In 1992 Rene Boucher moved to Vancouver to attend school at a Native College. He was in his second year studying Accounting and doing well when he went out partying with some friends during the Christmas break.
Then, says Rene, all it took was one night of unprotected sex with a stranger to turn his life upside down. Up to that time he had not paid any attention to warnings about HIV and AIDS because he felt that it was not something that he had to worry about. And suddenly he was faced with having to live with the consequences.
Rene Boucher is a 35-year-old Native man from the Oji-Cree community of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, who now writes and speaks of his own experience in order to promote HIV and AIDS awareness and education.
In Native communities across Canada there is a growing incidence of HIV and AIDS. According to a 1999 report by Health Canada, First Nation Peoples have experienced the greatest increase in the proportion of AIDS cases between 1989 and 1998. That proportion jumped from 1.3. per cent of the total reported cases in 1989 to 10.9 per cent in 1998 in spite of the fact that native people represent only 3.6 per cent of the Canadian population.
HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus is a virus that weakens the body’s ability to fight off infection and disease. People can sometimes live for a long time with HIV. In other cases HIV can develop into full-blown AIDS causing death.
Eighty-eight percent of the deaths associated with AIDS are related to opportunistic infections that would otherwise be harmless if the immune system of the person with HIV was not weakened.
There is no known cure for HIV and AIDS although there are combinations of medications which can prolong a person’s life. These are also called drug cocktails which can include having to take as many as 35 pills per day.
In a study conducted by Francois Boudreau, Adje van de Sande, and Marc Roulier, it is reported that the transmission of HIV occurs in the majority of cases through unprotected sexual contact involving the exchange of sperm, vaginal fluid, or blood.
And in spite of the fact that the most common form of HIV transmission is with anal sexual contact, there is a clear risk of infection through unprotected vaginal sex. There is also s high risk of transmission through intravenous (needles) drug use due to dirty needles.
Having more disposable income, the problem for Natives is often with travel to nearby towns (such as Val D’Or, Chibougamou, and Montreal for James Bay Crees) where people can engage in high risk behaviours such as sleeping with prostitutes and in some cases engaging in intravenous drug use.
Rene Boucher believes that, despite the growing incidence of HIV and AIDS in Native communities, there is too much silence surrounding this entirely preventable disease and in order to prevent its needless spread the silence must be broken.
And Rene says openness and education offer the greatest hope to Native people fighting this potential killer, given the history of devastation by diseases in the past.