Indigenous-led HIV research centre opens in Sask.

An Indigenous-led research centre that focuses on HIV, Hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted blood-borne infections has launched in Saskatoon.

The centre at USask will work in Indigenous communities in Sask. and Man.

The waniska Centre, based at the University of Saskatchewan, will focus on on HIV (pictured), Hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted blood-borne infections. (CDC/Canadian Press)

An Indigenous-led research centre that focuses on HIV, Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) and other sexually transmitted blood-borne infections (STBBI) has launched in Saskatoon.

The waniska Centre is based at the University of Saskatchewan and will work with communities in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It said it will train the next generation of Indigenous scholars, practitioners and community members in HIV/HCV/STBBI research.

Dr. Alexandra King, who is from the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, is the Cameco chair in Indigenous health and wellness and the lead researcher at waniska.

She said the research centre got its name from the Cree and Saulteaux word meaning 'wake up' or 'arise.' King said the name was gifted to her and her team of researchers by someone who is living with HIV.

"He thought it was really important that given the really high rates of HIV and AIDS in Saskatchewan for Indigenous people, that it was time that we woke up," King said. "There had to be something done, we had to change how things were happening now so that the future generations wouldn't be dealing with the same problems that we are now."

King said mainstream society has provided some solutions for health issues, but a lot of them are not fundamentally grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing.

"I think for that reason they're less successful for us and in fact, some of them can even be harmful," she said. "A lot of Indigenous ways of knowing and doing are very preventative, and I think that if we are allowed to and provided the resources to go back to our original teachings, even in this modern world, and update it with some of the great new things, I think that you will see much better health and wellness for Indigenous people."

King said the idea for the centre came about when the Canadian Institute for Health Research put out a funding call for a HIV/Hepatitis C/STBBI research centre. She and a group of collaborators put together a proposal.

Once it got approved for funding, the virtual centre hired around 50 or 60 researchers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"I would expect that we'll end up working with a variety of different communities in each province and then hopefully cross provincial initiatives as well," King said. "We're just getting started, so it's hard to know what we're going to end up doing."

She said the centre is aiming to be very solutions oriented in its research, while looking at Indigenous ways of knowing and doing to bring about new and innovative solutions.

"Some of this is going to be very land-based activities and research, some of it's going to be very culture-based," she said.

King said some of the new technologies that are going to be brought forward include dry blood spot testing, which would provide people in remote settings access to HIV testing.

"Conventionally, when you needed lab work done, you would go to a lab and you'd have a phlebotomist draw vials of blood. What we know is that dried blood spot is a very tried and true technology," she said. "It's something that we can use even outside of labs and provides us with really good information."

She said the First Nation, Métis and Inuit people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are strong, resilient and innovative.

"I think that we're just getting started to deal with some of these incredible problems that really have been building up over 200 years or more."