The Positive Side

Winter 2010 

Path to Healing: Full Circle on the Prairies

Among Aboriginal people on the Prairies, HIV has forced its way into a circle of tradition and culture broken by years of mistreatment. Yet, as Kim McKay-McNabb describes, Aboriginal people are mending that circle, individually and together.


AS A FIRST NATIONS WOMAN whose family has been touched by HIV, I have seen firsthand how our communities in Canada are being affected by HIV/AIDS. In my various roles as a woman, a sister, a mother and a researcher, I see every day how the impact of HIV has become a huge health challenge for Aboriginal people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Aboriginal people are overrepresented in the HIV epidemic. In Canada in 2007, 21 percent of all new cases of HIV that contained information on ethnicity were in Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people make up only 4 percent of the Canadian population. The impact is even more profound in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. During the same year, 38 percent of all new cases in Manitoba were among Aboriginal people. The number was higher in Saskatchewan, where Aboriginal people accounted for nearly half, 49 percent, of all new cases. This is staggering, given that Aboriginal people made up only 15 percent of the population in these provinces.

Women, youth and people who inject drugs are carrying the burden of the epidemic in our communities. In Saskatchewan, injection drug use was at the root of nearly two out of every three HIV infections (63 percent) among Aboriginal people in 2007. Women accounted for 60 percent of Aboriginal infections that same year, and young women are particularly vulnerable: Of Aboriginal HIV diagnoses in the 15 to 19 age group, 85 percent were in women, and in the 20 to 29 age group, 59 percent were in women.

Specific social, economic and behavioural factors contribute to the disproportionate rates of HIV infection in Aboriginal people in Canada. Poverty, substance use (especially injection drug use), sexually transmitted infections and lack of access to health care services increase our vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. One of the main social factors contributing to our vulnerability is related to our communities’ experience of residential schools and the “Sixties Scoop,” two traumatic events grounded in The Indian Act, 1876, which gave the Canadian government almost complete control over Aboriginal people and their lives. The damaging story of residential schools is well known. The Sixties Scoop refers to the period from 1960 to the mid-’80s when First Nations children were removed from their homes, taken from their parents, siblings, kokums (the Cree word for grandmothers) and mooshums (grandfathers) and adopted into homes outside of their community and often into non-Aboriginal families.

My family endured both the residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. My mother attended a residential school and this had an impact on our experience as a family. Before children were forced to attend residential schools, First Nations communities discussed sexuality — it was an important part of life. But during this period of forced institutionalization, the parenting skills that would have been passed on from mother to daughter and father to son were lost.

We are just beginning to heal from this piece of the history of our peoples. And part of that healing is to address the HIV epidemic among us. Margaret Akan, chief executive officer of All Nations Hope AIDS Network (ANHAN) in Regina, points out that rebuilding connections to our culture is part of mending the circle: “ANHAN is using the teachings of our Elders and our culture to build stronger individuals, families and communities. This is the only way we are going to move forward with the multitude of health and social issues impacting the Aboriginal population.” ANHAN is the Aboriginal AIDS service organization (ASO) in the two provinces, though all the ASOs in the region have many Aboriginal clients and offer services specifically for Aboriginal people with HIV/AIDS (APHAs).

Saskatoon HIV Aboriginal Reduction of Harm Program (SHARP) is another example of Aboriginal people leading the response to HIV. Started in 2008, the program, a collaboration including Saskatoon Tribal Council, AIDS Saskatoon and local health agencies, brings a holistic view of health to APHAs and those at risk in Saskatoon’s inner-city neighbourhoods. The goal is to reduce the number of new cases of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections by helping both HIV-positive and HIV-negative Aboriginal people in the community.

Healing is also occurring one person at a time. I had the honour of sitting down with three APHAs from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. These strong, resilient people who walk with their heads held high on their own journey shared their stories with me… and here I share them with you.

Krista Shore

Krista Shore is a 27-year-old First Nations woman, originally from Peepeekeesis First Nation in Saskatchewan. She currently lives in Regina with her partner and two children. Krista was diagnosed with HIV in 2006.

