Vancouver-based Indigenous HIV organization uses Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week to highlight funding cuts

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      Although the rate of infection among Indigenous people is 2.7 times higher than other Canadians, numerous Indigenous HIV organizations in Canada have had their federal funding cut. One such organization is bringing attention back to those cuts for Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week 2017 (December 1 to 6) and World AIDS Day (December 1).

      Ken Clement has been the executive director for the non-profit Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) for the past decade (and has worked with the organization for an additional five years). CAAN, which represents over 340 member organizations and individuals, is among the Indigenous HIV organizations that had their funding cut by the Public Health Agency of Canada, which has changed the way it allocates funding under the HIV and Hepatitis C Community Action Fund.

      By phone with the Georgia Straight, he said CAAN has lost $400,000, or 46 percent, of their funding. The cuts were announced in October 2016 and will become effective in the next fiscal year, which begins on April 1, 2018.

      In terms of the impact, Clement said that addressing the funding reduction itself has already absorbed most of their resources.

      "It's taking away the energy and effort from the important work in diverting our attention to dealing with the cuts," he said. "Primarily, it'll be reducing our capacity to represent Indigenous communities."

      He explained that CAAN has represented Inuit, Métis, and First Nations across Canada since being founded in 1997 but they will face challenges hereon in as there may not be frontline services in many provinces due to cuts to other Indigenous HIV organizations. Likewise, he added that their collaborative work with other organizations has become more tenuous.

      Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network executive director Ken Clement
      Yolande Cole

      As in other fields such as education or civic policies, Clement also feels that there needs to be a reconciliation process in healthcare.

      "It's incumbent on all Canadians to recognize the social inequities with and among Indigenous people that have played out in terms of colonization, the residential school system, and all those other social health-determinants that impact all our lives," he said. "Those impacts have really affected how things are today."

      He pointed out that HIV and health issues need to be considered in a broader context with other related or influential issues when it comes to Indigenous populations.

      "There's still that issue of needing to support Indigenous people because of our economic status within Canada," he said. "I think there are many challenges that we face yet and it's something that needs to be tackled holistically. We can't just look at HIV or health, we have to look at issues like education, poor housing, poverty—all those other things which are contributing factors to the reason why Indigenous people are at higher [HIV] rates than the general population."

      Two of the main groups at-risk for HIV infection remain gay men and Indigenous people (with injection drug use being the primary source of infection for the latter). Two-spirit people, who are both Indigenous and queer, are therefore living with some of the highest rates of potential risk.

      Clement pointed out that they're also contending with compounded levels of stigma and discrimination, not just from society at large but also from within communities or even from relatives.

      "Once you're infected, you're doubly marginalized so you're not only HIV–positive but you're also two-spirit," he said. "There's a degree of push back from family, especially family who don't support, in a lot of cases, two-spirit issues and their health status so they become more disenfranchised."

      While two-spirit people traditionally held special ceremonial or sacred positions in many First Nations cultures, the homophobic attitudes that European colonists introduced to Indigenous people has led to Indigenous two-spirit and LGBT people facing many forms of challenges and discrimination.

      This year's Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week (AAAW) kicks off on Thursday (November 30) with a launch event in Ottawa to help inform and educate people about ongoing issues. Events will be held from December 1 to 6 in various Canadian cities, including Regina, Saskatoon, and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan; Iqaluit, Nunavut; Eskasoni, Nova Scotia; Montreal, Quebec; Toronto, Ontario; and Edmonton, Alberta.

      Here in Vancouver, a free AAAW 2017 event will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on December 6 at the Nation Education College Longhouse (285 East 5th Avenue). The evening will include traditional prayers, guest speakers, a screening of the HIV youth documentary "A Mile in Our Moccasins", Indigenous youth musical performances, and Indigenous cuisine (including stew and bannock).

      For information about AAAW 2017 or CAAN, visit the CAAN website

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook. You can also follow the Straight's LGBT coverage on Twitter at @StraightLGBT or on Facebook.