Most Yukoners will admit they’ve heard that young women are prostituting themselves for a couch to sleep on in the middle of winter.
But ask if they know anybody personally, or if they’ve done something about it and you might get some blank stares.
“A lot of people act like it’s not happening, but it should be talked about,” said Josie O’Brien. “Like people who have to do nasty stuff for a place to stay or for a ride.”
“It’s really happening. It’s happening all the time.”
O’Brien, a 24-year-old multimedia artist, thinks most Yukoners are in denial over the territory’s social ills.
“People who don’t address it should be really ashamed,” she said. “They walk around with their head up high, but they’re just blocking it out.”
For the women who live in that world, the silence over their plight isn’t a one-time conversation. It permeates their life.
Sierra McIsaac, 14, sitting across from O’Brien at a table in the Baked Cafe late Saturday afternoon, knows about other problems that get the silent treatment.
Bullying usually goes unnoticed, she said. Most victims keep quiet and most witnesses keep away.
“There is anti-bullying stuff, like Sea of Pink,” said McIsaac, referring to the Canadian campaign that features kids wearing pink for a day. “But it’s not enough.”
Now, both O’Brien and McIsaac have added their voices to a growing chorus of women who want to talk about the tough things in life.
They’re part of Rise, a one-night performance show featuring a play, movies, a dance and creative writing, all about issues that we prefer to “block out.”
Under the guise of Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services, the project brings together more than a dozen women who, over the last three months, learned artistic skills from the best mentors in town.
Andrea Simpson-Fowler, a local choreographer, taught dance. Ashley Camara, a photojournalist, helped prepare a picture montage. Patricia Robertson helped develop writing skills.
The goal of the program, funded by Status of Women, Victim Services and Family Violence Prevention and the Canadian Women’s Foundation, was to nurture employment skills like punctuality and scheduling, said the project co-ordinator, Jodi Proctor.
Many Rivers does a lot of project-based work because it’s more exciting for participants, said Proctor.
And adding an activist dimension to it makes the women even more passionate about what they’re doing, she said.
“Before I started, I didn’t know if it was right or wrong to speak about it, to make a show about this stuff, to talk to the media,” said O’Brien.
But the more she excelled, the more her doubts have diminished.
“I feel like I’m doing a favour so that no one else has to go through it,” she said.
The women, who are between 14 and 25 years old, picked several issues they felt weren’t being addressed by society at large, said Proctor.
Violence against women, safe sex, bullying and climate change came out on top.
Proctor, who’s run different youth programs in Whitehorse and Inuvik for several years, then linked the women up with known experts from town and Outside.
Renee-Claude Carriere, a violence-against-women activist from Whitehorse, made a particularly big impression on O’Brien.
During a presentation on gender equality, Carriere offered statistics connecting the dots between life in town and larger trends nationally.
The statistics made a local problem tangible and easy to grasp.
“(Carriere) really opened my eyes to a lot of things,” said O’Brien.
The project was meant to show women that people have made a living off artistic expression, said Proctor.
“There’s pathways for these women now,” she said.
It also helps to know the mentor artists personally, said O’Brien.
“It’s really good for networking,” she said. “It opens up doors.”
O’Brien developed her multimedia skills with Reel Youth, a film-youth advocacy group from Vancouver.
O’Brien and Jamie Lee Miller created a movie called Rise, which ended up being the name of the whole show.
It focused on violence against women and received excellent reviews during sneak peeks, said Proctor.
McIsaac helped develop another movie, Northern Newscast, about climate change.
They might get shown on community television and the women are gunning for an APTN broadcast.
One woman learned to use guitar and sing over the last few months, and there were even sewing classes.
“I finally know how to use my sewing machine,” said McIsaac, who helped sew dresses for the dance piece.
Over the last months, McIsaac has become more open and talkative about important concerns, said her mother, Rhonda McIsaac.
“The one thing I noticed about Sierra is that she’ll come home and she’ll want to talk about something that’s happening in her life,” said Rhonda. “It might be about personalities, it might be about sex, it might be something else personal.”
The performance show’s play, The Stakes, addresses safe sex for women who usually have few outlets on the issue.
“They don’t have parents to talk to them about sex, they don’t have teachers to talk about sex and they’re experiencing it in Grade 8,” said Proctor.
The focus on artistic skills is all about turning a difficult issue into an expressive one.
And it has allowed O’Brien to do things she’s always wanted to do, like hip hop dance.
“It gives me a lot more to look forward to,” she said.
Too often, art is restricted to people whose parents have enough money to afford dance or drawing lessons.
“It takes a certain amount of privilege to do them,” said Proctor.
But Rise is bringing a can-do attitude to women who want their voices heard, no matter what.
“Now I’m happy to raise money,” said O’Brien.
The show opens at 7 p.m. at the Old Fire Hall tonight.
Tickets are available for $10 at Triple J’s Music Store or for the same price at the door. Those who can’t afford to pay don’t have to, but seats will be reserved for ticket buyers. The performance is dedicated to Angel Carlick and all proceeds will go to Angel’s Nest, a drop-in center in Whitehorse for at-risk youth. There will be “lots of free food” and refreshments at the show.
Contact James Munson at