Front-line workers from around the world are gathering in Ottawa to discuss ways to curb high rates of HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C within Indigenous communities.
Hosted by the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, a special symposium is bringing together Indigenous health experts from 14 countries to share strategies in hopes of creating an international framework for dealing with illnesses including HIV.
'We want to change policy. We want people to hear us.' - Marama Mullen, International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS
The goal is "to recommend to governments what best practices and what promising practices that have been successful within our Indigenous communities around the world," said Ken Clement, executive director of the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network.
After three days of discussion, stakeholders at the meeting hope to create a working document they can present to international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization — and to the governments of their own countries — to advocate for better access to health resources and programming in Indigenous communities.
"We know that we're disproportionately affected. We know that anecdotally, but we need some evidence. Just like anything, we want to change policy. We want people to hear us. We have to provide a really strong base of evidence," said Marama Mullen, who's Maori from New Zealand and works with the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS.
While HIV infection rates are falling in many countries around the world, they remain higher among many Indigenous populations. In Canada, HIV rates are 2.7 times higher among Indigenous people than non-Indigenous people.
Trevor Stratton, originally from Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation in southern Ontario, believes Indigenous people need a greater voice at the international level in order to combat rising infections of HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C.
"If we are not at those tables, if we don't have a unified international voice for Indigenous people on this issue, then we are not included in the international policy direction and some of the tools and documents that are coming out," said Stratton, who's lived with HIV for 27 years.
"When people have control over their own health policy, they become healthier, and Indigenous peoples, almost without exception, don't have control over the laws that govern how their communities operate."
Attendees also see the symposium as a great opportunity for front line workers from countries including Australia, Mexico, Cambodia to network.
"Often we work in silos and often we're duplicating efforts in our countries, so it's a really good opportunity to kind of showcase and get synergy between our populations," said James Ward, a public health professor from Australia.
"It's not only a bond of friendship, but a respect for the work that we all do in the field of HIV," added Clement.