Krista was involved in the child welfare system from a young age. “I experienced a lot of violence at a young age: drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse. By the age of 12, the year my mother was murdered, I had my first experience with alcohol and drugs.”

A life of addiction affected Krista’s ability to parent, and in 2006 and 2007, her children were taken into care. She felt desperately alone without them and so began to work on getting them back. Krista had been sober for nearly three months when she learned that her children were going to be placed in care permanently.

“I had lost my kids for good. I really believed that. The following year I tried to commit suicide, I overdosed, I was stabbed and I ended up homeless. I had a real deep self-hatred. I used drugs. I liked the needle. Then I met a man involved in a gang. During that period, I lost my dignity, my pride, my looks and my self-respect. I’m lucky that I am still alive. I got a diagnosis of HIV within half a year of the last time I was with that man. In February of 2006, 10 years to the day that I learned my mother was murdered, I found out I was HIV positive. How I got my diagnosis was harsh. I resent the way I was told by the doctor, so blankly and bluntly: ‘I got something to tell you. You are HIV positive.’ Luckily, my sister was there with me and I knew the nurse. I didn’t go back to using.”

In order to get her life back on track, Krista developed ties with a few community agencies in Regina. She found a place to stay and got back in touch with her children. “I prayed to God the Creator to help get me through this. I just kept thinking of my kids. I slowly started doing the work to maintain my recovery.” And she succeeded — her children came home in 2008 and 2009.

“I reached out for help. The more I tried to move forward, the more help I received. I got in contact with All Nations Hope AIDS Network (ANHAN) and they really supported me. I didn’t realize all the support that they could offer a person living with HIV. I feel grateful for it. Through All Nations Hope, I applied to attend a women’s retreat. I didn’t even include my HIV status on the application. I was afraid to tell people. But at the retreat I felt inside of me that it was all right to tell them.”

Through the ANHAN retreat, Krista was put in contact with another APHA, Ron, who was attending the retreat as a speaker. “Meeting Ron really soothed me inside. It diminished the shame, the pain. I wasn’t alone. He lit a fire inside me and I felt that I needed to find a space within the circle. I started to stand up for myself and say, ‘This is me. This is my story.’ ” She adds, “All Nations Hope and the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network have been a great part of my journey. It feels like family being surrounded by other APHAs.”

Krista and her partner are expecting their third child. Though she has built a strong community to assist her, she is now facing another challenge in her journey: trying to access support during her pregnancy. “I have a good doctor, but we need more resources for pregnant women and mothers with HIV.” In Regina, there is no assistance to access costly baby formula for HIV-positive mothers, who cannot breastfeed due to the risk of passing HIV to the baby. “I would like to start a baby formula program here, not only for myself, but for our communities.”

Post script: Since the time of the interview, Krista and her partner have welcomed a healthy baby girl into their family.

Lana Bear

Lana is a 42-year-old First Nations woman from Muskoday First Nations in Saskatchewan. After spending 28 years on the street and being incarcerated for long stretches of time, she was diagnosed with HIV in 2006.

“I never knew about HIV until about five years ago when everybody on the streets started talking about how bad it was. But I didn’t really care because I was on drugs and I didn’t take the time to listen. I thought I probably already had it. Then I got really sick and was hospitalized. After I was told that I have HIV, I didn’t feel sad or anything. Now, although I have emphysema and asthma and have been on home oxygen for a year, I am taking my HIV pills every day and I’ve been keeping all of my regular appointments. It’s been about one year since I used anything. I am happy for myself.”

“I have a lot of support in my immediate family — my six children and my partner. Then there are the people at my AA meetings. I have the nurses who work at the STD centre. And the health representative from Muskoday First Nation, Rhonda, has helped me through thick and thin.”

