Alumni Awards 2019: Transforming the lives of Northern and Indigenous Youth

Sociology grad Candice Lys honoured with an Alumni Innovation Award for creating sexual and mental health programming for underserved communities

Carmen Rojas - 17 September 2019

Candice Lys ('06 BA Hons, Sociology) is enjoying being at a place where she can pause and take a breath.

Since co-founding FOXY (Fostering Open eXpression among Youth) in 2012 - an organization that set out to revitalize sexual and mental health education for young women and gender diverse youth in the North - life has been a whirlwind for Lys.

"We came out of the gates really fast and exploded, in a good way," she explains.

Lys, who is Métis and grew up in the small community of Fort Smith, NWT, knew there was a unique need to be met when it came to providing health education that was effective for the North. "What young women wanted was sex-ed that was engaging, hands-on and taught in a way that was fun," Lys explains. "They also wanted it taught by people who were closer in age and by Northerners who understood the context of the North."

With this in mind, Lys and co-founder Nancy MacNeill modeled FOXY as an arts-based, peer-led, culturally-relevant program. "The arts are really accessible - you don't need to be an artist," Lys says. "They can work for youth with lower literacy, and they tend to be more fun."

In 2014, only two years after its founding, FOXY was awarded the prestigious Arctic Inspiration Prize, which recognizes the contribution made by teams in the gathering of Arctic knowledge and implementing it in real-world ways that benefit the people of the North.

FOXY was the first organization to be awarded the entire $1 million prize. This allowed Lys to expand her reach by creating FOXY's counterpart, the SMASH (Strength, Masculinities, and Sexual Health) program. "When we started FOXY, we always hoped that eventually we would be able to include youth of all genders and to hopefully have a program for masculine-identifying youth," she says.

Through workshops in schools and on-the-land Peer Leader Retreats held every summer, FOXY and SMASH have already reached more than 6,000 young people across the NWT, Nunavut and the Yukon.

It's a lot to achieve in only seven years, but the origins of FOXY extend back much further, to Lys' days as an undergraduate at the U of A in the early 2000s. As an Arts student, Lys started out exploring interests in sociology, psychology and women's and gender studies before ultimately deciding to pursue an honors sociology degree.

"The grounding for FOXY actually started [there]," she explains. Working under the supervision of renowned sociologist Stephen Kent, Lys penned a thesis about the effects of residential schools on young people in Canada.

Alongside her studies, Lys worked as an educator with the UAlberta Peer Health Education team, facilitating workshops with university and high school students. While she had always had an interest in health promotion, she describes this time at the U of A as a turning point.

Lys, who now encourages young people to "run with what [they] really like," did just that and chose to follow her passion. It led her to pursue a Master's degree in Health Promotion at Dalhousie University, where her research included talking to young women across the North about how sexual health education could be improved, and a PhD in Health Science from the University of Toronto, which she completed in 2018.

And, eventually, it led her back home so she could begin applying her research and striving to improve the lives of young Northerners. "I travelled to 40 or 50 different countries in my 20s and I still wound up back here," she says. "That speaks to the strength of home."

Lys' passion for her work in the North hasn't gone without notice. Among her many honours, she has been named "Northerner of the Year" by Up Here magazine, received a Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) from the Governor General of Canada and become the first Indigenous woman to be appointed an Honorary Naval Captain by the Royal Canadian Navy and Minister of National Defense.

In 2017, Lys was the first person from the NWT to be named a prestigious Ashoka Fellow, which places her in the ranks of 3,000 social entrepreneurs in 90 countries around the world. As she ponders the next steps for FOXY and SMASH, the fellowship helps her explore different possibilities, such as developing a revenue-generating model that would make them less dependent on grants.

For the time being, however, Lys is grateful to be standing on the peak she's currently reached on her journey. "It's nice to be at a point where we're sustainable, and be able to take a breath and look at where we want to go next in a meaningful way."