Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week!

Breaking Down Stereotypes and Raising Awareness


The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, in partnership with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, presented their aboriginal awareness week event last week in Montreal on December 2nd. Emcee’d by Harvey Michel, it brought First Nations together to help support change in aboriginal communities in regards to AIDS. Unfortunately, AIDS is still a four letter word in most First Nations communities. Nakuset, the Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, spoke about how little is being done for aboriginal women in regards to AIDS in Montreal, and how important it was to have this particular event to draw attention to the lack of services native women receive in this city.


Naturally, change starts with attitude towards a disease that is seriously on the rise in First Nations communities. Aboriginal people in Canada continue to be over-represented in HIV/ AIDS epidemics. The 2010 EPI Update from the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that 4,000 to 6,100 First Nations, Inuit and Metis are living with HIV, including AIDS.


The theme for Aboriginal AIDS Awareness week this year was a focus on community. National Chief Sean A-in-chut Atleo commented on the role we all have to play in responding to HIV/AIDS. “Everyone has a part in creating change. The fact that you are gathered here today demonstrates your commitment to addressing how HIV and AIDS are unfolding in First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities. You are leaders in your own right.”


Many of the speakers on Friday shared a common message: the situation is getting very, very serious, especially for Aboriginal women. Part of the message was defeating the myth of AIDS as just a gay disease. A big issue of the spread of AIDS is drugs, and how rampant drugs have become in our communities. Also part of the message was the need to get beyond condoms and work on self-healing. The rise in AIDS can be linked back to residential schools, due to the lack of sexual education and the fracturing of the family structures that happened on many First Nations reserves. There are also links to Native youth depression and self-esteem, which have been a factor in the increase of AIDS. Fiona Cook of the Native Women’s Association of Canada had this to add:
“People are scared in the communities[…] there was better work 25 years ago than there is today, which increases the importance of friendship centres. Old myths die hard”! Cook went on to talk about the need for resources and proper investment in First Nations communities. “We cannot combat AIDS if we don’t have the resources.”


One of the most powerful presentations of the morning was from Visioning Health: Arts and Positive Aboriginal Women (PAW). Doris Peltier talked about her battle with sexual assault and how she became an activist:


“The essence of who we are is beautiful.” Peltier went on to speak about the display of HIV Positive Aboriginal Women’s artwork from all across Canada, proving that being Positive isn’t a death sentence. There is life after becoming Positive.


Former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings talked about the importance and much-needed work in both Native and non-Native communities to combat AIDS, and like Chief Atleo, Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq sent a message talking about how pleased she was to mark the 23rd World AIDS Day and the start of Aborignal AIDS Awareness Week in Canada:


“The Government of Canada recognizes that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the HIV/ AIDS epidemic. We are committed to keep working with aboriginal communities to reduce the spread of HIV while providing care and support for those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.” The government of Canada this year alone has invested more than $72 million in programs, research, surveillance, and a greater awareness under the Federal initiative to address HIV/AIDS in Canada. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about attitude. Attitude towards people with HIV/AIDS and the fear that people still have of people living with these diseases.


I recently saw a story on CNN about a non-Native teenager being denied admission to a prep school because of his HIV status. The prep school’s position seemed to be the archaic 1980s point of view about the disease. One of the fears the prep school mentioned was the fear that this child would become sexually active, which was the basis for their denial of an honour student who just wanted to go to a good school.


Now, the fact that a non-Native prep school for well-to-do families can still use archaic stereotypes to deny an honour student the right to a good education goes to show that the fear of HIV/ AIDS crosses class lines and culture lines: it can be a community in Canada or it can be a community in the Midwestern United States. These stereotypes are what Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week are trying to eliminate.


In the end, we should be embracing people with HIV/ AIDS and not discriminate against them, and hopefully initiatives like AAAW will help to do that.


You can listen to Irkar Beljaars on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday at 6pm on CKUT (90.3 FM) and @Mohawk_Voice (Twitter).


THE Indigenous media arts festival!


