When it comes to dispensing information on sexuality and sexual health to the youth of the Cree Nation, much like the rest of the province, there have been some major issues in regards to sex education within the school systems.

Previously sex education was taught as a part of moral and religious instruction within high schools, but since those programs were eliminated as part of education reform a few years ago, it has not been mandatory for schools to offer the instruction. Teachers who felt comfortable enough with the subject matter and wished to teach it did, those who did not didn’t and there has been no formal curriculum for the program in some time. What the government is presently proposing is to include sex education as part of either a new “ethics” course that is slated to replace Moral and Religious Education. It was also proposed as part of a health program in high schools that fits in with physical education.

We have got very concrete research in place that talks about how comprehensive sex education does reduce the likelihood of teen pregnancy and STIs and HIV.

Stephanie Mitelman is a sexuality educator and a Canadian certified family educator who has done consultation work for the Cree School Board and the Ministry of Education with regards to sex education.

“There is a reform in place for Quebec and it that says that sex should be taught from a number of different perspectives,” said Mitelman. “The concept of it is quite nice and quite utopic but the delivery of it and the access to resources, materials and training that the government has put in has really set everyone up to fail. They have not trained anyone properly, they haven’t given any money to resources, none of that. We had a system before where some people were semi-trained to do this and they were doing it and now we have a system where there is no understanding as to who is supposed to do the sex education, how and when.”

According to Mitelman, it is the principal’s responsibility to delegate who is going to teach what and to whom, but most principals are not even aware that it is their responsibility to delegate.

When sex education does not happen amongst youth or when youth are presented with information that could be deemed as incomplete because the instructor was not comfortable with the subject matter or it went against their personal beliefs, the youth lose out.

In the United States the “abstinence until marriage,” sexual education program has been favoured over a more global approach as a result of federal government funding initiatives.

The program excludes all other types of sexual and reproductive health education, particularly regarding birth control and safer sex. Though the debate has raged as to whether the abstinence programs are a contributing factor, the birth rate rose by 3 per cent between 2005 and 2006 among 15-to-19-year-olds, after plummeting 34 per cent between 1991 and 2005, according to the National Centre for Health Statistics.

This was the first time that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate had risen in 15 years. Previously the public health program to combat teen pregnancy had been considered a success story. Though there is no concrete evidence as to whether the American abstinence programs have directly contributed to the rise in the teen pregnancies, as of 2008, 16 states in the US have rejected the congressional funding for abstinence only education. The US spends $176 million annually funding abstinence education but states that accept the funds are in turn prohibited from teaching any other form of contraception within the schools.

“We have got very concrete research in place that talks about how comprehensive sex education does reduce the likelihood of teen pregnancy and STIs and HIV” said Mitelman. “We know that but the question becomes how do we deliver comprehensive sex education when you live within a community or society that does not. If we should have sex education, well, then we need to pool money into it, we need to train people properly and we need to give teachers the tools and the materials that they need to deliver this.”

For more information on the sex education programs that Stephanie Mitelman has developed for schools, teachers, nurses and specifically for First Nation communities, go to http://sexpressions.ca

There is good news for both the Cree communities and the rest of the province’s school-aged youth as a new pilot project that is undergoing trials in high schools in Waswanipi and Waskaganish could change the face of sex education in Quebec.

The Chi kayeh Program was co-authored by the Cree Health Board’s own Marlene Beaulieu, who is in charge for communications for the Cree Board of Health and is their School Health Program Officer along with Francoise Caron, a sexologist. The program consists of a one-year, two-credit course. In the pilot project it has been taught by trained secondary three and four homeroom teachers.

The program consists of a teacher’s guide that includes lesson plans, power-point presentations, overheads and various other teaching materials along with a colour textbook. The textbook itself is a first in the province. According to Beaulieu, so far the program has had an overwhelmingly positive response from the teachers, students and parents in the communities and the program could be implemented in all of the communities as early as fall 2008 for those schools that want it.