On March 8, 2014 CAAN staff based in Dartmouth, NS participated in a rally for International Women’s day linking our research with a call to action in support of Positive Aboriginal Women. This is the speech Renée Masching, Director of Research and Policy, delivered at the Grand Parade Square in Halifax:

“It is an honour to be here with such respected speakers and leaders and to be part of celebrating International Women’s Day. My name is Renée Masching, I am First Nation and my bloodlines come from Six Nations of the Grand River in Southern Ontario and I am also of Irish descent.

We acknowledge that we are gathering today on Mi’kmaq Territory and respectfully say to the traditional peoples of this place that we will tread gently on the land.

We want to begin our comments remembering Loretta Saunders – we know that her life, cut horribly short, will not be forgotten and she will be part of a legacy that demands a response from the Government of Canada and society to examine the root causes of violence against Aboriginal Woman. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with her family and friends.

To honour Loretta Saunders specifically, Aboriginal women and all of us gathered here today, our friend Cathy Martin has agreed to share a Song with us.

We work with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network – CAAN – a national, non-governmental organization with a vision for Canada where First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, families and communities achieve and maintain strong, healthy and fulfilling lives and significantly reduce HIV and AIDS, Hepatitis C, Sexually Transmitted and Blood Borne Infections, Tuberculosis, Mental Health and related co-morbidity issues. Where Aboriginal cultures, traditions, values and Indigenous knowledge are vibrant, alive, respected, valued and integrated into day-to-day life.

Our head office is based in Vancouver, British Columbia and our Research Unit is based here, in Cole Harbour. I am joined today by Monique Fong, Mallory McCormick and some of our children. We have the honour of sharing perspectives that are informed by Doris Peltier, CAAN’s Aboriginal Women and Leadership Coordinator, and the staff of Healing Our Nations, the Atlantic First Nations AIDS Network based in Burnside and serving the Atlantic region.

Our comments today are specific to HIV and AIDS and the needs of Aboriginal Women in this context. The fight against HIV continues to rage within our communities and awareness of this issue is essential to stopping the epidemic unfolding across Canada. As a collective gathered here today, I invite you to also consider the important work and issues that you are a part of as we share our comments. Through the lens of HIV, CAAN is addressing housing, community policy, education, addictions, healthcare practices and training, family dynamics, youth leadership, the rights of people who are incarcerated, Indigenous approaches to research and International collaborations. I hope that you will find relevance to your contexts in the story we would like to share.

Aboriginal peoples across Canada are working to address the impacts of HIV and AIDS in the lives of Aboriginal women. In 2009, CAAN completed the research project Our Search for Safe Spaces regarding the role of sexual violence in the lives of Aboriginal Women living with HIV/AIDS. This research mapped connections between gender, culture, HIV, sexual violence and impacts on health management. The final report clearly provides evidence regarding the gendered issues of colonization, poverty and sexual violence. These issues continue to disrupt the collective wellbeing of Aboriginal communities, establishing harmful beliefs and practices that devalue and put Aboriginal women and girls at high risk for violence and HIV.

There is an immediate need to improve the circumstances of HIV Positive Aboriginal Women – referred to as PAW – Positive Aboriginal Women – an expression coined by Aboriginal AIDS Activist Kecia Larkin to capture the reality of living with HIV and also the positive energy, insights and contributions of Aboriginal women.

We must help to alleviate poverty and improve access to services which help PAW to manage their health and to sustain their families and communities. The continuum of sexual violence present in the lives of many PAW makes it difficult to manage their health. Gender-based violence occurs in public and private domains and includes any act that is likely to or does result in harm or suffering of a girl or woman.

Drawing from our research and seeking a concrete, actionable outcome to our work, CAAN has developed a PAW-licy statement in support of environments where PAW can thrive; nurturing spaces to address the impacts of trauma and violence. Central to this effort is the creation of safe spaces and networks which support Aboriginal girls and women to learn, heal and contribute. These “PAW Dens” are havens for women, whose healing and experience will provide guidance, wisdom and support for all other branches of Aboriginal communities and society at large. Together, men, women, children, and Elders can all support PAW and their children in every region of Turtle Island – across North America.

Today we are formally inviting you and the diverse organizations that you are a part of professionally, as volunteers and community members to join us in creating safe spaces to commit to “stand up and speak up” to stop gender-based violence and its role in the spread of HIV and AIDS among Aboriginal women and girls. Specifically, to establish safe spaces that support PAW wellbeing in the context of HIV and AIDS as a priority.

These “PAW Dens” are part of rebuilding the sacred circle within Aboriginal communities. Steps to implement the PAW-licy are further expanded upon in materials available on our website.  I thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

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