HIV conference focuses on First Nations youth

Jodi Schellenberg
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With HIV/AIDS cases higher than average Prince Albert, a conference hosted by All Nations Hope was teaching those gathered how to heal past wounds.

The first day of All Nations Hope’s 15th annual HIV/AIDS Conference was hosted at the Prince Albert Exhibition Centre on Tuesday.

The conference was to help at-risk people, who may be dealing with issues like drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and incarceration. Youth were also mentioned as being at-risk.

“The conference is about intergenerational healing, so what I am speaking about is not being at risk all by ourselves,” said Jessica Danforth, keynote speaker and executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. “Quite often, aboriginal youth are labelled at risk, marginalized, vulnerable -- not that those things or realties aren’t true but there is a lot of stigma or shame that gets associated with them.

“What we are trying to do is reverse that and say it is actually empowering to be ourselves as Indigenous youth, it is empowering to be who we are, speak our languages, be proud of our communities and instead name the things that put us at-risk,” she added.

Some issues that may put people at risk are racism, poverty and intergenerational trauma, she said.

“We are not risky all by ourselves and we really want to focus on strength based (approaches) and looking at the really amazing work, especially here in Saskatchewan, that Indigenous youth are doing, as activism, as organizing, as movement building and learn from that in the HIV movement,” Danforth said.

In order to take away the risk factors, they need to focus on intergenerational healing, Danforth said.

“What they are talking about is healing in action and also making sure we are building on the strengths that aboriginal youths are doing here,” she explained.

She said that most people wouldn’t go up to one of their peers and say they are an at-risk youth, but they are frequently asked to identify themselves as at-risk for different funding and government forms.

“The shift from that would be naming the things that actually place us at risk so we can work on them,” Danforth said. “If racism and access to health care services is what is putting us at risk, that is something we can work on and that is shifting from blaming and shaming individuals to looking at how we work systematically to feel safer and have better access to things.”

They are not just working towards a better tomorrow, but also a better today, she said.

“If this issue were only about safer sex and clean needles, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in,” Danforth said. “It is so much more than that and it is not a one size fits all, nor should it be.

“There is a beautiful diversity of First Nations in this province and there is so much in the culture and the teachings that we can learn from,” she added. “I think approaching it from a strength base, rather than a deficit or negative or a stereotype base, is really important.”

There are many interesting things happening on social media, Danforth said, such as the Winter Challenge and Not Your Stereotype campaigns.

“It is stuff that you don’t need to be in an AIDS service organization, you don’t need to be a hard-core activist,” Danforth said. “You can just find that within yourself, the stuff you want to speak out on and this has to be one of the issues that we speak out on from our voice -- it has to be a non-shaming, non-stigmatizing one. That is an important pathway to HIV prevention.”

There were also some exciting initiatives to come out of the conference, such as the start of the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Youth Council. Two of the founding members are Brett Friday and Justine Kaiswatum, who also work as youth coaches.

“Basically what we are aiming for is to have a youth council that is kind of Saskatchewan wide,” Friday said.

The two youth leaders are from Regina, but want to reach out to all the nations across the province and hold meetings to connect with each other. Not only would it keep them connected, they could also learn how the others are dealing with healing, HIV/AIDS and sexual health, he said.

“We want to see what we can do for our communities as youth and as people trying to help ourselves help the community,” Friday said. “I think that is what we need to do as people who are trying to heal from the different generations of what Aboriginal youth have been through.”

It would also give the youth of the province a collective voice, he added.

“If a lot of people at trying to talk at you, you are not going to hear the message but if it is all in one voice, you will hear it,” Friday said. Our collective voice might be able to help on a National level as well.”  

Creating the council is a big step towards not only helping the province and communities come together, but also a big step towards healing as a nation, Friday said.

“It is really awesome when Indigenous youth learn and work with each other,” Danforth said. “That’s what we are talking about here … It is truly pure love and I think that is the empowering thing about it.”

They all thought the conference was a great way to help spread the message about HIV and AIDS to the population.

“I think it is important just to put more awareness out for the youth because some youth are not really educated in the whole practice safe sex and are not comfortable,” Kaiswatum said.

She said there have been events in the past, such as residential schools, which have taken away the confidence of the Indigenous people, turning them towards unsafe behaviours to try to deal with things out of their control.

“For us to be able to come out of our own shell and put more awareness out through the province would benefit more,” Kaiswatum said. “I know I am now coming out of it as I mature and grow up -- it is easier to be myself.”

Friday said listening to some of the speakers who were sharing their stories was amazing.

“Being as young as I am, to learn these things is something that will help me along the road so maybe if I ever go through something similar I’ll be able to help get through it because I’ll learn form it from just hearing these things,” Friday said.

It might also help friends or family as well, because he would be able to share others stories of healing.

“It is amazing what you can learn just from listening to people,” Friday said. “Listening to those seven people, it is amazing how much I learned.”

After listening to the stories, Friday was reminded about how important family and support are for everyone.

“Mother Earth, when she grows things, she wants them to grow up and grow their own path,” Friday said. “Meanwhile, the roots are still there so as a family we should have that support to grow up but at the same time that we could go back and think about our roots and have them there strong so we won’t fall over when somebody pushes us.”

In the evening, there was a Indigenous Youth Leadership Rocks, hosted by Jack Saddleback from the National Aboriginal Youth Council on HIV/AIDS and Michael Keshane from the Native Sexual Health Network.

The conference will continue on Wednesday, with a few more presentations and workshops and will finish early afternoon.

Organizations: First Nations, Prince Albert Exhibition Centre, Saskatchewan Aboriginal Youth Council National Aboriginal Youth Council

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Regina

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