By Bryan Sparrow
From July 16th to the 19th, I represented CAAN with a booth at the Assembly of First Nations’ 33rd Annual General Assembly. This would be my fourth year in a row manning our organization’s info booth, and I was especially excited as the conference would be held in Toronto this summer; the city I now call home for eight months out of the year.
This opportunity represented two firsts for me: experiencing Toronto’s summer heat and humidity, and more importantly, going out on my own on behalf of CAAN.
The past two years I’ve sat at my desk in the Vancouver office listening to my friends whine and complain about the wet heat that plagues eastern Canada every summer. And the second I stepped out of the airport into a cab, I knew exactly what they meant. Temperatures of 40 degrees and more allowed me to value the underground and air conditioned haven that was the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for three days.
It was there, sitting at our booth, that I gained more of a perspective on the relationship between HIV and youth. Unlike previous years, I was not accompanied by other staff from CAAN. And although I had two wonderful helpers from the local organization, 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, it was the times where I was sitting solo where I connected with the AGA’s visiting youth on an equal level.
Being 20 years old, I noticed that more young men and women were inclined to stop by our table and grab what I had to offer when my older counterparts were not around. Whether it was a poster, a CD or even a handful of condoms, seeing someone around their age seemed to put them at ease when it came to asking questions and taking resources.
Having worked at CAAN for four consecutive summers, talking about HIV and other communicable diseases with people senior to me has almost become second nature. I often forget that not everyone is as comfortable or confident when it comes to voicing their opinions on these topics, which means it’s definitely time for a change in today’s youth.
Going to private and Catholic school, our teachers never taught us the basics of sexual health or STIs; this meant some of my classmates had to find out the dos and don’ts for themselves. It’s been almost three years since I graduated high school, but it’s clear that the “abstinence only” method of teaching, in or out of school, is not working.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), between 1979 and 2008, 19.3% of reported AIDS cases among Aboriginal people were between the ages of 15 and 29. If we’d like the rates of infection among youth to lower, people everywhere must work together and promote the same message of awareness and from a peer-to-peer angle.
This is why I believe the National Aboriginal Youth Council on HIV and AIDS (NAYCHA) is an invaluable tool for any health-related organization. If what I noticed during my time at this year’s AFN AGA is true, we need more campaigns for youth, by youth. If enough young adults can take a public stance against HIV, I’m confident we’ll see a decrease in infection rates and an increase in awareness, discussion and community.
Although my summer is coming to an end, and I will no longer be working 8-4 in the CAAN offices, that does not mean I will stop promoting the work this organization is committed to.
About the Author: Merv Thomas is the National Programs Communications Manager for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN).