11/05/2013 04:17 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Fighting poverty key in lowering aboriginal HIV rates: Saskatchewan chief

SASKATOON - A Saskatchewan native leader says any strategy to further bring down HIV rates in the province must include an aboriginal component.

Health officials reported Monday that there was a five per cent drop in the number of new HIV cases in the province last year.

But Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations points out the aboriginal population is over-represented in those statistics.

Bellegarde says that's because there's a lot of poverty on First Nations reserves.

He says overcrowded housing, lack of education and poor health all need to be addressed.

Bellegarde also says there needs to be the political will to fight ignorance and discrimination.

"The prevention and the treatment and the spread of (HIV) is a huge issue," Bellegarde told government officials, health authority representatives and frontline workers at a Prairies HIV conference on Tuesday.

He said things can change if there is the political will.

"I think they can come together to develop the strategies that are necessary to totally eradicate or control and contain," he said after the meeting.

He added that along with HIV, he’s seeing cases of tuberculosis and diabetes increase among indigenous peoples and suggested that the root of all the negative statistics is poverty.

To illustrate his point, Bellegarde pointed to a recent United Nations quality-of-life index in which Canada rated sixth in the world, but when the same standards were used to measure First Nations living conditions, the ranking was 63rd.

"Overcrowded housing, black mould, caps on education funding, the high suicide amongst our people, the high incarceration rates. The list will go on and on."

On Monday, the Health Ministry credited a campaign begun in 2010 that encourages more people to get tested for the HIV virus. The ministry added that the number of people getting tested for HIV is up 23 per cent since 2009.

The strategy also includes more outreach workers and infant formula programs to help ensure nursing mothers don’t pass on HIV to their children through breast milk.

Bellegarde ended his comments on a positive note. He said he's seeing more young First Nations people overcoming hurdles and going to school.

"I see more young people at sun dances and sweat lodges ... that’s a wellness in itself. That's why I am hopeful."

(CKOM, The Canadian Press)