because the North’s teens live in a part of the world caught between tradition and colonialism—with devastating consequences that include alarmingly high rates of depression, teen pregnancy, domestic abuse and suicide—a bit of self-discovery can work wonders.

A music session at one of the peer leader retreats at Blachford Lodge. Photo courtesy Laurie Sarkadi/FOXY

It’s quiet time. A room full of teenage girls. Each lie down on their own large sheet of black construction paper, striking a pose that makes them feel strong. Their FOXY leaders trace their outlines, then hand each girl a box of chalk. Over the next hour, MacNeill instructs them to draw their goals, their roots, and the path connecting the two; the parts of their body where they feel anxiety; and where in their body their power comes from.  

Then she asks them to draw where in their body they feel happiness, and one of the girls sets down her crayons. She’s stuck. Jessie Shaw, a FOXY peer leader, walks over and kneels down next to her. “Think about a time you had a crush on someone,” she says, “and they said they liked you back. How did that make you feel?”

The other girl’s face lights up. Without a word, she leans over her body map and picks up a crayon.

Originally a sexual health education program, over the past four years FOXY has grown into a movement that allows teenage girls, mostly between the ages of 13 and 17, to learn about themselves, about healthy relationships, body image, the consequences of shaming, how to get help when they feel alone, how to support friends going through tough times. They learn how to put their thoughts, feelings, doubts, goals, and motivations into songs, drawings, skits, and dances—worlds away from memorizing STI names from the cold pages of a textbook.

But it’s not frivolous. FOXY’s conception began with Lys’s master’s degree research in public health in 2009. She’d travelled to various communities in the Northwest Territories, interviewing residents about how they would have wanted to learn about sexual health in school. She quickly realized little had changed since the day her Grade 8 teacher plopped diagrams of male and female genitalia on the projector, made the students copy them down, then rolled in the VCR and played a video of a woman in labour. “We were just kind of looking at each other,” Lys remembers, laughing.

In 2011, Lys, started her PhD in public health at the University of Toronto, and paired up with MacNeill to launch a series of sex ed workshops for girls in communities around the NWT, collecting data on what teenage girls knew about sexual health as well as what they wanted to learn. They started visiting schools, offering day-long FOXY workshops and making their program a solid excuse to get out of math class. Plus—and this is key—they offered pizza for lunch. 

There was still one major hurdle: depending on the community, MacNeill says, the logistics of one visit can cost anywhere from $200 to $13,000. For some communities, “It would literally be cheaper to do FOXY in Bali than in the Northwest Territories,” she says. But those are the towns that need them the most. “You know those communities aren’t getting as much programming, they have high teacher turnover, they’re more isolated.”

They’d need a million bucks to make it work. Last December, they got just that: FOXY received the Arctic Inspiration Prize, which awards up to a million dollars every year for social programs in the North. (FOXY is the first organization to win the full amount.) Lys and MacNeill have pledged to use their winnings to take the program to Nunavut and the Yukon, and create a parallel FOXY for teenage boys.

They’ve already started, with scheduled visits to Nunavut this winter and the Yukon next spring, and they’re holding focus groups to figure out how the boys’ program should work.

The pair aren’t doing it alone. The thing is, as cool as MacNeill and Lys are, they didn’t grow up with social media, and they haven’t been teenagers in over a decade. That’s why they rely on peer leaders like 19-year-old Jessie Shaw to help translate their instructions into teen-speak. To remind them that having a relationship via Snapchat or Facebook Messenger is just as real as a face-to-face interaction these days. That although they’re able to access tons of information on sexual health, they’re also sharing their every moment online, growing up with a whole new definition of privacy.

For the past two summers, FOXY has held week-long peer leader retreats at a remote fishing lodge in the Northwest Territories. There, they rehearse skits, write songs, perform drum dances, tell stories, and practice photography. Often, it’s MacNeill leading the sessions, while Lys works behind the scenes, entering data. By the end of the week, some of the peer leaders get recruited to help out with the workshops throughout the following school year.

With those teenage sidekicks, years of research, and Lys and MacNeill’s non-judgmental, open-minded approach, FOXY is battling the immense challenges with suicide, depression, and substance and domestic abuse that single out the territories. 

FOXY girls celebrate at Parliament Hill. Photo courtesy Kayley Mackay

“It’s too much, and it’s too fast,” says Jane Dragon, pouring a cup of tea. She’s referring to the constant stream of apps, texts, GIFs, memes, and videos in teens’ lives. It’s an entirely different world from the one she grew up in. And for the FOXY girls, there’s something extremely comforting about that.

At 75, Dragon is FOXY’s resident elder. The girls call her Setsuné—“grandmother” in Chipewyan—and she calls them her Foxies. She’s a gentle role model, complementing MacNeill’s boundless energy and Lys’s academic cool. If any of the girls act up and the pair’s tough love doesn’t work, they turn to Setsuné.

“She’s the one who will take them aside and say, ‘You’re being a brat and you have to stop,’” says MacNeill. “If they start crying she’ll hug them and say, ‘You’re still being a brat, but I love you anyway.’”

Setsuné’s log house in Fort Smith is packed with taxidermied animals she and her late husband trapped for more than 20 years: marten, weasel, wolf, foxes, even a wolverine. She still traps today.

Jane Dragon, FOXY's resident elder. Photo by Samia Madwar

Cheeky and youthful, Setsuné remembers her teenage struggles. At age 13, she decided she’d had enough of her parents’ drinking—her family was living in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, at the time—and went to live with her grandparents in Fort Smith (she’s distantly related to Lys). She’d go back to her parents every summer and Christmas for a few more years until that, too, became unbearable. 

She grew close to her grandfather and confided in him; “My grandmother was too innocent,” she grins. Local Chipewyan women taught her how to sew and fish. Today, she’s one of the region’s foremost seamstresses. 

