Will revamping the sex-ed program change the alarming stats?


It was just a few months ago that several health professionals from the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay were talking about how sex education needed to be expanded to an even younger clientele in the communities as a means of combating Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

These professionals had noticed that there were an increasing number of pregnant teenagers continuing to drink simply because they didn’t know that they were pregnant.

Many of these health workers suggested that the youth in the Cree communities should be educated about sex at a younger age. They were discovering that the youth were engaging with drugs, alcohol and sexual activity at a much younger age.

Public Health’s Françoise Caron is in charge of Chii kayeh iyaakwaamiih program, the Cree Nation’s healthy sexuality and relationship program that has been tailor-made for the Crees through the school board, health board and community consultations. First introduced to Secondary 3 students in 2007-2008, the program is not always offered in every community, which means some students are not receiving any sex education whatsoever, Caron warned.

“Our problem is that because the program is changing, schools are finding it more difficult to find the space for the entire program and so it is spread over the whole year. Every year we see at least one or two schools not offering the program,” said Caron.

Since the Cree School Board is revamping a number of the courses offered into the provincially mandated Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC), it has been suggested that instead of offering the Chii kayeh program as a one-year course in Sec 3, it be broken up in three parts and given in Sec 1, 2 and 3.

According to Caron, the Cree School Board is looking at where the course could be offered and by which departments for the first two years. Only in the third year would Sec 3 students be exposed to issues such as contraception and have to work on a special project.

“The topics covered in the Chii kayeh program could be done in Cree or possibly covered in a French or English course or science class. We are talking about 12 lessons per year,” said Caron.

While the content would be revamped so that it could be delivered on a more general level, the idea is to give enough information to help arm the youth in trying to turn around some alarming statistics concerning teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

According to Caron, teen pregnancy rates are triple the Quebec average and STI rates continue to climb and are at an all-time high of six times the provincial average. At that, the STIs are infecting youth as young as 14.

Unlike the rest of Quebec there is a high re-infection rate for certain STIs, where an individual will receive treatment but then returns to the clinic with the same STI.

“Primarily we are talking about chlamydia, though there is more gonorrhea now than before. The problem with chlamydia is that if it goes untreated there are serious health consequences. You can get a chronic condition and face infertility. Your fallopian tubes can also become blocked because of the scarring. So we want to test and treat people and prevent this from happening,” said Caron.

The Chii kayeh program was created with these issues in mind and to help youth look at these issues from a number of different perspectives.

While on one hand the program is geared to helping students gain more self-esteem, it also wants them to think about themselves in the future. Research has shown that the greater the vision of the future a youth possesses, the less likely they are to get pregnant. This program actually gets the youth to focus on those particular goals as a means of prevention.

At the same time, Caron said the program takes reality into perspective. So, while there is a focus on why it is advantageous to put off engaging in sexual activity and the essentials of using birth control, it also addresses why teens experience difficulty in these areas.

Students are given a strong dose of reality as part of the lessons on teen pregnancy.

“In one of our activities they can see how their lives would change as they compare what they regularly do during the day with what it would be like as a young couple with a baby.

“They get to see how they don’t even have time to take a shower. They look at the costs of becoming a new parent and making a budget for that by looking up all of the items they would need for the first year of a baby’s life,” said Caron.

There are also lessons on other specific issues such as FASD, but Caron said the information is kept very general so they do not to stigmatize anyone who may have it.

In terms of bringing this program to a younger audience, the information concerning condoms and birth control would be more generalized but it would offer the opportunity for anyone who wishes to learn more about a specific aspect of birth control to contact the local clinic or school nurse.

When students finally take the third year of the program, it would then become more detailed.

“What is known is that for prevention programs of this type to be effective, you want to reach the youth before they become sexually active,” said Caron.

Ideally, Public Health is hoping to foster an environment that seeks to support a strong sex-ed program put together with easy access to condoms, confidential access to birth control as well as strong parental support.

At press time, the Health Board was still waiting on word from the School Board as to whether or not the program would see a three-year revamping or remain as a one-year program for Sec 3s only.