Sexual, emotional, and mental well-being can be a difficult subject to broach with adolescents. For parents and caregivers, it can be tricky to know when and what to bring up, and for youth, it’s hard to not feel awkward.
That is, of course, unless you attend Sex-a-palooza, an all-day education event for high schoolers that aims to break down stigma and awkwardness to better equip young people to stay safe.
“We’ve gotten really good feedback in terms of the information that we’re giving, but also the fact that it’s a little bit of fun,” said Christine Taylor, a prevention worker in promotion and education at Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS). “We’re talking about sex and drugs and alcohol. Even though we know the legal age of alcohol and cannabis use is 18, we realize that young people experiment and use these substances as well.”
KSCS hosted its annual sexual health fair at Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) on Wednesday, with a variety of booths set up in the gym for students to visit. Students visited in designated slots with their grades, and also were able to attend during an open lunch hour.
“I think it’s good, because if I’m going to be learning about this, I don’t want to be treated like a little kid,” said Evangelina Law, a grade-seven student who attended the event. “I think it’s really fun, and it’s really important that we know this stuff. But I really like that they put it in a fun way.”
Students learned about the importance of maintaining overall well-being, and how they can do that within the community.
“Culture and language is a buffer for a lot of health and social issues. Science is just catching up with Indigenous knowledge,” said Mary McComber, who works for the Shakotiia’takéhnhas Tsi Niionkwarihò:ten Program.
At the program’s booth, students discussed how to nurture one’s spirit, indicators of health and well-being, traditional medicine, and how language revitalization can positively impact community health.
“A lot of ceremonies and healing practices are time-tested,” McComber said. “Because of colonization, assimilation, we’ve lost a lot. We’re picking up the pieces, putting it all back together again. We’re bringing life back into it.”
Booths also made students aware of resources that they could access should they find themselves in an unsafe situation. Chantal Robitaille and Dr. Dahlia Tawfik were in attendance from CALACS, an organization helping victims of sexual assault.
“We have a pinwheel that lands on questions like what are the different forms of sexual violence, who can they turn to, what resources are available to them,” Robitaille said. “It’s a way to raise awareness with students, it’s really important we have these conversations early.”
Another booth at the fair was draped in rainbow flags, a place for students to learn more about the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think it’s amazing that we have the space to do this with the youth,” said Dawson Horne, a primary prevention worker at KSCS. “I’m actually quite surprised that there were a couple of students who knew the answers dead on. That was really nice to hear, because it means they’re having these conversations outside of this event.”
Horne explained that the booth focused on providing students with the information they need to make informed decisions about their sexual health.
“Along with being healthy in your sex life, it’s about being safe in your sex life,” he said. “We talked about some medication, some prevention tools to help prevent the spread of diseases, we talked about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). We’re just opening the conversation to these students and telling them it’s okay to talk about.”
Most booths incorporated a game to help students engage. At the Kahnawake Youth Center (KYC) booth, students played cornhole and asked questions that matched the topic assigned to the hole they landed the beanbag in.
“All these topics are very relevant to the teen population especially, because there’s puberty, they’re exploring, they’re trying to figure out who they are, they have a lot of questions about bodily changes and the change in mindset,” said Lylee Horn, who made things even more fun for student attendees by donning a full-body banana costume. “It’s really important that they’re properly informed.”
It’s also important that all students have a place to ask these questions, which makes school the perfect setting to reach the entire youth community.
“It’s an outlet,” said Cheyanne McComber, community events coordinator at KYC. “Maybe at home they can’t express themselves or talk about it. This is a great way for them to open up.”
Iakohatiio Kirby, also in grade seven, was impressed with the booths at the fair. This was her first year attending the event.
“It’s pretty cool and really educational. It’s good to know for the future,” she said. “And I’d definitely say it’s better than the internet.”
Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door, and was previously an Editor at the McGill Daily. She has also reported on harm reduction and Indigenous issues for the Montreal Gazette, the Hoser, the Rover, and more.