P.A. Métis Women host Aboriginal AIDS Awareness event

Jodi Schellenberg
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The Prince Albert Metis Women hosted a Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week event on Wednesday, with visitors from the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) in the city to help out.

“What we are doing is a sharing circle and beading,” organizer Lindsay Seesequasis said. “It is trying to raise awareness and bring people to see what we have here to offer.”

Doris Peltier, CAAN Aboriginal women and leadership co-ordinator, said they invited the P.A. Métis Women to be a partner for the Getting to Zero campaign.

“Prince Albert Métis Women’s Association came on board and was our partner on the ground here in Prince Albert to do Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week event specific to women,” Peltier said.

She explained that Aboriginal is a blanket term the federal government uses to describe First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

“This event is a women-specific event and we want to initiate something with our partner on the ground here,” Peltier said. “We hope that it will create room for further opportunities to increase the awareness of HIV and AIDS issues with the local population here and to support the work that Prince Albert Métis Women’s Association does here locally.”

The Getting to Zero campaign was created by the United Nations AIDS organization.

“We decided that we liked that theme and decided to also use the theme,” Peltier said. “Under getting to zero, these are the subthemes we need to address in order to get to zero … No new HIV infections, no discrimination, no AIDS-related deaths.”

People are still dying from AIDS-related complications, particularly in the Aboriginal communities, Peltier said.

“There is so much treatment available now for HIV,” Peltier said. “People shouldn’t be dying still from AIDS-related complications when there is treatment that could prolong people’s lives. In some cases, they could regain some quality of life by adhering to treatment for their HIV.”

Those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS also face a lot of stigma and discrimination, Peltier said.

“There is a prevailing code of silence in our communities around HIV,” Peltier said. “Nobody wants to talk about it and I think we need to talk about it otherwise the numbers are going to continue to increase.”

She said many Aboriginal people are afraid to talk about it because through the residential school experience they were taught speaking about sex is taboo.

“That’s why there is a code of silence and it is very similar to the residential school experiences and the people who were sexually abused in those schools,” Peltier said. “They didn’t speak about it for years and years. It took one leader who was the national chief of the assembly of First Nations at the time, he stepped forward and disclosed that he had been sexually molested in residential schools. When he did that in his leadership role, it opened the floodgates and the people started to talk about it.

“So now we are talking about sexual abuse but we need to talk about HIV and AIDS now,” Peltier added.

Not only are Aboriginal people facing stigmas about HIV and AIDS, many encounter racism as well when they try to get help, Merv Thomas, director of national programs and communications at CAAN, said.

“One of the biggest barriers our people face in this province I believe is the systemic racism that they continue to face,” Thomas said. “That is a big barrier to accessing health.”

Thomas grew up in Saskatchewan, but has lived in Vancouver now for a couple of decades.

“As an Aboriginal person, travelling across Canada, one of the biggest things I feel when I come home is I feel that racism -- it is right in your face,” he added. “I don’t know how to address it. I don’t know what is the solution because how can you change the way people were raised and how do you change their perceptions of a people.”

He would like to see more Aboriginal people in the health field, helping their brothers and sisters in need.

“There’s a lot of positive things happening in this province, I don’t want to take that away, but I think there still needs to be a lot of work done,” Thomas said. “I think that in terms of the future, Aboriginal people need to take leadership of their own lives. We need to have our own people sitting behind that desk -- people that are welcoming or even there’s got to be some cross-cultural teachings.”

“I know there is a lot of good in people, in all races and cultures but how do we overcome that systemic racism?” Thomas said. “That is a challenge I want to put out there.”

Another problem Prince Albert is facing is the number of cases in the Aboriginal population.

“I know in Saskatchewan, the epidemic is very high and it is having an impact on our Aboriginal population here in Saskatchewan,” Peltier said. “That is why I felt it was really important to partner with a group here in Saskatchewan to begin to raise awareness and increase that awareness.”

“One of the challenges in this province because it is a hot spot, the numbers are rising for Aboriginal people,” Thomas said. “Although the numbers have fallen overall, amongst the Aboriginal people they are skyrocketing. It is a very big concern for us.”