The 12th annual ImagineNative film and media arts festival took place from October 19-23 with great fanfare. The festival, which promotes the latest indigenous films, videos, radio and new media began in 1998 and has become one of the most important indigenous festivals in the world. It has provided a much needed platform for the sharing of indigenous works and connecting them with buyers and industry execs. ImagineNative, also known as the centre for aboriginal media, continues to grow and reflect the needs and beauty of our culture. The organizers are determined to eliminate stereotypical views of indigenous peoples through indigenous cultural expression.

ImagineNative itself got started on Wednesday the 19th with an opening gathering presented by the Thunderbird centre. There was the traditional opening prayer followed by a meet-and-greet before heading off to the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see the screening of “On the Ice” by director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean which was followed by an opening night party featuring a performance by A Tribe Called Red. There were many other events, including an artist talk and reception event with Jason Edward Lewis on the Thursday night and a curator talk and reception with Cheryl L’Hirondelle on the Friday.

One of the major events was on the Friday, “A discussion with Buffy Sainte Marie,” presented by the CBC and hosted by Wab Kinew. The Cree singer-songwriter, musician, composer, visual artist, educator, pacifist, and social activist took the audience on a tour of her life, beginning with her ground-breaking musical career, her love of teaching, the cradle board project and her many other projects. Buffy also put on an electrifying performance at the Phoenix concert theatre the following Saturday night. Sean Conway and Lena Recollet opened for the icon, and both acts warmed up the crowd considerably before Buffy came in and blew the roof off. Songs included Big Wheel Spin and Spin, Universal Soldier, Up Where We Belong, Cho Cho Fire and No No Keshagesh, both from her recent album.

Executive Director Jason Ryle had this to say about this year’s festival. “I’m happy beyond words with this year’s imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival. It was our largest Festival ever and I’m so touched by the level of community support. Feedback for our programming and new venue has been immensely positive and I thank everyone for coming out and making this the most successful imagineNATIVE to date.”

As mentioned before, ImagineNative is a film festival and there was no shortage of great films. I was amazed with the level of talent that played on the screen day after day. Here is a sampling of some of them.

“The Creator’s Game”

This documentary provided an in-depth look at the issue of the Iroquois Nationals being refused entry to the 2010 lacrosse world championship in England due to the lack of recognition given to their passports by the UK government. The film was made by Candace Maracle, a member of their nation and community, for a Masters’ thesis. Not only does the film follow the team members, but it also tracks lacrosse stick making and the team’s successful journey to the world Championships in Prague, 2011, where they came 2nd to team Canada. Hearing the use of one of their nation’s traditional songs in place of an American or Canadian national anthem before the team played against Canada was one of the most stirring moments of the film, and represented their struggle for sovereignty that continues to this day.

“International spotlight on the Khoi San III”

These shorts out of South Africa told some fictional, some real-life stories of contemporary Khoi-San communities affected not just by colonization, but by the erasure of their culture from being categorized as black South Africans and a collective loss of culture as a result. The Khoi-San struggle to find their identity while figuring out how to use what they have left of their heritage going forward in post-apartheid South Africa.

“The Uprooted”

Tales from the 1895 Maori forests to modern-day Urban hip hop and its role in the lives of youth play out in this profound collection of shorts. The first film, “OK Breathe Auralee ,”  explored the issue of knowing – or not knowing – where you come from in order to know where to go with your future. Other shorts dealt with themes such as rejecting daily attempts at being defined by your skin colour, to rediscovering your identity in tragedy. All of these shorts spoke to the struggles of identity and self-discovery.

“Bran Nue Dae”

“Bran Nue Dae” is a fabulous romp through 1969 Australia, from Perth to Broome. Combining the priesthood, a road trip, a VW van, bar fights, lots of mistaken identity and musical numbers, this feature-length, irreverent film follows one young man’s journey to find home, love, and acceptance… Oh, and his real dad.

