Emily Mathieu, Staff Reporter, Jan 10, 2008
HIV rates among Canada's aboriginal community continue to rise at alarming rates – and women face the highest risk.
That's where Catherine Beaver comes in.
A wry, outspoken, slip of a woman who walks with a bit of a limp, Beaver is a public speaker with 2-Spirited People of the First Nations in Toronto, a gay, lesbian and transpositive organization that conducts HIV/AIDS outreach for the community.
"The way I look at it is, I am not ashamed or afraid of it," says Beaver, 28, who is HIV-positive. She tells her story nationwide to try to stem the epidemic spread of HIV in the aboriginal community – mostly connected to intravenous drug use.
In November, the Public Health Agency of Canada released its latest stats on the spread of HIV and AIDS in this country.
The report reveals aboriginal people (Inuit, Métis and First Nations) accounted for more than a quarter of all positive HIV tests reported in 2006, even though they only make up about 6 per cent of the total population in the 12 provinces and territories included in the stats. (Ontario and Quebec are excluded because they do not collect ethno-specific HIV data.)
And, for the third year in a row, women accounted for more than half of the positive test results among aboriginal people.
In her talks, Beaver explains how she became infected 2 -1/2 years ago through intravenous drug use. She talks about being adopted, of her isolation while living on the streets, losing custody of her two children, substance abuse and prostitution.
"You know, when the whole world just disintegrates, goes black, like in TV shows ... and you are just standing there by yourself..."
After years of treatment, she is no longer an addict but still struggles to fight the occasional setback. Beaver uses her story to make a point.
"I'm not scared of people reacting," she says, insisting not enough aboriginal people are speaking out, which is why the number of infections continues to rise.
According to the Public Health report, intravenous drug use was the main cause of HIV infection among aboriginal people, at 64 per cent. Heterosexual contact was the other main cause, at 34 per cent.
That's the reverse of the national averages for HIV-positive tests, where 74 per cent of new cases are attributed to heterosexual contact and 24 per cent to intravenous drug use.
Dr. Ahmed Bayoumi, a physician and clinical epidemiologist with the University of Toronto, says the numbers don't offer a complete picture of rates, or their root causes, within the aboriginal community.
"The delivery of effective health services to aboriginal people in this country has been a problem for many years," he says. "I think there is a legacy of mistrust and alienation."
However, he says the trends detected by Health Canada are accurate and need to be addressed.
Trevor Stratton, former president of 2-Spirited People, suggests social oppression of aboriginal people in Canada has resulted in a spiritual sickness and the oppression of women (men abusing or oppressing women because they themselves have been abused), making women extremely vulnerable.
There is also a cultural stigma around the disease within the community, which makes it difficult to talk about. Even the words they commonly use for HIV/AIDS translate to "the dirty disease" or the "dirty blood disease," which can carry tremendous stigma.
"Our leaders have to acknowledge it's an epidemic," says Doris Peltier, 51, a board member with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network. "I didn't have a voice."
Peltier was infected through a partner she knew was not monogamous, but she didn't have any control in the relationship at the time.
She says her inner strength was tempered by decades of isolation, addictions and physical abuse – much of which was ignored by her community.
If the aboriginal community doesn't join together to protect its women and stem the spread of HIV, Peltier says it will endure decades of disaster and despair.
"I compare it to the sexual abuse that finally came out" at residential schools, she says.
Now she's fighting for women who can't speak for themselves. "Even though I might have that virus in my body, I'm being healed."