“The Prince Albert Sexual Health Clinic and the health committee here on reserve have HIV workshops, but there isn’t enough counselling. We need more activities and support groups. I think that people with HIV should be heard more. We should have HIV support groups to talk about our issues confidentially and openly, like at an AA meeting. Then people might come out of their shells more and talk about it. I feel it’s very important for people on reserve to have more services, more activities for children and more support for people like myself.

“For me, it’s helpful having everyday things to do, a little of everything… praying, house cleaning, going for walks and visiting my children. I never really looked after my kids; my mother did. I couldn’t take care of them. I had a lot of anger. Now I try to spend as much time as I can with them. I spent a lot of time on the streets and I want to make up for that. My prayers are now answered. I am on my healing journey. Thank you, Jesus.”

Kinzie

Kinzie is a 47-year-old First Nations gay man from Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba. He was born in The Pas and currently lives in Winnipeg with his partner and his cats.

Kinzie is a child of the Sixties Scoop, the practice of removing First Nations children from their homes and communities and giving them over to non-Aboriginal families. His adopted family raised him in Texas (Kinzie still has contact with them today). Once he learned about his biological family being from Canada, he moved here and started to come to terms with his identity as a First Nations man. Kinzie has been living in Canada for five years and has reconnected with his family, an experience he says has been both rewarding and challenging.

When Kinzie learned he was HIV positive, he was living on the streets, prostituting, drinking and using drugs. “When I first found out, I felt dirty and gross and I wanted to rub off my skin. There was so much stigma in the ’80s. I felt that people were looking at me like I was a disgusting faggot. So I delved more into drugs to cope.”

But coming to Canada started his journey of healing, which involved identifying himself as a gay First Nations man who has HIV. “My experience of living with HIV in Canada has been better than in the States. My story with HIV really starts in Canada. Now I feel healthy. I am not ashamed of who I am.”

“I have my Aboriginal God behind me, my Caucasian God behind me and my Christian God behind me. I call my mom every morning for prayer before I go to school. I get a lot of my strength from God, my family, my partner and my kitties. And I have a lot of support through my aunty and uncle, who assisted me to meet the rest of my biological family at a family reunion.”

Kinzie described some of the supports that he was offered through agencies in Winnipeg. The Aboriginal Support Centre helped him get his identification, including his social insurance card. He also saw an ad in the paper about the Nine Circles Community Health Centre. “At Nine Circles, I walked in and asked for the gay men’s health centre, and I got what I needed there. I met my nurse, who I confide in a lot. She’s like my surrogate mom. That’s our little joke.”

“I take care of myself. I am healthy. I’m staying well because of school, my partner and because I love my three cats. They give me strength, hope and courage.”

Kim McKay-McNabb is a First Nations Cree woman from George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan. She is a wife, a mother to four sons and one daughter, a PhD clinical psychology student at the University of Regina and an assistant professor at the First Nations University of Canada. She has a passion for working with Aboriginal communities who are affected by HIV/AIDS in Canada.

Leah Dorion is a Métis artist currently living in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Her work incorporates many symbols, teachings and stories from her First Nations and Métis community. For more information about Dorion’s artistic vision and practices, check out her website.

Painting, “Contemplation Medicine,” by Leah Dorion

Photograph: Keith Moulding

Support for APHAs in Manitoba and Saskatchewan

Manitoba

Winnipeg

Kali Shiva Society
204.783.8565
kalishiv@mts.net

Manitoba PHA Caucus
204.940.6057
caucusstaff@yahoo.ca

Nine Circles Community Health Centre
204.940.6000
1.888.305.8647

Saskatchewan

Regina

All Nations Hope AIDS Network
306.924.8424
1.877.210.7622

AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan
306.924.8420
1.877.210.7623

Saskatoon

AIDS Saskatoon
306.242.5005
1.800.667.6876

PLWA Network of Saskatchewan
306.373.7766
1.800.226.0944
plwa@sasktel.net

Saskatoon HIV Aboriginal Reduction of Harm Program
306.956.0300

Prince Albert

Prince Albert Sexual Health Clinic
306.765.6540

National

Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network
604.266.7616
1.888.285.2226