‘A First World country with Third World rates’: Saskatchewan at the epicentre of HIV in Canada

PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. — Saskatchewan is one of the few places in the industrialized world where people are still dying from AIDS and HIV.

The province has a rate of new HIV cases twice the national average.

“We are a First World country rates,” said Katelyn , the director of Sanctum, Saskatchewan’s first AIDS hospice.

“We are the epicentre of HIV in Canada.”

Michelle Berg / Postmedia
Michelle Berg / Postmedia Lauren Cardinal talks about her experience being HIV positive in Prince Albert on Sept. 14, 2016

Sanctum has opened its doors in Saskatoon at a time other such hospices the country are closing or transitioning their services.

“Late diagnosis is insane here,” Roberts said.

Jason of AIDS Saskatoon said the province needs a new approach to treating a growing epidemic.

“People need to wake up and realize we are the HIV hot spot for North America,” Mercredi said.

Lauren Cardinal, one of nearly 1,500 people living with HIV in Saskatchewan, is sitting on a couch inside a small room that serves as Prince Albert’s drop-in centre focused on HIV/AIDS.

Michelle Berg / Postmedia
Michelle Berg / Postmedia

ago, she was an addict living on the streets, regularly using cocaine and opiates such as . She was using needles to inject the drugs, but was always careful, she said.

“I was using. Just basically doing what people out there are doing,” she said, pointing out the door to the streets of Saskatchewan’s third-largest city. “Trying to survive everyday, day to day.”

She said she tried to be safe and didn’t share needles with strangers. Her then boyfriend, however, wasn’t and after contracting HIV from someone else, he gave it to her.

For the past seven years, she has lived with HIV. Every day she takes medication that helps control the disease. Sometimes it makes her feel nauseous. Other times she lacks energy and is unable to exercise they way she used to.

When I go speak to people, I can pinpoint the people who are disgusted by me. It hurts

Cardinal has known at least 15 people who’ve died after contracting HIV/AIDS. Two of her brothers and countless friends live with the infection.

From 2005 to 2014, 1,458 people were diagnosed with HIV, to the province. Of those at least 203 people died, 44 of them within a year of getting their diagnosis. It’s not clear that all 203 people died because of AIDS or HIV infection.

In 2015, the number of new HIV cases in Saskatchewan hit 160 — 48 more than the year before.

Roberts said that unlike other diseases, HIV infections are often hidden, impacting marginalized people who have a mistrust of the health-care system and government.

Michelle Berg / Postmedia
Michelle Berg / Postmedia

The disease is hitting First Nations communities hardest — aboriginal people represented 71 per cent of new diagnoses in 2014, according to the province.

Saskatchewan was thrust into the spotlight this summer when doctors from across the world met in South Africa for an annual AIDS conference. The conference heard that HIV rates among Saskatchewan’s indigenous people were comparable or higher than many developing countries.

“It’s a socio-economic disease. It will affect where you don’t have good health care and medical coverage,” Chief Felix of the Saskatoon Tribal Council said.

STC runs a harm clinic in Saskatoon, with staff seeing a client every three or four minutes on average. Thomas said people use the STC’s clinic because its workers are non-judgmental about addiction.

“We know HIV is colour blind. It doesn’t matter what race you are,” he said.

Mary Bear, 33, contracted HIV while living on the streets of Saskatoon seven years ago. She was an addict, she said, using cocaine and morphine.

“I knew it was out there … but I wasn’t educated. In a way I didn’t care. I didn’t love myself,” she said, sitting in her backyard with son Kyle playing nearby.

Bear was high when she got her diagnosis, she said, and it wasn’t until she began treatment for drug addiction that reality set in.

She has moved to Prince Albert and gets the help she needs. Her doctor is based in Toronto, but she can call or text with any questions. She met her husband, who is also HIV positive, and now speaks regularly about her experiences.

He son, who will turn three next month, was born without HIV — which she said she is grateful for every day.

But living with HIV and being open about it isn’t easy.

“When I go speak to people, I can pinpoint the people who are disgusted by me. It hurts,” she said.

Michelle Berg / Postmedia
Michelle Berg / PostmediaMary Ermin Bear, who has been HIV positive for seven years, cuddles her son Kyle Bear at their home in Prince Albert

Bear knows people who won’t go see a doctor because they are scared of the stigma attached to drug addiction and HIV. That fear is a contributing factor to her community’s increasing rates, she said.

officials have said part of the reason rates are climbing is because of extensive testing being done in certain communities.

The province has been without an official HIV/AIDS strategy since 2014 and aggressive anti-HIV such as those proposed by the United Nations have not been adopted.

Mercredi said it’s about more than provincial government; it’s about changing attitudes toward harm-reduction strategies such as needle exchanges and safe-injection sites.

“Harm reduction is the only way to go with people who are marginalized,” he said.

Bear is proof. She has been clean and sober for three years.

“People who are positive, they need to know there is help out there,” she said.

About Charles Hamilton, Postmedia News