Christine Metallic is a MicMac woman from Restigouche, Quebec. She is working for the Atlantic First Nations AIDS Task Force, whose mandate is to provide prevention and support to natives in the Atlantic provinces on the issue of AIDS. The Task Force is a newly formed organization which recently developed a training manual to help native communities deal with issues related to AIDS. This manual is now being tested, and hopefully will be available this year for community use.
We caught up with Christine in Montreal before she headed out to visit Cree and Inuit communities, and asked her to help us understand the issue of HIV and AIDS. She is presently living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, working with the MicMac First Nation.
Many people think AIDS has nothing to do with them. It’s a gay disease or a city disease. But the reality is, AIDS is everyone’s concern. Native people must take the time to look at this devastating virus because Health and Welfare Canada statistics say that HIV and AIDS is the next epidemic that has the potential to wipe out our communities.
Why? It’s been proven that native communities have the hightest rate of sexually transmitted disease and teen pregancy in all of Canada. We know the statistics are accurate, but what we don’t want to talk about is why we’re in this situation. The reality is we have high rates of drug, alcohol and substance abuse and family violence. These behaviours put us at risk.
Let’s examine some of these issues in our communities.
Many communites are in crisis due to family violence—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Here is one example : A young man leaves his community because he was sexually abused as a child. He never told anyone. Because of this experience, he was very confused about his sexuality. No one talked to this person about sex or sexuality. He felt unconfortable being in his community because he suspected he was gay. He moved to a large city to blend in, to lose himself. Years later, he returns home and has the HIV virus. This person has a choice; he could decide to have sex with someone from the community and the virus could spread very easily. We still don’t know if he is practicing safe sex. We can only hope that he’s being responsible.
Today his family has to deal with his illness, why he left the community and why he put himself at risk in contracting the
Initially, the family members just wanted to bury it, but other community members suspected something was wrong, because the person started to get sick. The community started to shun him. But his family decided to support and care for him because he was still part of the community and family. What the family found out was they had very little knowledge of the virus and the community also needed training.
This community had always believed they would never have to deal with HIV and AIDS.
The reality is, it is now becoming a mirror of our communities.
Let’s Examine Why We’re At Risk
Many things put us at risk. One is sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse is part of family violence and it happens on a daily basis in our communities. We know it happens and we don’t talk about it.
The reason it puts us at risk for contracting HIV and AIDS is that if you have been abused, you often behave in an unhealthy manner that puts you at risk. If a person has been sexually abused or experienced family violence, it is very difficult from them to trust anyone and to open up. It affects every part of their life—intimacy, sexuality, relationships with friends, family, or other members of the community.
People don’t realize just how much impact violence and abuse has on a person’s life. For example, people who have been sexually abused tend to be loners, with few or no friends and no one to talk to. This person often feels their only way of coping is to withdraw, and they become a “keeper of the secret.” Another reaction is they often tend to abuse themselves and their body with alcohol and drugs to numb the pain. The pain is sometimes so diffcult, at times they feel suicidal and extremely depressed.
Nobody would believe them about the abuse. Often it’s a family member who’s been the abuser or someone close to the family. The abused often feel they provoked the abuse even if they were babies when it started.
But worst of all, abused people or victims of violence often feel ashamed and unable to ask for help. People who have been sexually abused often care very little about their body, their safety and their self-esteem. They often become promiscuous and often don’t practise safe sex. This puts them at risk.
Another reason why people are put at risk is physical abuse. People who experience violence often tend to leave their familes early and get into other violent relationships. For example, they may marry an abusive man. This individual would be very violent and they think it’s normal and healthy. Because it’s often learned behaviour, possibly from their own parents, the violent cycle then begins and becomes a multi-generational issue.
Often, abused women are too scared to ask their husbands or partners to use condoms when engaging in sex, especially if they know their partners are fooling around on them. Intimidation, guilt and fear play a major part in this cycle of abuse.
People who are in pain and who cope by using drugs and alcohol are again at risk because they tend not to care what happens to them.
I am a person who has dealt with sexual abuse and I often engaged in high-risk behaviour because of the sexual abuse. For many years, I put myself at risk. I am relieved I am not HIV-positive. It has taken me years to examine my life and I’m very thankful that I’m not, that I was lucky. But I’ve had many friends who were not as lucky as I was. Some have died and some are living with the disease right now.
Since then, I’ve decided to work with the First Nations Aids Task Force in the area of prevention of the spread of HIV and AIDS. I truly believe that prevention is needed in the native communities.
