Social media lit up with debate following an August 30 Twitter post by Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come calling the Quebec government’s plan to impose a “no-exceptions” sex-education curriculum at some of its schools “disgusting.” But many of those responding to Coon Come seemed to be missing the implication of his comments – that Eeyou Istchee has the right to develop and implement a Cree-specific curriculum.

coon come bigWhile new sex-ed curriculum in Ontario sparked protest this past year from conservative groups, it was Crees in general who began to voice worries that Quebec’s program would impose a one-culture-fits-all program that threatened the existing specialized Eeyou program on sexuality and intimate relations.

That curriculum, called Chii kayeh iyaakwaamiih (“You too, be careful”), was first put into effect nearly a decade ago, and is delivered to high school students by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) in cooperation with the Cree School Board.

“We have had a program around healthy relationships and healthy sexuality aimed at secondary students – the initial implementation of that began back in 2006-2007,” said Dr. Robert Carlin, Director of the CBHSSJB’s Regional Public Health Department. “We don’t have plans to simply take a program from elsewhere and adopt it, or put it into our own programming. We’ve put in quite a bit of work in terms of consultation with the communities to develop the program that we have, which is given to early secondary students.”

The Chii Kayeh program was developed out of concern over increased rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies among young people.

“Obviously sexual health extends well beyond just infections,” said Carlin. “What they’re learning in the current program is connecting to Cree values and culture, having personal goals and self-esteem, being assertive and resisting peer pressure, problem solving, waiting until later to have sex, using a condom if they’re sexually active, sharing with others, and working as a team. That’s the program that’s been developed to date.”

Carlin explains that the program is also a means of continuing an ongoing process of understanding “the cultural elements of intimate relations and sexuality” – those aspects that are specific to Cree history, culture and traditions.

“Our public health department also recognizes the role of the Nishiyuu [Miyupimaatisiiun Department] within the Health Board, who are responsible for traditional approaches,” he said. “If there are activities they feel they should be involved in, related to sexuality, and similarly with consultation with Elders, we’ll adapt our programming and planning according to those needs.”

For those reasons, Carlin said he does not see the news about Quebec’s sex-ed curriculum having much impact on Cree schools.

“I hope the provincial program will also follow a public health approach of evaluating and adapting programs to meet the need of the population they serve,” he said. “But really, we will continue to improve on this school-based program regionally.”

One goal of the program, he said, was to evaluate which approaches were successful for other communities – specifically Aboriginal communities, but also non-Aboriginal communities. All successes elsewhere offer potential benefits by example that can be brought back to serve programs in the Cree Nation.

“The basis of our programs is really to make sure they’re rooted in the community, that they have support of the CBHSSJB, and in this case also the Cree School Board,” said Carlin. “That’s always been our focus. So this conversation that started [about Quebec’s implementation of a mandatory sex-ed curriculum] – we didn’t see it was directed at the [Chii Kayeh] program.”