By Doris Peltier APHA Liaison (CAAN) – Winter 2013

I would like to preface this article by highlighting some acronyms you might see me use.  Too often within the Aboriginal HIV and AIDS movement we assume that most people know who we are referring to when we say APHA (Aboriginal Person Living with HIV/AIDS).  Or in this instance, you might see me use, OFNAPHA, by simply adding Ontario First Nations to APHA.  You will also see me refer to a very important acronym, GIPA (Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV/AIDS).

Secondly, I want to give you a snapshot on the Aboriginal response to HIV in Ontario and tie this into the reasons why we felt it important to host the 2012, and now the 2013 summits.  A Tale of Two Summits is really about the ‘greater involvement of persons living with HIV and AIDS’ as it is the culmination of a vision by a core group of OFNAPHAs, supported from the onset, by an on-reserve group of five educators with the Ontario First Nations HIV/AIDS Education Circle (OFNHAEC).  This group (OFNHAEC), representing 133 First Nations communities in Ontario, is funded by Health Canada under the umbrella of the Chiefs of Ontario.  It needs to be noted that OFNHAEC has always utilized the GIPA principle, and been mindful in utilizing First Nations people living with HIV and AIDS in their work.  The greatest challenge for the OFNHAEC is that they are funded to deliver HIV and AIDS education and awareness to the 133 First Nations communities in Ontario, within five provincial territorial organizations, which include Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians; the Union of Ontario Indians; Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Treaty 3 and the Independent First Nations.   The work that OFNHAEC provides is not direct client services, but is focused on HIV and AIDS education, awareness and resource development for First Nations people communities.  Their biggest achievement to date has been the annual and ongoing peer to peer youth training sessions.

There is another important player within the province, namely the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy (OAHAS), whose primary role is to deliver frontline client services, within the urban areas in Ontario; they are funded provincially by the AIDS Bureau of Ontario, under the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care, from specific dollars earmarked for urban Aboriginals within the province.  OAHAS has on occasion worked with First Nation communities, but only when invited.

Now this is when the tumultuous issue of jurisdiction comes into play, and can sometimes be a highly political issue, simply because the funding for OAHAS and OFNHAEC come from two pots of money, off-reserve and on-reserve.  This jurisdictional issue in turn creates huge gaps in services for those OFNPHAs who might be living in their first nation, and many are not receiving quality healthcare and support for their HIV, and in some cases are falling through the cracks.

As a group of HIV positive activists working with the on-reserve group, some of us have had direct experience living in our home communities, and have recognized a multitude of barriers that continue to hinder access to care, treatment and support for our peers who choose to live in their home communities. This is the reason why we began to envision the need for a summit, so that we could hear directly from OFNAPHAs about what they are experiencing in terms of barriers to quality healthcare within their communities.  This is a complex issue, and is probably playing out in other regions of Canada.   Suffice to say, it is not a new issue, and we as the core group are saying, enough talk, it is time for action!  We anticipate leveraging the support of political bodies, like the chiefs in Ontario, to begin to see improvements, allowing for increased HIV support services within the First Nation communities.

2012 – Paddling Forward: Navigating Seamless Reconnection of our Communities:

When I first stepped out as an HIV/AIDS activist a few years ago, if someone would have told me, that Chiefs in one tribal region would one day pass a resolution to endorse the ‘greater involvement of people living with HIV’ (GIPA) Principle, I probably would have been a tad skeptical.   But, this is exactly what happened in 2012 within the Anishinabek Nation: Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) political territory. The UOI is a political advocate for 39 member First Nations across Ontario and is the oldest political organization in Ontario, tracing its roots back to the Confederacy of Three Fires, which existed long before European contact.  I like to think that the passing of this historical resolution by the UOI Chiefs would not have been possible without the foresight and support of UOI Deputy Grand Chief Glen Hare.   We invited the Deputy Chief to conduct the ‘opening welcome to the territory’ at last year’s summit.  Unlike other leaders, he decided to stay on and listen in on our deliberations, and from there he became our greatest political champion for First Nations People Living with HIV and AIDS in his region.

Other notable milestones included, firstly that the event was totally organized by APHAs; secondly, for the first time in the history of the Aboriginal HIV/AIDS response in Ontario, on-reserve and off-reserve agencies worked together by setting aside imposed jurisdictional barriers to support the vision of the core group of APHA leaders.  The underlying vision for hosting a summit of this type was to create a forum to discuss how to create seamless linkages to care for First Nations people living with HIV within the province.  As is the case in other provinces, indigenous care, treatment and support models are still non-existent within First Nations communities due to the stigma and discrimination of HIV at the community level, and hence people are not receiving the care they should be getting and are falling through the cracks.

2013 – Moving Forward: Navigating the Portage:

This year, the summit will once again be held in North Bay on March 4-6, 2013, and is entitled, Moving Forward: Navigating the Portage.  In the first summit, we recognized the traditional importance of waterways that at one time, kept our people connected, without today’s jurisdictional divides that keep us separated. This year, in using ‘navigating the portage’, we are essentially acknowledging our connection to the land, what a portage may signify in our journeys as First Nations People Living with HIV/AIDS.  It is about acknowledging the barriers and finding ways to navigate and traverse the portage together.  For me, at a metaphorical level, ‘paddling forward’ and ‘navigating the portage’ denotes the journey of life and the act of moving forward on a continual basis.  At another level, it is an indigenous worldview, and hopefully resonates as such for others.

It is always important to acknowledge my peers, particularly the core group that shared this journey.  I feel very privileged to be working alongside such humble, powerful and yet gentle warriors.  Now that we are about to host our second summit, it is even more important to acknowledge their tireless dedicated work which has involved many hours of preparation and many meetings of the steering committee.  In the interests of their privacy and confidentiality, they will remain unnamed, but you know who you all are.  Miiquetch!!!

love lift us up where we belong, where the eagles cry on a mountain high, love lift us up where we belong, far from the worlds we know, up where the clear winds blow (Buffy Ste Marie)

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