Most of the time in the communities, everybody is worried about minding their own business and nobody feels they have the right to intervene to help solve a problem of abuse or violence. It is part of our culture not to offer help unless somebody asks for it. But those social rules come from days when there was no shame in asking for help. Today, things have changed. People suffering in abusive situations are too traumatized or ashamed to reach out. How far do we have to let things go waiting for someone to ask for help? Until somebody’s dead?
Often, communities and families cope from crisis to crisis. For example, if somebody is beaten up badly, we are there to take care of them and to be supportive in any way we can. Then, after the crisis, everything goes back to normal. It’s like when there’s a fire in the community. Everybody runs out to help put out the fire. They make sure the family is set up somewhere else. Everybody helps. People will collect clothes and furniture and some food to make sure the family is okay. And then the crisis is over and everyone goes home. Nobody bothers with them after that. The reasons why the fire started in the first place are not looked at.
I think we need to take more consistent and immediate action in our communities to deal with the issues I have been talking about because time is running short.
Why is time running short? Many native prophecies predict that native people are going to take the lead role in healing and teaching non-native communites how to survive in the future. If you take a look at what is happening across the country, native people are coming up with their own programs and native people are implementing them.
What is exciting about this movement is that people are returning to their traditions such as attending Sweats, Pow-Wows, Talking and Healing Circles, Fasting, Meditation, Dream Interpretations, Sun Dance Ceremonies, Walking-Out Ceremonies and Puberty Ceremonies, all of which have been our fundamental teachings and strengths which we now need to draw on to deal with the issues that I mentioned before.
Time Is Running Out
We need to pay attention to the prophecies, especially when we are now seeing the predictions becoming reality. The positive side of the prophesies is that native people are already becoming strong leaders and teachers. But part of the prophesies tells of a time limit, that we don’t have forever. Another part of the prophecies says there will be a major illness that has the potential to destroy native communities. AIDS is interpreted as being that disease.
AIDS and HIV are just the tip of the iceberg. All the other issues come into play. Why are we in this situation? Why are we in a situation where we could be potentially wiped out by this disease? That’s the question to ask. If we were such healthy communities, why are we in the potential situation of being wiped out?
The real truth of it is that nobody is going to start being concerned about the issue of AIDS until somebody comes home with it and they can put a name and a face to the disease—a brother, sister, husband, wife or child. The unfortunate situation is that communities won’t look at this seriously until that has happened. But do you want to keep taking that risk, or wait until it’s you?
Knowing all this, now we need to turn around and understand how and why we are in this situation so that we can start dealing with this virus and all the issues related to our current predicitment.
After many conferences and workshops, the First Nations Task Force staff found out why many communities don’t want to deal with this issue—communities often feel discouraged because of a lack of funding, information, support and resources, and the many layers of issues that need to bead-dressed. Many front-line care-givers (social workers, teachers, nurses, chief, council) often feel overwhelmed with the work that needs to be done. This issue is a community issue and the community needs to react as a community. It’s not just one staff member’s responsibility.
In the Atlantic, the approach of the Task Force (a team of five people) is community-oriented. The community tells us what type of prevention work is needed and our program is tailored to their community needs. If we have a group of women who feel comfortable sitting around the kitchen table and want to discuss HIV, AIDS and other related issues, that’s what we do. We even have AIDS-awareness bingos geared to the gamblers. We’re quite flexible. We often use talking circles.
Talking Circles don’t necessarily have to happen on a said date or time with an announcement. Often, we don’t recognize that circles happen all the time when people get together. We often have these sessions in the kitchen or sitting around the fire in a tent, but we never really identify the strength they have and what they can accomplish.
Talking Circles can be helpful not only to inform but to teach, support each other and reach solutions and consensus. They empower people, because there is an atmosphere of trust and everyone is respected and everyone is given the chance to speak.
Although HIV and AIDS is a devasting issue, this virus is now becoming a teacher. It is teaching us about individual, family and community wellness.
To obtain this wellness, we must return to our culture. You may ask, what is our culture? Our culture is not only talking circles and ceremonies, but respecting and listening to our elders. Our culture is our traditions as native peoples. We have the answers to our problems in our traditions. But we have to commit ourselves to finding the answers as individuals, as families and most importantly as communities.
This article is part of our effort to further discussion on important social issues. A short article can only scratch the surface of these complex issues and we hope to continue looking at these quesitons in future editions of The Nation.