Learning Sex Ed Through Art

How Nunavut's Timiga, Ikumajuq became the most exceptional sex-ed program in Canada

red and black paint streaks on a yellow backdrop
Natalie Vineberg/The Walrus

It’s lunchtime in Iqaluit, cold and crisp but sunny. A group of grade nines and tens prowl the halls of Inuksuk High School, grunting as they bend and stretch their limbs. Their faces are streaked with red and black paint, eyes wide and twinkling, cheeks puffed. They stop only when they’ve reached the principal’s office and rap on the door. When the principal turns to look, they pull faces, wiggle their ears, point and laugh, teasing him as they perform their own version of uaajeerneq—Greenlandic mask dancing—an art form they’ve just learned from Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. The principal, as Williamson Bathory recalls, usually smiles back; he’s used to these shenanigans, the spillover of excitement from Timiga, Ikumajuq, an arts-based sexual-education program that is arguably the most exceptional in the country.

Nunavut has a thriving arts community, which includes everyone from carvers and clothing designers to musicians and actors. The majority of these artists are Inuit, and their work reflects the traditions and histories of their land and culture. This is especially true for Iqaluit-based performers Williamson Bathory, a Greenlandic mask dancer, spoken-word artist, and actor, and Sylvia Cloutier, a throat singer, director, and producer. Together, they helped design Timiga, Ikumajuq, which means “my body, light within” in Inuktitut, bringing Inuit arts, such as mask dancing and throat singing, to sexual education.

The seed for a sexual-education program rooted in performing arts was planted nearly ten years ago when Gwen Healey was completing her doctoral thesis. Healey was researching Inuit family perspectives on sexual health in Nunavut when she cofounded the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre (QHRC) in Iqaluit with the late Andrew Tagak Senior, who worked in public health. The results of her research highlighted, among other findings, a gap in culturally relevant, trauma-informed, holistic sexual-health programming in the territory.

“A lot of the public-health discourse around young people and sex doesn’t talk about love or that emotional connection that young people are making at this time in their lives,” Healey explains. “It’s really a conversation that’s dominated by discussions about risk. You’re at risk of a [sexually transmitted infection (STI)], you’re at risk of sexual violence, you’re at risk of an unwanted pregnancy. And so your decisions should be focused around risk.”

Not that there isn’t a role for prevention-based tactics and a real need for them: Nunavut consistently reports the highest rates of STIs of any province or territory, rates that are often more than ten times that of the country as a whole. But Healey, who was born and raised in Iqaluit, wanted to create something that took a more positive, modern approach to sex ed—one that was led by young people. And to ensure the program drew on and celebrated Inuit cultural perspectives on sexual health, she turned to the arts community.

Timiga, Ikumajuq is now a full-day workshop that, for the last seven years, has been delivered solely at Inuksuk High School but has recently been exported to other Nunavut communities at the request of local schools. The program incorporates several creative outlets, including drum dancing and theatre. But it is clear to QHRC staff that Williamson Bathory’s session on uaajeerneq has the strongest influence on even the most reticent kids.

“You can see some that might have been really shy,” says Ceporah Mearns, early childhood education and curriculum-development researcher at QHRC. But, as the teens immerse themselves in uajeerneq, they “really kind of come out and become the monster.”

Uaajeerneq (pronounced ooaah-yernerk) is an art form created by Greenlandic Inuit that Williamson Bathory consistently describes as idiosyncratic, honing in on the inherent uniqueness of each performer’s interpretation, beginning with the masks they create. Dancers luridly smear on face paint, blood red and soot black, on the cheeks, forehead, and chin. The colours are meaningful: black stands for magic and the unknown; red signifies female genitalia. Line patterns carved with fingers and nails, stripes of skin framing the fresh pigment, represent the bones of the ancestors. Wooden balls or a stick are inserted into the mouth—talk about symbolism—to puff out the cheeks and contort the face into a sneer. Or is it a smile? Whether sneering or jeering, the dancer transforms their body in a series of big and small movements and contortions. At once fearful, funny, and flirtatious, uaajeerneq is a fitting performance to symbolize and celebrate sex.

