HIV testing event in Winnipeg aims to reduce stigma in Indigenous communities

Monday's free HIV testing event at the Neeginan Centre in Winnipeg called Gechinaawan - Make Sure, was part of Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week in Manitoba.

89 new cases of HIV reported in Manitoba in 2017

Peetanacoot Nenakawekapo said that attitudes in the Indigenous community toward AIDS and HIV are changing. She would like to see testing become normalized in the Indigenous community. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

It's been almost 40 years since Peetanacoot Nenakawekapo first learned one of her friends had been being diagnosed with AIDS.

On Monday, the two-spirit elder who now works at the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre was on site at an HIV testing event at the Neeginan Centre in Winnipeg to offer support for anyone who needed it.

"I have a lot of friends who have passed on… They were HIV positive," she said.

The event, called Gechinaawan - Make Sure, was part of Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week in Manitoba. It provided three types of tests — tests for sexually transmitted and blood borne infections (STBBI), the Rapid HIV test, and the Dry Blood Spot test.

The objective was to get people tested, but also to reduce the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS in the Indigenous community.

"A huge part of our theme this year is testing and diagnosing the undiagnosed," said Monica Cyr, director of primary care for the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre.

"There's a lot of stereotypes that come up with people who have a sexually transmitted infection or HIV," said Cyr.

Manitoba releases 2017 update on HIV cases

The 2017 Annual Statistical Update: HIV in Manitoba released by the provincial government on Monday reports the province had 89 new cases of HIV in 2017.

Of the 89 new cases of HIV reported, 64 were diagnosed in Manitoba, with 25 of the cases being introduced from other provinces or countries. Eighty-one per cent of all new cases were reported in Winnipeg.

The average age was 38. The youngest person who was a new case was five years old; the oldest was 63.

The report shows that more than two thirds of new cases have occured in males, consistent with data from the last five years. (Government of Manitoba)

Although the rate of new HIV cases in Manitoba are similar to the national rate, the report states that subgroups of the overall population are still disproportionately affected by HIV. The report excluded ethnicity or risk of HIV acquisition due to incomplete data.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that in 2016, Indigenous people comprised 11.3% of all new infections. Of the estimated 63,100 people living with HIV in Canada at the end of 2016, 9.6 per cent were Indigenous.

Overall, Indigenous people represent 4.9 per cent of the total Canadian population.

A point that was echoed by two-spirit elder Albert McLeod.

"The rate among Indigenous people in Canada has always been over-represented of our population," said McLeod.

He worries meth use in Winnipeg will increase the number of Indigenous people with HIV but is hoping that testing and information will help to change people's behaviours.

Albert McLeod is a two-spirit advocate and elder who helped with the HIV/STI testing event. The event was organized as part of the 20th Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week in Manitoba. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

McLeod encourages people to get tested as often as possible. The earlier the infection is found, the better, he said.

Testing is available at any of the clinics located in Winnipeg, as well places like Nine Circles Community Health Centre.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1