Sask. government's lack of response to HIV crisis warning points to systemic racism issues: advocate

An advocate who has worked for two decades with people living with HIV says the health minister ignored warnings about a growing HIV epidemic, and the solutions that were offered.

HIV diagnoses jumped almost 30 per cent in 2019 from the year prior

Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis said she and other advocates believe Saskatchewan has not done a good enough job of providing care, treatment, support to Indigenous people, or supporting organizations who are trying to help. (Submitted by Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis)

Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis says Saskatchewan's health minister ignored warnings of a growing HIV "epidemic" — and she wonders why.

The CEO of the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network helped pen a letter in June that requested collaboration and action on rising rates. Front-line workers had reported at least 11 new cases in Regina in just two weeks.

"HIV sees no sign of decreasing, the data is clear, and the people who have HIV who are living longer are no longer being heard," the letter read. "The government of Saskatchewan has to address this issue and to be more proactive in dealing with this epidemic that is affecting Indigenous people in alarming numbers." 

Representatives from the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, Canadian Aids Society and Prairie Harm Reduction also signed.

They never received a response from Health Minister Jim Reiter. 

New diagnoses of HIV jumped 27 per cent in 2019, to 213 cases up from 168 in 2018. Early data show at least 118 newly diagnosed HIV cases in 2020. 

Kisikaw Piyesis believes systemic racism contributed to the silence. The majority of people recently diagnosed with HIV in Saskatchewan have self-reported as Indigenous. 

"They're not taking it seriously," said Kisikaw Piyesis. "They don't care about the people. They're letting them die." 

New outbreak announced in east-central Sask. 

Reiter did not comment for this story, but issued a statement. 

"Unfortunately, a meeting could not be arranged at the time the letter was sent as we were focused on Saskatchewan's COVID-19 response. A response is now being sent and we look forward to continue working with these organizations to curb the spread of HIV," the statement said.

For many, the response comes too late. 

On Friday, public health officials warned about a recent uptick of HIV infections in east-central Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Health Authority would not say how many new cases there had been, but said in a statement it issued the warning "because the cases involved individuals who were experiencing acute illness and were diagnosed with HIV when receiving health-care services."

The health authority was also not able to trace how some patients contracted the disease. 

Danita Wahpoosewyan works on the front lines to emotionally, physically and spiritually support people living with addictions or HIV. She said more harm reduction services are needed in the province. (Submitted by Danita Wahpoosewyan)

Danita Wahpoosewyan works on the front lines with people living with, or at risk for, HIV. She said she often works with small organizations doing the best they can with limited resources. The rising numbers trouble her. 

"I feel very upset with the government, people in leadership. It's just like they don't care about what's happening here at the ground level," she said. 

The 54-year-old from Zagime Anishinabek on Treaty 4 (formerly known as Sakimay First Nation) was diagnosed with HIV 15 years ago. 

Wahpoosewyan's own experience drives her to help others. She said it's hard not to think about the people she has lost to HIV and addictions.

"It gets to me, but I just want to keep on doing this work," she said, voice thick with emotion. "I'm always grieving, all the time." 

Those living with HIV can live long lives with medical treatment, but some in Saskatchewan are still dying from it. 

Wahpoosewyan said people suffer needlessly because of discrimination. 

"They go to the hospital and they feel very discriminated [against] and the stigma is there, so that they end up leaving the hospital and they end up passing away."

Kisikaw Piyesis said that's part of why disease, poverty and addictions prevail. 

Injection site needs full funding: advocates

The majority of cases in Saskatchewan stem from injection drug use. People have also died from overdose at unprecedented rates in the province in 2020. 

"And who's doing something about it? I can't say the government," said Kisikaw Piyesis.

She said the government needs to direct more money to grassroots Indigenous-led organizations to tackle addictions and prevent disease like HIV. 

"We have the solutions," she said. "Let us lead our ways forward."

The Prairie Harm Reduction room for people who are smoking drugs is visible from all angles of the main area, and has safeguards for rapid air exchange in case someone overdoses inside and needs treatment. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

According to the Ministry of Health, harm reduction services are offered in 29 fixed and four mobile sites across the province.

The harm reduction van did not run from April until September. Registered nurses typically used the van on weekdays to help people exchange needles, provide condoms and offer counselling to people involved in drug use or sex work.

There are just three other needle exchange sites in the city.  ​

The SHA said the van couldn't run until it was modified to meet COVID-19 restrictions. Kisikaw Piyesis said that decision shows the government didn't understand the severity of the drug crisis, which ties directly to the HIV situation. 

She said if the government understood, it would fully fund Prairie Harm Reduction's supervised consumption site, which opens Thursday. The province rejected the organization's request for $1.3 million, so it raised its own funds and will open on a scaled-back model.

Such sites are meant to reduce disease by offering clean pipes, needles and condoms. They also connect people with mental health resources. Most importantly, Kisikaw Piyesis said, they offer care without judgment. She believes Regina should have one, too. 

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan Party Leader Scott Moe, whose party is seeking re-election in the Oct. 26 vote, said a government needs to prioritize decisions around budget time. 

"There's a finite amount of investment that is available," he said. 

Moe said his government put $130,000 toward two case managers at Prairie Harm Reduction. He also pointed to new addiction treatment beds in the province, including some recently opened in Estevan. 

Kisikaw Piyesis said the government must provide support to people actively using drugs if it wants rates of addiction and HIV to decline. She said you can't treat people who are dead — and again called on the government to do more. 

"Saskatchewan has not done a good enough job."