Nesyre Plain, 13, at the Healthy Youth Relationships program.

By Colin Graf

Teenagers from First Nations in southwestern Ontario are getting a chance this summer to talk and think about how to create and keep healthy and safe relationships in their lives.

A special, five-week program run by the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) is helping teens from the Aamjiwnaang and Kettle & Stony Point First Nations to recognize a safe relationship, be it with parents, other adults, friends, or in dating, and to recognize safe or unsafe situations, says Larissa Martin, program coordinator with the CRC.  The Healthy Youth Relationships program also helps teach teens to know if and when they need help, and how to get it.

Discussions cover a wide range of topics, but dating relationships are top of the list, says Martin. She says one question that comes up is whether jealousy is a sign of love.  Her answer?  A firm “No”.

For Tesha Shawnoo, 16, of Kettle Point, teasing is a subject the course has helped her change her thinking about.  “I’ve thought about how I treat others.  We like teasing, but there are certain boundaries.”  Shawnoo has started to realize she’s not always thoughtful when teasing others, and she wants to be more sensitive to how others feel about being teased. “Not every relationship will be the same,” she says.

Program leaders can see the difference the classes make to the young people, Martin says.  “We’re starting to see a better outlook.  They’re learning how to uplift each other, to help making better and stronger communities. “

In many ways, teens all need the same things, Martin says, such as friends, someone to believe in them, and someone to empower their friendships.  The program aims to be instructive, but “we keep it fun” with lots of games, she explains.

The need to “listen and respect each other” in relationships is the most important take-away for Nesyre Plain, 13.  Joining the course has helped him feel more comfortable around girls, he says.   Being aware of what abuse could look or feel like is also important, Plain says.  “It’s no different for guys, ‘cause the girl can be just as abusive as a guy,” he adds.

The CRC also runs a summer camp at Kettle Point and at Bkejwanong (Walpole Island) First Nation that helps kids get their Red Cross babysitting certificate, and also takes them through the Healthy Relationships program.  This year the organization is also adding swimming lessons to the camp experience.  Young people who have done the course before help out as youth leaders at the camp, says Cheryl Tompkins, a manager with the CRC.  Around 10 youth took part in the July camp at Kettle Point, and the second camp runs in mid-August at Walpole.

The Red Cross has been working in Indigenous communities since 1984, according to Martin, and the youth relationships program has been “very powerful” in northern Ontario First Nations, says Tompkins.  The group is very pleased to have developed a partnership with the two southern Ontario First Nations to offer the youth program, she says.