News / Edmonton

Indigenous groups meet in Edmonton to discuss high HIV rates

Panel gathered at MacEwan University Tuesday to mark Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week, as Indigenous people face rates 2.7 times higher than other Canadians

Raye St. Denys, who identifies as Metis, is the executive director of Shining Mountains Living Community Services.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

Raye St. Denys, who identifies as Metis, is the executive director of Shining Mountains Living Community Services.

Discrimination, poverty and a lack of healthcare services are contributing to high HIV rates in Indigenous communities, according to one expert.

Raye St. Denys, executive director of the Alberta-based Indigenous AIDS service organization Shining Mountains Living Community Services, was part of a panel that gathered at MacEwan University Tuesday to mark Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week.

“While in mainstream populations HIV rates are decreasing, they are not decreasing in our world,” St. Denys said.

HIV rates among Indigenous people are 2.7 times higher than among other Canadians.

St. Denys said a lack of healthcare facilities in rural Indigenous communities, and a lack of confidentiality where facilities do exist, prevents many people from getting tested in Alberta.

“If you come from a rural community and you have to go to a health centre … everybody knows. It could be your Aunt Sally that’s on the other side of the desk,” she said.

For those who do test positive, they have to travel to Edmonton or Calgary to see a specialist.

Once making the trek, if they are able, patients often feel they face racism are treated unfairly because they are Indigenous.

St. Denys is working with the DRUM project, led by three Alberta First Nations, to pull together local, regional and provincial health services and bring integrated HIV and AIDS care to Indigenous communities.

She said bringing care to communities where it’s needed could be one step in curbing HIV rates.

But a lack of facilities is not the only contributing factor.

The spread of HIV is also closely connected to other issues, including violence against Indigenous women, she said.

She said men are less likely than women to go for any kind of medical testing or be aware of their HIV status, while women are more likely to work in the sex trade for survival or be in other situations that leave them feeling like they do not have power over their own bodies.

“When they have sex, the use of a condom may or may not be negotiated. If they don’t feel that they have power to say, ‘No I won’t have sex without a condom,’ they are more at risk,” St. Denys said.

She said the spread of HIV is also connected to the high number migrant workers in Northern Alberta, particularly in the oilfield, who have “no vested interest” in the communities where they work.

“There’s been research done regarding the impact of migrant workers on HIV rates in communities. And in those communities, they’re primarily aboriginal people in Alberta,” she said.

Tuesday’s panel was co-hosted by the Métis Nation of Alberta and the Aboriginal Women’s Justice Foundation.

It was part of a cross-Canada Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week tour, which aimed to connect Indigenous people, researchers, and policy makers to share practices, learn from each other and build relationships across the country.

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