“The Tall Man”

The Story of Palm Island, a paradise with a dark history.  It is the story of an Aborigine man who insults a police officer and is arrested, only to die 45 minutes later under suspect circumstances. This tragic story about racism and hypocrisy within the Queensland police force proves that justice is still very hard to come by in this day and age. “The Tall Man” was preceded by a short documentary called “WoodCarver,” about John Williams, a Totem Carver who was murdered by a Seattle Police officer in the middle of a public street. Bear Witness, the filmmaker, made the short as a comment about the casual brutality of it all and how life went on without anyone saying or doing much of anything about such a horrendous incident. Bear Witness is also a co-founder of A Tribe Called Red.

“Saving Grace”

“Saving Grace,” by the late Merata Mita, tells the story of Maori men in New Zealand; husbands, fathers and brothers who have battled violence in their lives. The story spans the different nations of the Maori men who learn to look within themselves and their culture to battle their inner demons and free themselves of the violence that has plagued their lives. This is a truly beautiful film with stunning scenery and powerful stories that I believe anyone who has anger issues should see. Mita truly created a beautiful work of art.

“Every Emotion Costs”

A feature-length film about two sisters returning to the Rez after the death of their mentally unstable mother. They are reunited with their younger sister, supportive Auntie, violent father, old friends, love interests, and community at large. Their homecoming makes the girls confront their tumultuous shared path and the things they have done to hurt each other as they sought to escape the shadow of an abusive household. The film offered an at times wrenching glimpse into the fallout caused by unstable families, and the tragic choices many have to make in order to carry on with their lives, at the expense of their families and community.

The 12th annual ImagineNative came to an end with the closing awards ceremony. The host for the second year in a row was the flamboyant Billy Merasty, who proved that you can be a star and still be down to earth. The awards show brought the who’s who of the aboriginal arts scene, including Tantoo Cardinal and Alanis Obomsawin, just to name a few. Seeing the performances this past week, I can assure you that the already excellent ImagineNative is only going to get better!

Irkar Beljaars can be heard on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday starting at 6pm on 90.3fm or @www.ckut.ca

Mohawk_Voice (Twitter)


Native sons!

Family and community -– that’s what the Cree band CerAmony is all about, and it has become their mantra in their personal and professional lives.

Matthew A. Iserhoff and Pakesso Mukash took different roads to get where they are today. Iserhoff picked up music at a very early age (three years old), while Mukash learned through his spirituality how to keep himself grounded. Both men can boast a strong and healthy family life, which is why they feel they are successful.

On a cold rainy November 10, the brothers-in-law and Juno award winners performed at the Théâtre Plaza in Montreal and managed to attract 150 people. “We were stoked that it was our first official featured performance in Montreal. The crowd was rocking and on board from start to finish. We thank all those who attended,” said Iserhoff.

And the loyal fan base just keeps growing: there isn’t a Cree youth up north who hasn’t heard of CerAmony. The album was 10 years in the making and was originally released independently, but thanks to a deal with Disques BG who are distributed by Universal World things are growing for the band.

“All those years of work are finally coming together at the right time, so it’s very exciting. What’s important is that it is a realization of this family, we managed to pull together some great guys and now have a full band and have folks from up north coming down to hang with us. It’s pretty awesome!” said Iserhoff

CerAmony has been slowly creating a following in all nine communities up north. They recently played a concert in Nemaska to a rousing crowd, but what was more meaningful was how they were received. And that’s what brings the most joy to the band – seeing the smiles on the faces of their communities.

The album itself is filled with music from different genres. One song, You Belong Down Here With Us, is essentially a conversation with God but not in the conventional sense. “It’s wanting to know what God, Creator, Jesus thinks about what has been going in the world, ” said Mukash. The song addresses the connection the bandmates have to their own spirituality and the importance of keeping that close to their hearts.

If You Belong Down Here With Us is about spirituality, then Last Great Men is the honour song for those who have gone before. It reminds us all about where we came from, that the Elders’ teachings are still relevant, and that our youth need to keep that in mind wherever they go in life. The song has particular relevance in some Cree communities where the traditional way of life is being eroded either by the Paix des Braves or the upcoming Plan Nord.

