“Imperialism has had an extreme impact on our bodies,” according to Jessica Danforth from the Toronto-based Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN). She spoke to about 30 people Oct. 7, 2013, as part of a University of Manitoba seminar series on sexual and reproductive rights.

The network works nationally in both Canada and the United States, focusing on a wide variety of issues including: LGBTQ advocacy, HIV education, relationships and violence, justice, human rights, and the environment. Danforth said at first glance it might seem odd that the network focuses on the environment but if a community doesn’t have clean drinking water, this impacts residents’ bodies. She argues that violence that happens to the land is connected to the violence that happens to our bodies. For example, in Northern communities, contaminants from uranium mining could cause sterility.

She emphasizes the need to change our use of language in order to start shifting the way we think. We must start to question why we use words and phrases such as: risk, marginalization, vulnerable, not able, need saving. The reason we use these words is because it takes a lot longer for us to “not use these words.” What she means by this is that we don’t spend time speaking about the social structures that cause us to need to use such language. For example, we do not speak about the racism and colonization of Indigenous peoples that means First Nations people do not have access to “culturally safe” care.

The Native Youth Sexual Health Network does not talk about “teen pregnancy prevention” but instead about “increasing education, options, and self-determination” for girls. This is because by stopping one pregnancy you are not stopping the social structures that caused it in the first place (racism, lack of bodily autonomy etc.).

Danforth argues we absolutely need a different approach, and it needs to start with examining colonialism and its impact. For example, sexual and reproductive laws are a direct result of colonialism. Some countries still have such laws written in old colonial language. We don’t just need to transform our minds, “we need to restore what colonization has harmed,” Danforth said. Rather than seeking to include people in a process, we need to change the process, and we all need to enter the struggle.

“Resistance is sexy,” she said.


What was it like starting up?

I grew up in Toronto, and started this as a grassroots organization. I started it at 16 in my basement with my best friend and my sister. I started noticing everything was connected to our body and space and thought it needed addressing. We got a pro bono lawyer to help us with registration. It is a very risky business, and it is not for everyone. We have to be constantly checking ourselves.

What do the NYSHN workers do to promote bodily autonomy?

We are requested to go into communities and provide support to families on the ground. We’ve also worked with Teen Talk to provide resources, and help make resources more accessible for northern youth.

See seminar series podcasts and schedule.