Breaking the ice in Northern Manitoba

By Melissa Egan

megan-blog1 It’s cold in Thompson, Manitoba. The snow squeaks and the roads are nearly pure ice; everyone drives a truck up here. I’ve arrived here to do a three-day training alongside Gina McKay from Sexuality Education Resource Centre and Carrie Pockett from Play it Safer Network. With some resources from Keewatin Tribal Council’s Adele Sweeny, we’ll be spending time with 25 people from 16 First Nations communities in the area.

First days are always challenging. Our participants don’t know us and we’re still warming up, but Carrie’s opening workshop on harm reduction gives us a clear picture of what some of these communities are struggling with. Questions are raised about the politics of harm reduction, and how to work with people who question the philosophy of distributing needles and condoms to reduce the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C. We help with some great role-playing during a session on stigma and discrimination.

Our group grows more comfortable as our second day gets underway with some questions we’ve solicited by creating an anonymous question box at the back of the room. This is always an interesting experience as a facilitator because you’ve got no idea what’s coming! This round included inquiries about how to get an HIV-positive person to leave a community, so the “HIV Basics” workshop I’m presenting couldn’t have been better timed.

It’s often myths about body fluids and transmission that give people the most trouble. They’ve heard and seen things through their lives that have become community truths and so I spend a lot of time exploring fears and focusing on information about transmission that’s simple to remember and easy to share. Carrie, Gina and I model how to talk about HIV transmission, give examples of how to make sure that information is accurate and we ask our participants to try it themselves.

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They’re so shy! In many of their communities these individuals are nurses and community health educators and it is still taboo for them to discuss sex and sexuality. So we keep asking them to share their experiences and to help us understand what it’s like. We discuss everything from age of consent to pregnancy, same-sex relationships to drug use, and we learn from each other. Our last activity of the day asks participants to design an event in their community; keeping in mind a small budget and a need to raise awareness about HIV and hepatitis C. And what each group makes is amazing! They are creative about the needs of their home communities and each poster shows just how much hope they all have for creating positive change.

Our last day together opened with more questions from the box and we begin to invite the group to help us answer them. Gina, Carrie and I can see just how much the group has learned and how much confidence they’ve gained in the last couple of days. We split into smaller groups and each participant leads their little cohort through a discussion about HIV transmission. We ask them to talk about what people in their communities need to know and how they plan to use what they’ve learned with us when they get home. Each group is letting off sparks of excitement, suggestions are plentiful and laughter is constant. We have a tough time getting the group back together for our closing round!

But it is in this closing that we see just how much of an impact these few days have had. We have been hesitant to ask each of our participants to speak about their experience with us because they have been so shy, but as the training comes to a close we are overwhelmed by how quickly each person speaks about their journey here, the things they’ve learned and what they’ll be taking away. We hear stories about families seeking healing now that information about HIV is more accurate in their minds and community leaders who will be advocates when they get home. Change isn’t easy to measure when it happens in the heart, but I’ll never forget how quickly our eldest participant – resistant and silent when she arrived – showed us how much she’d learned by changing her mind about the HIV-positive woman living in her community.

Melissa Egan is CATIE’s Regional Health Educator for the Prairies region. She works with service providers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to facilitate education needs on the front line.

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