“Everyone should have open concerns about it, be they First Nations or Québécois. There are so many cultures that are in danger of losing their culture – the Innu, Cree and Inuit just to name a few. The root of the issue is the land and there are so many great voices who need to be heard if Plan Nord is going to happen responsibly,” said Mukash

Iserhoff and Mukash are concerned about the Plan Nord because of the ramifications it has to the traditional way of life for all First Nations. For example, is it going to protect the herds of caribou? “They’re going to put 150,000 people up there in six years. What is that going to do to our traditions? That’s what Last Great Men is all about.

“It’s all about hanging onto who we are! As mentioned this album covers many genres, like reggae, and an ode to the 1980s pop hair bands. The album was written for Bell Centre fans because that’s where our heart is,” said Iserhoff

The goal for the album was to bring people together, and it has. I’m reminded of the old Cree saying, a family doesn’t just raise a child a community does and that’s what Iserhoff and Mukash hope to achieve with this album. They want to bring folks together, like Kashtin and Buffy Sainte-Marie did.

“Simon and Garfunkel and Guns N’ Roses inspired us on this album, why be stuck in just one genre?” asked Mukash.

To them, music is just another business and they want to be more meat and potatoes, with a little dessert. Thankfully they went through the right avenues and now the album is in stores and on iTunes. And that’s important for the youth up north who look up to bands like CerAmony and see that success can happen if you work hard.

“If you have a passion for what you do and you work hard, you can accomplish anything,” said Iserhoff.

For Iserhoff and Mukash, the most important thing is that they represent their communities with honour and respect which means living a clean and healthy lifestyle and leading by example.

Irkar Beljaars can be heard on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday starting at 6pm on 90.3fm or @www.ckut.ca

Mohawk_Voice (Twitter)

Blood on their hands!

“We are with you in spirit” The words spoken by Rona Ambrose July 5th has proven once again that the Conservative Govt doesn’t care about the issues of native women or of first nations at all. Can’t say I was surprised when I heard the news, Ambrose has a proven record of voting along party lines and not with her conscience which what the minister for the status of women should have been doing all along. Her decision is a betrayal to every woman in Canada, by doing nothing she has essentially said that violence against native women doesn’t matter to this govt but more prisons and fighter jets does. Earlier this year Senator Patrick Brazzeau tweeted that the missing women issue was taken care of, a pretty ignorant statement coming from a sitting senator.

The Harper govt has talked about fiscal responsibility, jobs and various other issues so why are we getting more prisons when the crime rate has been slowly decreasing for years. The Canadian people are at the mercy of conservative ideology or should I say reform ideology which has been all about cuts……..to social programs. The Conservative government has cut $127 million from First Nations reserve housing since 2008. The Sisters in Spirits funding was not renewed even though the govt had promised 10 million to deal with the issue of missing and murdered. First Nations Child and Family Caring society had their funding cut when they and the AFN launched a human rights complaint against the govt for under funding first nations children.

And the cuts keep coming, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada FUNDING REDUCTION, First Nations and Inuit Tobacco Control Program ELIMINATED, Natural Resources and Environment Climate Change Programs, including the One Tonne Challenge, 40 public information offices across the country, and several scientific and research programs on climate change – 40% BUDGET CUT and there’s a lot more cuts.

When the govt said they endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples did they really mean it? Their cuts make me think not! The Governments position frankly is bullshit, here they are facing international pressure, being one of four countries at the time to refuse to endorse UNDRIP and facing criticism at home they decided to endorse UNDRIP hoping that it would be business as usual. But the cuts continue and in clear violation UNDRIP, but and there’s always a but. The cons said that they would endorse UNDRIP but it would not affect govt policy. So was their support of UNDRIP just a smokescreen? They’re behavior since the endorsement would seem to think so.

