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The XVII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2008)
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Living in the North, Learning from the South

August 7, 2008

Born and raised in Fort McMurray, Alberta in northwest Canada, the last thing Tinna Ezekiel ever wanted to do was to live in the same isolated city all her life. She tells me this while we sit at the Wood Buffalo HIV & AIDS Society booth in the global village. Wood Buffalo is the name of Fort Mac's health region and the name of the ASO. Their art-based booth is a place where anybody can come to paint on canvas to express how they feel about HIV/AIDS. It is an innovate example of how, in the conservative city of Ft. Mac, the Wood Buffalo agency has been able to get into the schools to talk about HIV/AIDS.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor early in the day as people start setting up their booths in the global village, Ezekiel tells me how, by the age of 8, she was already a ferocious reader. It was at this time that she came across an article about AIDS in Africa. The article, she recalls, was full of drama and no explanation. It left her feeling a sense of hopelessness and confusion. By the time the moment came in her Grade 10 social studies class when AIDS in Africa was being discussed, she had had enough of not knowing what was going on. She had an idea but needed to confirm it. In a verbal head to head with her teacher in front of the whole class she heard him say what she needed to hear from an adult; the AIDS pandemic in Africa was exasperated by racism.

With this in mind, at the age of 17, she left Alberta's oil capital in search of education and international experience. When she finally landed, she found herself in India where she did HIV/AIDS work in Delhi.

At 24, far from home with dwindling funds and an urge to keep working/traveling the world, she swallowed her pride and returned to Fort McMurray to raise some quick cash to pay off school debts and to fund future adventures.

The dull roar of the Global Village begins to pick up as people start piling in. Smiling as she adjusts her pink scarf that she bought at the LGBT booth across from her, you can tell by the way she talks about her work now in Fort Mac that returning provided her with the lesson of a lifetime. "I came back for money to work and travel the world," she says. "And I realized that no AIDS work was being done in Fort Mac. And it needed it." It is in Ft Mac that she has been able to take the lessons she learned in the global south and apply them to the rural/urban, over developed / underdeveloped, global high income north. While she knows, because she saw with her own two eyes, that there is need all over the world, it was returning to Ft. Mac that helped her to see that there was and is need in her own backyard.

Home to tar sands and oil rigs, Fort McMurray is a boomtown with ever growing class divisions and social crisis due to neglect, crumbling infrastructure and a disconnect between private enterprise, civil society and the government. Gainfully employed residents can find themselves living in tents in 40 degree weather, while others live in the bush. Others still, part of the global transient workforce, live in cramped tents with a culture that would rival machismo. More still live paycheck to paycheck, well over their means, in trailers that can cost up to $400,000.

Most people living in Ft. Mac are employed either by the oil companies or complementary businesses. They work shift work or have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Many are away from their families for prolonged periods of time. Bringing the Hub city together where resources and delivery meet is a live hard, work hard mentality. Anyone familiar with transmission roots in Africa or India can recognize the recipe for as exual health disaster. Currently experiencing a syphilis outbreak, the city's numbers of HIV infections are hard to come by because of the transient population and because many people, due to stigma, get tested and treated in the providence's capital, Edmonton, or in the southern city of Calgary.

In Fort Mac, as it is across Canada and as Ezekiel saw in India, it is marginalized people that are the most infected and affected by HIV/ AIDS. In India it was the women, the poor and those still victims of the caste system that she worked the most with as well as the MSM community. In Canada, it is also women and the poor she works with. There is no gay community that access their services and apart from the occasional phone call or the few male sex workers, they do very little MSM work.

The majority of Wood Buffalo's work is with aboriginal people. In Ezekiel's street outreach work, 90% of her clients are aboriginal.When doing interviews for a research project on street involved and female sexworkers, she heard countless stories of multiple rapes, being taken from families and other forms of abuse. For those who have worked in war zones, and with women around the world, stories like these are nothing new. While the Canadian government has recently apologized to the native population for residential schools, sterilizations and all the other injustices they endured at the hands of Canada's forefathers, the apology belays an idea that it is all in the past. Generations later, the legacy of abuse continues to be visible in addiction, homelessness, STI rates and other social health indicators.

Through her work, Ezekiel and Wood Buffalo are able to merely scratch the surface of the possible HIV work that needs to be done in the region. Part of her job is also going out into remote areas by small plane where the HIV/AIDS awareness is even less than in the schools. As Ezekiel has experienced it, "They still have questions around survival. They know it is related to sex but they are not sure how. They don't understand how or why a condom could be infected."

With a meager budget of $100,000 that will be reduced by $2000 next year in a city with a high cost of living, funds are tight. Put simply, the cash reduction will mean 100,000 less condoms to distribute, but it is also symbolic of all that they won't be able to do. Carrying on multiple duties, Ezekiel's job is a mix of education, advocacy and fundraising work. She uses the multitasking skills she learned in Delhi. While she does not mind the work, she is aware that if the agency had more money they could hire more bodies to do the work and she could concentrate on just one thing, be it street outreach, bush outreach (the area where many of the sex workers and poorest live), or HIV/AIDS school and community education with proper follow-up sessions.

At the heart of what drives Ezekiel to keep doing HIV/AIDSw ork, not giving up and coming to conferences like the IAC seems to be her belief that she shares with me, "Different knowledge is really important. One person's thought can be the key to undoing a whole host of issues." Through her international experience, she has benefited from both what the north and the south have to offer. She has seen how the work needed is both the same and different. She has also come to a conclusion for now that she is not quite comfortable with. "I am not sure how to say this," she begins, "But who am I, who are we to go to other countries and try to fix things"

The words come out stronger than she means them. As we talk, it is clear it is not the act of ‘going' to other countries to do the work that bothers her It is the possible implications that by going we from the west, we from the north, might know better that frustrates her.

As a global community, we are beginning to understand, as Ezekiel already does, that knowledge is fluid. 25 years into the pandemic, citizens like Ezekiel are the future of our collective response to AIDS. She serves as an example of how we can navigate the world, building upon shared experiences, acknowledging our differences and having an open mind about how information can be shared.

Leaving the Global Village I realize that talking to her has been a highlight of the conference for me. So much of my time at the conference has been hearing about great things that are being done around the world. As afellow Albertan I am relieved, proud and grateful that Ezekiel is back home.

So while she might still live in Fort Mac, Ezekiel, through her experience and her work, has ensured that it is not the same isolated city she grew up in.

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This article was provided by Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project.
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AIDS 2008 Newsroom

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