Winter comes early for the peoples of the James Bay region. Winds from the Arctic sweep across Cree settlements, and pristine land ripples at its touch. Before the cold appears, many of the young, like a bird leaving its nest, have left the communities for the many faces of the south.

In an urban centre such as Montreal there is an almost unlimited amount of activities to satisfy the curious, the thrill-seeker, the loner. Many of which may be of benefit, allowing you to grow and be rich of spirit, body and mind.

There are, however, many things in the city that, like an oil spill, may tarnish and destroy you.

For the lonely and uncomfortable who seek the warmth of their community and their people, drugs and alcohol seem to reduce the pain of separation. But drugs and alcohol are like a trap whose teeth sink into the flesh. They have been known to destroy families and communities. They have been known to destroy those who are the lifeblood of First Nations People.

Drugs and alcohol also set the stage for another human drama: HIV infection and AIDS. We must not fool ourselves as to who is susceptible to infection. It is not specific people so much as it is specific behaviours which help spread the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

HIV is a virus that attacks and weakens the immune system, making the person more vulnerable to illnesses from which he would normally be able to defend himself. Persistent fatigue, unexplained weight loss, diarrhea and enlarged lymph glands are just some of the symptoms that could develop. Approximately 50 per cent of the people who test positive for HIV will develop AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, over a 10-year period. This is the advanced stage of HIV infection marked by the presence of an assortment of life-threatening diseases, such as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), which is a lung infection, or Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), which is a skin cancer.

You can get HIV by being exposed to the blood, semen and vaginal fluids of an infected person. This can take place several different ways. If you have unprotected sex or share needles with someone who’s infected, then you have put yourself at risk. If you are a pregnant woman who is infected, then you are putting your unborn child at risk.

The possibility of exposure to HIV increases when you’re drunk or stoned. The ability to think intelligently is reduced, and when you are lonely and need companionship, sexual activity is often not far off. Although it is perhaps best to abstain from sex, it is more realistic to acknowledge that it happens. Knowing and respecting your body, the great fortress, is the key to good health. Latex condoms, when used properly, can significantly reduce the risk to HIV infection.

If you are an IV drug user, it is best to get off the drugs, to help clean the body. If this is not possible, then it is important to use clean needles, and these are available at a number of places. Cactus, an organization in Montreal, is just one example (514-954-8869; call after 9 p.m.). There are other centres throughout Quebec. The local community health representative (CHR) may be able to help. The Native Friendship Centre in the area may be of assistance for referrals or counselling.

Presently there is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS. However, some drugs are being used to alleviate symptoms or prolong life. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, getting enough sleep and exercise, as well as eating properly, are extremely important for those who are HIV-positive.

As more people become infected worldwide, and this includes men, women and children of all colours and origins, it is important to remember our solidarity as a people. We all belong to the same human family, and in times of illness, whether due to HIV infection or AIDS, drugs or alcohol, we should respond to our brothers and sisters with a measure of respect and love.

Marcel Dubois is a Metis from the Red River Valley.