Canadian aboriginals had the chance to talk about their experiences living with HIV and AIDS at a major international conference this week, an important first step to raising more awareness about the problem, according to Mary Jackson.
Jackson, executive director with the Northern HIV and Health Education Society, said she was pleased that the federal government supported the Canadian presentation this week at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington. It was the first time an aboriginal group put on a session in the nearly three-decade history of the event.
"I think it's wonderful for aboriginal people, especially Canadian aboriginal people, to have that voice," Jackson said, adding the government has come a long way since Prime Minister Stephen Harper failed to attend the 2006 conference in Toronto.
Four Canadians made their interactive presentation at the Washington conference on Monday. It focused on how aboriginal sharing circles can be used to make safe spaces for women suffering from the disease.
The HIV infection rate among aboriginals is more than 3.5 times higher than the rest of the Canadian population and the demographic accounted for 12.5 per cent of all new cases of the virus in 2008, the most recent year that statistics are available.
"I see how HIV has been connected to a whole bunch of different groups," Jackson said. "The connection is marginalization. We see (the disease) in our most marginalized populations. First it was gay men, then it was injection drug users, now it's aboriginal people and it's moving into seniors and youth."
Jackson said more education is needed for everyone about the disease, but she said it's especially difficult to spread the message in isolated communities. Until more funding becomes available, it won't get any easier.
When she does put on a session in a remote location, many of the questions Jackson gets revolve around which body fluids transmit the virus and what it's like to live with HIV.
"They aren't aware that to get HIV is not a death sentence any more," she said. "A lot of people still think it is, and it doesn't have to be."
If she was putting together a session at a future international conference, Jackson said she would focus on why aboriginal people are vulnerable, the ongoing effects of colonization and the strength that she sees in the First Nations community as it deals with the disease.
"There's a resilience in aboriginal people," she said. "Obviously they have survived a lot of mistreatment over the years from government. The fact that they're still around and growing in numbers tells me they have resilience."