How one northern program is connecting with young men to curb domestic violence
Thousands of young men have completed SMASH workshops across the North
This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.
Nearly a dozen teenage boys sit in a semicircle at Moose Kerr School in Aklavik, N.W.T., a hamlet of about 600 in the territory's Far North.
There's laughter, high-fives and hooting as two students act out a scene.
The skit is about going camping. But what they're actually exploring is consent and healthy relationships in a program called SMASH.
Through role play, games and discussions, SMASH, which stands for Strength, Masculinities And Sexual Health, aims to help young people learn about developing healthy relationships and becoming leaders in their community — things that can help reduce the high rates of domestic violence in the North, said Ken Mackay, 36, a SMASH facilitator.
"The way boys are set up in society is kind of entitled, to other people and doing what they want regardless," he said.
"It's showing boys that there is another way to do things than the standard set by society."
Since 2016, nearly 2,000 young men from Yukon, Nunavut and the N.W.T., ages 13 to 17, have taken part in school-based workshops through SMASH. More than 100 have taken part in peer leader retreats. SMASH runs parallel to a program for teenage girls called FOXY, which stands for Fostering Open eXpression among Youth.
"It is getting to them young, when they're figuring out how to be around other people," Mackay said of SMASH.
"If they learn that we should respect everyone regardless of who they are, what gender ... I think [that's] how this problem gets solved."
Kendrick Bolt, 19, leaves his community in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, several times a month to travel with SMASH. He took a workshop and is now a peer facilitator.
In Aklavik, clad in a ball cap and black hoodie with the SMASH logo, he writes down words suggested by students associated with being a man: strong, brave and big muscles.
"I felt like I had to always be strong and I shouldn't express my feelings and I shouldn't cry," said Bolt, describing how he felt before attending a SMASH retreat.
We're just trying to get these young men ... to be the men they want to be.- Kendrick Bolt, 19
"If I did I would just be, like, lower than my partner," he said.
Bolt said he also witnessed domestic violence spurred by alcohol in his community.
"They don't know what they're doing and then it turns into violence," he said.
Now, he's trying to stop that cycle.
"We're just, like, trying to get these young men to, like, know what it is for women to go through ... Get them to be the man they want to be," he said.
Dawson Craig, 15, didn't know what to expect when he started SMASH. Craig had never been in a relationship before.
"It's important that youth across the North know about consent and healthy relationships," said Craig, who is also a peer facilitator. "If they don't know, it's going to lead to some bad decision making."
He says young people also need to open up more about their feelings.
"There's a lot of people who don't know how to deal with emotions out there in the North," said Craig.
"One of the lessons I learned was you don't have to have things in control all the time — it's fine," he said.
"The greatest difference is that it taught me how to be myself and be proud of myself."
In February, peer facilitators for SMASH and FOXY came together at Yellowknife's ski club.
Over several days, youth attendees learned about mental health, wellness and trauma healing through hands-on activities, art and traditional sports.
"It [trauma] really interferes with how we interact with other people and how we handle situations," said Mackay.
"So if we can get people, can get more help in those areas it would be beneficial for them for all aspects of life."