She overcame those troubled years. She was 16 when she met David Dragon, and 19 when she married him. They shared a life for 53 years, had six children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. And though David died three years ago, Jane still drives by the cemetery to bid him good night. “If anyone has half of what we had,” she says softly, “their life is perfect.”

 Nancy MacNeill and Karla Miller. Photo courtesy Fred Cattroll/FOXY

At the Arctic Inspiration Award ceremony last December, Makenzie Zouboules and Setsuné sat side by side. When Peter Mansbridge, who was part of the award’s selection committee, announced FOXY as the winner, they cheered, hugged, and joined MacNeill and Lys onstage. Zouboules, FOXY’s first ever peer leader, had written a speech in advance—just in case—and realized then she’d have to go through with a promise she’d made to herself.

“I’d said that if we win a million dollars, I might as well come out [as queer] in front of Peter Mansbridge and Tanya Tagaq,” she says. “It was strange because people stood up and started clapping.” 

Back home, the reaction was different. Her family was surprised, yet supportive. But since she’d been away at the University of Victoria, coming home to Yellowknife in the summer was at times jarring. People she hadn’t spoken to in years would suddenly resurface to ask her “what percent gay” she was. 

“There’s a discussion that isn’t happening in the North,” she says, “and a lot of that is stemming from students who are starting to find things out about themselves as young people and then come home and don’t have the support to be able to be who they are.” 

All this at a time when Zouboules was already under unimaginable stress. Last March, she reported a sexual assault. She doesn’t want to get into the details—it might
affect the ongoing investigation—but speaks openly about her experience. 

It was Lys who guided her through what to do: get a rape kit done; file an official police statement; see a counsellor. (She ended up having to wait nine months to get approval.) Her schoolwork lagged and she had to take time off her studies.

“What if I wasn’t able to wait nine months?” she says. “A lot of people can’t, and a lot of people give up.” Especially, she adds, if they’re 15 or 16, trying to navigate the system alone. 

A couple of weeks after we speak, I think of Zouboules as I sit in on a FOXY workshop. After taking a few minutes to pick out costumes from a tickle-trunk suitcase bursting with sparkly vests, rainbow coloured sunglasses, hats, feather boas and wigs, the girls are given scenarios to act out, with improvised endings. For instance: the case of a 22-year-old male coach who tries to kiss a 14-year-old student, or the case of a girl who gets bullied after an ex-boyfriend leaks her nude photos. 

When the FOXY facilitators casually mention these scenarios are based on true stories—that this has happened to them—heads turn and eyes widen. Even the shyest girls edge in a litte closer to the group. The final barrier melts away. They’re safe here.

 Lys has hundreds of these body maps from FOXY participants. Each one tells the story of a girl's roots, her hopes and dreams, her anxieties, and her power symbol. For many foxies, that's the best part of the day. Photo courtesy Kayley Mackay/FOXY

With wide eyes, Keith MacNeill—Nancy’s dad—and Ken Mackay survey the room. Twenty people have gathered at Fort Smith’s high school library to talk about building a FOXY program for boys, and the two of them are supposed to facilitate the discussion. Nancy’s dad is a filmmaker who’s lived in Nunavut and the NWT for decades; Mackay is a baker and carpenter in Yellowknife. Neither of them feel prepared for this, and it’s a tough crowd. 

Some of the people in the room have, through their work, witnessed repeated cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape. They’ve seen children cowering in the corner, watching the adults in their lives get arrested, or hauled into ambulances on stretchers. And now here they are, trying to figure out how to get 13- to 17-year-old boys to talk about their feelings. 

But over the next hour and a half, they start to remember their own childhoods: how some of them never had clear role models; how they were told not to cry if they fell down and hurt themselves; how they felt pressured into acting tough. How often they were told to “be a man.” 

I sit down with Grant Paziuk, a counsellor at Aurora College, afterwards. “It’s hard to be a boy,” he says. Before the Second World War, he says, gender roles were clearer; in the past few decades, they’ve fallen apart. While that’s a step forward in many ways, “there are less rites of passage for boys,” he says. Expectations aren’t clear. “It’s a mumbo jumbled map they look at.”

I ask him why he came to the focus group. “I have a seven-year-old daughter,” he says, simply. “If I could help in some way that may play out in the future of the seven-year-old boys who might be her suitors eventually…” he raises his bushy eyebrows: “Otherwise I’m gonna be big bad papa bear at the door.”

After clearing up, the FOXY gang grab dinner at their hotel for a debrief. Keith brings his hand to his forehead, dotted with beads of sweat, and looks at his daughter beside him. 

The focus groups will get easier, she assures him. On her other side, Ken nods, his face impassive. He’s quiet, and also a little distracted, looking down occasionally to text with his wife and kids in Yellowknife.

“Society puts pressure on women to fit a certain model,” Keith says, ruminating on what he’d heard that evening. “It puts the same pressure on men. And I think it’s equally damaging. You still see it in movies: dad goes off to war, leaves mom at home, and says to the seven-year-old boy, ‘Look after your mother.’”

What if boys learned instead that reaching out for help was not a sign of weakness? What if they didn’t deal with insecurity by taking out their pain on others? Would fewer children have to watch their parents fight or drink or succumb to drugs?

There are more ways for FOXY to grow, too. Together with a University of Toronto professor, Lys and Zouboules are working on a study of what queer youth in the NWT would like to see in their sexual health education, and are hoping to release it next summer.

As I leave the FOXY crew to head back to my bed and breakfast that evening, there’s one question I can’t get out of my mind. 

“How did you learn to like yourself?” One of the focus group men had asked the women in the room, in full sincerity. “Because a lot of boys don’t like themselves.” FOXY might be able to change that.