“The mask dance teaches you how to be able to deal with your fears,” Williamson Bathory explains. “It’s sexual because it’s a celebration of Inuit sexuality. It is our art form and it is such an empowering one.” She pauses to cradle her cell phone with one shoulder, a sleeping baby murmuring against the other. She’s calling from the office of Qaggiavuut, a performing-arts collective in Iqaluit, where she serves as artistic director; the child she holds is the firstborn of one of her coworkers.

Williamson Bathory believes uaajeerneq gives the youth an “anarchic space” in which “all the stereotypes that girls have of boys, that boys have of girls, all the expectations they have in terms of what they are supposed to be able to do sexually as young people, those are lifted.”

“Plus, they’re wearing masks,” she adds. “So they can be extra themselves, or they can be extra out of themselves. It has that magical effect on them.”

Timiga, Ikumajuq is now co-delivered by QHRC and Qaggiavuut, which, after eight years as a volunteer-run group, has become a funded organization—one of its projects was a recipient of the Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2016, and Qaggiavuut has since launched a fundraising campaign to continue its work. Qaggiavuut’s mandate is to strengthen and advocate for Nunavut’s performing artists by providing training, by marketing artists, and by staging performances. It also works to actively preserve and perform Inuit stories, which, like so many other elements of Indigenous cultures, were stymied through colonization. To help reclaim those stories, Williamson Bathory weaves legends in and around mask painting and dance during uajeerneq workshops: the story of how the sun (seqineq in Kalaallisut, the standard dialect of the Greelandic language) and moon (aninngaaq) came to be in the sky, for instance, acts as a metaphor for understanding Inuit beliefs on sex and relationships.

Williamson Bathory emphasizes that pre-contact, Inuit culture embraced a more fluid approach to sexual expression. For example, Inuit did not label people as being heterosexual or homosexual, though same-sex relationships were neither uncommon nor taboo. “Christianity gave us all of these types of sexual definitions, like what is right and what is wrong, and actually gave space for so much prejudice and discrimination,” she says. “And it’s such an act of reclamation to say that, as Inuit, we see people for their humanity, and each human has their own type of sexuality.”

“Learning about Indigenous sexuality is an incredible experience and something that would change many things for many people,” says Williamson Bathory. “It’s such a source of incredible trauma and hurt for Indigenous people in recent history—the sexual abuse that happened in residential schools and murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Having Indigenous sexualities taught and learned in empowered situations and spaces is really important.”

Uaajeerneq serves as the icebreaker for most workshop participants, who then go on to create skits or cartoon strips to express their own ideas, stories, and questions about sex. Sometimes, they, even surprise their facilitators with their knowledge and awareness. “There is a lot of discussion about consent,” Mearns recalls from a recent workshop. “A big topic we were discussing is why do people have sex. The first reaction would be for pleasure, because you’re bored, or because you love someone. And then they start talking about consent and rape. I found that a lot of them were able to articulate what’s consensual and what’s not in a way that I think when I was fourteen or fifteen I didn’t have.”

“[Youth] often don’t get enough credit for seeing what’s happening in the communities around them,” says Healey, who is herself a graduate of Inuksuk High. “They’re talking about big, big social determinants of health. They’re talking about poverty. They’re talking about substance abuse. They’re talking about suicide…I don’t think anyone’s ever done a skit about not knowing where to get a condom, for example, or going to the health centre to get birth control.”

Most important, says Healey, is that the program builds on the strength of the kids’ community and their culture in how they approach health. It draws on a “pathway to wellness that has existed for millennia,” she says, “bringing that forward into today and into what public-health interventions can look like.”

The influence of traditional teachings on wellness is not lost on Williamson Bathory. She learned uaajeerneq from her mother, who is originally from Greenland, and from Maariu Olsen, another performance artist, at thirteen years old. For her, uaajeerneq is not a finite performance; it’s her worldview.

“It’s how I approach people, men and women. It’s how I see myself as a person who has my own definition of my sexuality,” she says. “I do not label myself as a homosexual or a heterosexual or a bisexual. I’m me. And people who get to know me get to know what that’s like.”

Anubha Momin
Anubha Momin is a writer and producer who has worked for Vice, CBC Arts, and Up Here magazine.