'I hold them when they cry': HIV-positive Saskatoon woman helps female inmates get tested

Debbie Roberts says the incarcerated women she speaks to about HIV don’t usually want to discuss the idea of getting tested when they are still behind bars.

Debbie Roberts says former inmates want support when they go to get tested for HIV

Debbie Roberts, an HIV-positive woman and former meth addict who speaks about her experiences to women at correctional centres, says many approach her after they are released to ask if she will accompany them to get tested for HIV. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Debbie Roberts says the incarcerated women she speaks to about HIV don't usually want to discuss the idea of getting tested when they are still behind bars.

"They aren't telling me in the correctional. They don't really want to talk about it," she said.

"So when they come out they want to find peers that will go with them [to get tested], because it's scary to find out alone if you do have it or not."

Roberts, a former meth addict who is HIV-positive, visits women's correctional centres in Saskatchewan to share her story and encourage other women to do the test.

More and more, she said the women are seeking her out when they are released to ask if she will go with them to get tested. She said it happens so often she needs to start a Facebook page so they can contact her more easily.  

Roberts was part of the crowd that gathered for the "Know Your Status" HIV forum in Saskatoon this week .

Organized by the Saskatoon Tribal Council Health and Family Services, the event included a series of workshops, training and discussions aimed at reducing Saskatchewan's high rate of HIV, and supporting those who are HIV-positive.

Roberts was there to participate in a workshop for people who want to share their stories and spread the word about getting tested.

Being there when there is bad news

Although she is already speaking at correctional centres, she wants to improve her presentation skills and knowledge to educate youth and vulnerable women.  

Having recovered from a meth addiction that left her blind, Roberts said sharing her story with incarcerated women already seems to be making a difference.

Debbie Roberts, who is HIV-positive, has been speaking out about her experiences in an effort to encourage more women to get tested — and she says it is working. (Courtney Markewich/CBC News)

When Roberts was using meth, she said her HIV almost progressed to the advanced stage of AIDS because she was not stable enough to maintain the regular treatment.

She said she has been there to support "a lot of people" when they found out they were HIV-positive.

"It's still hard. It's not like you're going to be ready for it," she said.

"You've just got to be there for the person. You never know how they are going to react. I hold them when they cry or just talk to them, or go for a walk."

Voices need to be heard

Trevor Stratton, the co-ordinator of the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS, led the workshops on public speaking.

He has been living with HIV for 27 years and was involved with the development of a speakers' manual for people who want to share their stories.

Stratton said history shows that the people who make decisions related to HIV need to be guided by those who are living with the virus.

"It was people living with HIV-AIDS who forced the governments to stand up and take action around HIV-AIDS, because it was a real joke in the '80s and people were talking about us, [saying] 'How will we protect ourselves against these people?'" said Stratton.

"And that's just not OK. What about care, treatment and support for people who are HIV-positive? If they're being treated with high rates of stigma and discrimination, people aren't going to want to go get tested, they're not going to want to know their status — they don't want to be 'one of them.'"

Look at 'landscape' of life

Stratton's workshop teaches people to look at the "landscape" of their lives so they can tell their story in an effective way that could lead to change.

Although support for people with HIV has improved since the 1980s, Stratton said disparities now exist in the type of support available to some communities.

Saskatchewan has the highest rates of HIV in Canada, with 2,090 cases reported between 1985 and 2016.

Of the 170 new cases of HIV in the province in 2016, 79 per cent self-identified as Indigenous.

Stratton said Indigenous communities are taking ownership of the HIV issue in Saskatchewan through events like Know Your Status.

Shame the biggest barrier

He hopes to give more people a voice by equipping them with the skills to share their stories, but that alone is not enough.

"It's not only about telling our stories, it's about being involved in advisory committees, it's about being project co-ordinators and executive directors and elected officials.

"If you lock someone into only a role of public speaking for many, many years — that's just tokenism."

Trevor Stratton leading a workshop on public speaking for HIV-positive people who want to share their stories. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Debbie Roberts wants her story to empower women who might feel too ashamed to seek help, adding that shame is the biggest barrier to women seeking help or getting tested.

She said it is also crucial to educate youth.

"You've got to hit the youth hard because a lot of people think it's OK to live on meds for the rest of your life and not use condoms and everything, but it's not," said Roberts.

"[I want to] go back to my reserve and hopefully get into their ears and let them listen, because if it's somebody from home, I think they'll listen more."