By Dylan Richards
Recently I was invited out to an on-reserve First Nations community to teach about HIV awareness. It’s always a special treat for me to do a trip like this – there are very few places you will be treated with more love and kindness than a community of Indigenous folks. After speaking for about an hour about the way HIV works in the body, the ways to prevent it, current treatment options, etc., I asked if anyone had questions. For a few moments, the circle was silent… until eventually an elderly woman raised her hand and asked, “What happens when we don’t have the money to drive to Edmonton to get the medication?”
Soon, question after question came pouring out of the folks in that circle, and each and every one was about how to prevent or live with HIV when social determinants like poverty, racism, and basic access to care stood in the way. It was a stark reminder for me that the issue of HIV among Indigenous peoples is far more complicated than simply promoting testing and condoms. The legacy of hundreds of years of oppression and abuse have created systems that put up barriers for Indigenous Canadians that many of us have never had to face. If we are going to start to make a change, that’s where we have to start – with the underlying causes of those barriers.
This year’s Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week is focused on eliminating stigma and discrimination, but it goes beyond just that of a person living with HIV. The stigma and discrimination Indigenous Canadians face every day merely for being who they are is made even more unbearable when you add HIV-related hatred and exclusion. The strength it takes to continue each day in the face of that pressure is immense, and I am proud to know many incredibly strong and proud HIV+ Indigenous people who not only face that pressure, but excel and succeed more than I could ever imagine possible. But it is up to each one of us to take that pressure and weight off the shoulders of our fellow human beings living with HIV.
As this Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week comes to a close, I am reminded of that circle. Each face, each person, someone who could be living with HIV. Each one someone deserving of love, support, and the same access to kindness and good medical care as each and every one of us. We live in a world where treatment and prevention have advanced to the point where we could completely prevent new HIV infections and have zero AIDS-related deaths. But until we deal with the stigma and discrimination around HIV, and that faced by communities like Indigenous Canadians, we won’t get there. So let’s all do our part to get to zero.