What I don’t understand how did Harper win a majority when 60% of Canadians didn’t vote for him and can Canadians sue the govt for not respecting the UNDRIP? Someone told me on election night that I should get ready to see the real Stephen Harper and that’s what Canadians should be worried about. As long as the economy is in good shape Harper will be untouchable because that’s what Canadians care about and they should but they should also care about the health and well being of all Canadians, no matter their social status, creed or culture. We currently have a govt who has a history wasteful spending. (You just have look at the G20 report and MP Tony Clements riding)

One note about these cuts the Harper government has made, throughout the election, Harper talked about jobs jobs jobs. Did he ever think about the jobs that have been lost because of his cuts? Looks to me like Harper’s economic action plan is more of an inaction plan!

Thousands of women have gone missing in the last couple of decades and the way I see it, this governments inaction on the issue means that for every native woman who goes missing or is murdered, their blood is now on the governments hands. Ambrose is right about one thing, they are with us in spirit because spirits can’t do anything but continue to watch as more of our sisters go missing.

Irkar Beljaars  (Twitter) mohawk_voice

You can listen to Irkar on

Native Solidarity News www.ckut.ca

and Red Power Radio http://irkarbeljaars.podbean.com/

Election Time part 3: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

We’re into the final week of the Federal election season and no matter how many scandals Harper has had thrown at him nothing seems to be sticking. Like the last two posts we are focusing on what First Nations in Canada really need from our absent government. Late last year the Harper government finally lived up to one of their promises, which was to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights on of Indigenous Peoples. Now that it’s done I feel that it was an empty gesture: Harper’s policies over the last 5 years have shown no respect for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Instead of respect we have gotten disrespect, and the cuts to so many important programs and groups have begged the question… what was the point?

In 2006, 2 weeks into his mandate, Harper killed the Kelowna Accord – a process that took over ten years to build gone because “it wasn’t fiscally responsible.” Since then the cuts have been numerous and hurtful: the Montreal Native Woman’s Shelter, Native Healing Foundation, First Nations policing, Action travail des femmes, First Nations and Inuit Tobacco Control Program, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Status of Women (mandate also changed to exclude “gender equality and political justice” and to ban all advocacy, policy research and lobbying), Sisters in Spirit, and the list goes on.

Harper can say that he now endorses the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples because he’s already done enough damage to set us back for awhile. And people ask why there’s such apathy among voters! Just recently Chris Alexander, the Ontario Conservative candidate for Ajax-Pickering, said during a March 17 forum on poverty that Canada had wiped out Third World-levels of poverty. The comment caused a small flurry of controversy during the opening days of the election after they were posted on YouTube, but Alexander stood by his statement. You can chalk this up to another one of the many Conservative denials about what is really going on in this country.

In September 2009 Harper made this statement: “We also have no history of colonialism…” This outrageous comment is a shocking testament to his own profound ignorance and to the pervasive racism-fuelled historical amnesia and denial in Canadian society. Yet he claims to endorse the Declaration. Then there’s Conservative Peirre Poliveres’ comments during a radio interview which came on the same day as the Residential School Apology. “Now along with this apology comes another $4 billion in compensation for those who partook in the residential schools over those years. Now, you know, some of us are starting to ask, ‘Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?” If I ever meet Mr. Poliveres I will tell him that we are sorry that the abuse we suffered at the hands of the church is costing the Governemnt so much money.

Everyone that I have spoken to about the Declarartion has given pretty much the same answer: Canada is not doing enough – which leads us into our crtique of the NDP and the Green party. We’ll start with Jack  Layton  and how fortune has finally turned in his direction, especially in Quebec.  Layton’s popularity has surged in Quebec which has  Bloc boss Gille Duceppe scrambling, and the Conservatives and Grits mired at the bottom. It seems to me that people have begun to see the NDP as a viable alternative to the same old parties. Layton was the only one who spoke up about the issues faced by first nations communities in the debates. The Greens have made similar promises but I don’t expect them to make much of a splash this time around – like the NDP, the Greens have to be patient.

On a final note, get out there and Vote! Young and old, rich or poor, get out there and vote, it may not feel like much but in this election every vote counts!