Aboriginal AIDS activists in Canada say they are trying to lower the high rate of HIV infections among First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
The Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network is launching a national awareness campaign in Winnipeg on Saturday — to coincide with World AIDS Day — with the goal of reducing the number of new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths.
"We need to say to our own community, 'Listen to the messages about HIV and AIDS. Protect yourself. Go get a test if you put yourself at risk,'" said Art Zoccole, president of the network's board.
"These are our future generations, and there is a responsibility of us in the aboriginal community to take care of each other and [get] everybody involved."
While First Nations, Métis and Inuit people represent 3.8 per cent of Canada's population, they account for 7.5 per cent of Canadians living with HIV, according to 2006 census figures.
As well, aboriginal people accounted for 12.5 per cent of all new HIV infections in Canada in 2008, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
That all means the HIV infection rate for aboriginal Canadians was 3.6 times higher than the rate for other Canadians in 2008.
The federal health agency says injection drug use is the main way aboriginal people get exposed to HIV, and the number of cases continues to rise, especially among women.
Research is underway to find out why the infection rate is so high, but there is concern that an alarming number of aboriginal Canadians are engaging in risky lifestyles.
The agency has found that aboriginal HIV cases attributed to injected drug use has gone up to more than 50 per cent in the period spanning 2001 to 2008 from 18 per cent before 1995.
Brenda Pelletier, 60, of Winnipeg said she contracted HIV 12 years ago after she shared drug paraphernalia with a friend who she knew was HIV-positive.
"I didn't think anything of it — like, you know, sharing — because when they said, 'Use clean needles,' I just thought, 'Hmm, OK, clean needle, I got one,'" she recalled. "Four days after that, my friend died."
Pelletier said since she was diagnosed with HIV, she has been in and out of the hospital with pneumonia, tuberculosis and other ailments.
Zoccole said more education is needed on how the virus is contracted, how people can protect themselves, and how people should get tested.
The theme of the network's Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week campaign this year is "Getting to Zero," which means zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero cases of discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS.
Workshops on aboriginal HIV and AIDS issues will be held in Halifax, Regina, Toronto, Iqaluit and Victoria in the coming days as part of the campaign.
Ottawa investing in programs
Zoccole, who has had HIV for eight years and currently heads up the Toronto-based group Two-Spirited People of the First Nations, said there are very few agencies that provide services for HIV-positive aboriginal people in large cites.
There are even fewer resources for those in small and remote First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, he added.
"It's concerning," said federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
Aglukkaq said the federal government is investing in research, education and treatment programs, including a Health Canada project to develop aboriginal-language terminology concerning HIV and AIDS.
"We have translated a number of terms to the appropriate language of the aboriginal population," she said.
Aglukkaq said while the availability of HIV- and AIDS-related services in remote communities is an issue, there are hospitals in a number of areas that can provide treatment.
"Education is fundamental in getting to the bottom of this, and we have to work in partnership with the community to educate young people," she said. "But it has to be done in partnership with the community."
Stigma remains in some communities
But Zoccole said sometimes those very communities are part of the problem.
"There's still stigma and discrimination. So when that happens, sometimes, the result is that the person living with HIV and AIDS needs to move and relocate to a place that's safe for them," he said.
"They almost get ostracized from their communities, and it's very unfortunate … Aboriginal people need to take a greater stand against, you know, this kind of discrimination that we're doing to our own family and in our own community. It's not right."
Pelletier said her own family has withdrawn from her, with some members even changing their phone numbers.
"They dumped me. They didn't want nothing to do with me," she said. "You feel like you're not good enough to be with people, unless they are HIV [positive] too."
But Pelletier said she is trying to be part of the solution by taking part in a speaking tour organized by a non-profit aboriginal service agency in Winnipeg.
"I go into communities and I talk and I'll tell them how I got it, if they ask," she said. "I hope that they have listened."
Pelletier and others say the best way to stem the rise in HIV and AIDS cases among aboriginal people is by teaching young people — in a culturally appropriate way — how to protect themselves.