The challenge they are now facing is how to educate people and find solutions to problems those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS are dealing with.

“We need to address the stigma and discrimination and it needs to be a community response,” Peltier said. “We can’t come in from a national level and come into the region and say this is how you do it. That’s not our role. Our role is to stand with our brothers and sisters that are working on the front lines and supporting the work they do.”

Education is one of the key elements in helping people, they said. Since HIV and AIDS can only be spread through unprotected sex, blood-to-blood contact, such as intravenous drug users sharing needles, and vertical transmission to a fetus, people should not be so afraid of those with the infection.

“There are a lot of people believing in myths and scared to be in the same room as someone with HIV,” Peltier said. “Where does that fear come from? Not having the right information or lack of knowledge.”

Seesequasis said many people also believe they can not contract HIV or AIDS “because they think it is a gay man’s disease.”

“We want people to know that everyone is at risk,” Seesequasis said. “If you are having sex, if you are doing drugs, you are at risk. It is not just the junkies or whores or gay men this is bothering -- it is bothering everybody.”

Testing is also important because many people may not even know they are infected, Peltier said.

It should not just be a bunch of separate entities trying to find solutions -- instead they should try to work together, they all agreed. 

“There are pockets of responses and people are unwilling to share information and resources with each other,” Peltier said. “That is not going to serve people like myself who are living with HIV. If these pockets of responses do not come together to respond, then these silos will continue and it doesn’t serve the people living with HIV when that response is rolled out that way.”

“One of the first things we hear about is the lack of co-operation and collaboration amongst the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups when it shouldn’t be that way,” Thomas added. “We are all in this together and we all need to share the knowledge with each other. We all need to work and we can’t be protective of our (information).”

Working to educate women on HIV and AIDS is very important to Peltier, who was diagnosed HIV positive 13 years ago.

“We are very excited to be partnering with P.A. Métis Women on this event and in particular for me because I hold a national file on aboriginal women living with HIV and AIDS,” Peltier said. “This work is very close and dear to my heart.”

Although many people are afraid to come forward when diagnosed, Peltier said she felt it was important for her to tell her story to others.

“I am publically disclosed about my HIV status because I think it is important to have champions speaking for those that are not in a place where they can speak about it either due to safety or stigma and discrimination,” Peltier said.

Peltier was diagnosed at the AIDS stage in 2000, which happens to many others.

“When I say I was diagnosed at the AIDS stage, that is not a unique situation because many of my Aboriginal sisters, many of them are getting diagnosed late and some at the AIDS stage like myself,” Peltier said.

After being diagnosed, Peltier faced a lot of discrimination and stigma about the disease.

“I made a decision right then and there that I wanted to be able to help other people so they wouldn’t experience the same stigma and discrimination,” Peltier said. “I wanted to be public about the fact that I am HIV positive and let people know these are the underlying issues why our people are vulnerable to HIV.”

A lot of Aboriginal people contract HIV after dealing with personal traumas, Peltier said.

“A big underlying issue is the historical trauma of residential schools,” Peltier said. “Those are what I would call the ground that set that trajectory for many of our people to have that collision course down the road towards HIV. It made people vulnerable to HIV in trying to deal with trauma.”

She explained if trauma is not dealt with properly, people will often turn towards drugs and alcohol.

“I am a recovering drug addict myself and the day I decided to walk away, I just knew I had AIDS and I walked away from that lifestyle at that moment,” Peltier said. “I really thank the creator that I was able to walk away and not look back ever again and not every return to that life I was living.”

Being HIV positive was a teacher, she said.

“That is what HIV did for me -- I did a complete 180-degree turn and I started walking on a healing path,” Peltier said. “I am at a very balanced place now in terms of my own healing. It will be a lifelong journey I’m on now.

“For me HIV was a teacher,” Peltier added. “Elders tell us that adversity is a teacher. I took what I could out of it and decided to turn my life around.”

Organizations: P.A. Métis Women, Prince Albert, First Nations United Nations AIDS organization CAAN

Geographic location: Prince Albert Métis Women, Saskatchewan, Vancouver Canada

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