Still a lot of work to do in breaking stigmas says Cree man living with HIV

Ken Ward travels the country talking about the stigma associated with having HIV

(Ken Ward, 57, was diagnosed with HIV in 1989. Photo: Brandi Morin/APTN)

Brandi Morin
APTN National News
Ken Ward didn’t think it could happen to him. But in 1989 it did. That’s when he was diagnosed with HIV. Ward instantly went into survival mode.

“The news itself was traumatizing,” said Ward, now 57, who had contracted HIV from using a dirty needle. He was given just three to six months to live.

It was while combing through a mixed “bag of emotions” of comprehending the situation when for a moment he thought of ending his life.

“I figured I had two options. Either kill myself with a cocktail of drugs and a needle and say, ‘What’s the use?’…but I thought about it and said, ‘No, I think I want to try this other side of life, maybe I owe it to myself to walk this path to live the best I can with the quality of life I do have left to live clean and sober.’”

But his worst fear wasn’t dying. It was the fear of whether he would be accepted and loved by his family and community when they learned he was HIV positive.

It was a shameful disease to have, said Ward, who initially told his loved ones he had cancer because it was considered more acceptable. He remembered back then there was a lot of hysteria about HIV and AIDS- an aggressive and contagious disease, with no cure that carried an imminent death sentence.

But he knew he couldn’t go on hiding the truth for long. Within a couple of months he broke the news to his mother and siblings.

“It was a very dramatic moment- there was a lot of crying, shrieking,” he said. “Then we got back together and processed it together.”

His family and home community of Enoch Cree Nation, west of Edmonton, Alta, did come together to support him. It’s something that he attributes to having survived so long.

“A lot of people rely on prescription or medical treatment, but family and community acceptance is so important. The care is not only the physical well-being. It’s the emotional well-being,” said Ward. If a person has that support, acceptance and understanding, chances are that they will survive and live for much longer.”

The stigma around HIV/AIDS is what has driven him to travel the country raising awareness over the last two decades. All these years later stigma’s still exist within Aboriginal communities, he said, along an alarming increase in HIV/AIDS.

The latest statistics show that Aboriginal people in Canada are getting hit the hardest. According to, Canada’s source for up to date HIV and Hepatitis C information, Aboriginal people are 4 times more likely to get HIV than non-Aboriginal Canadians.

Denise Lambert, program designer at the Kimamow Atoskanow Foundation in Edmonton, an organization that works to bring awareness primarily to HIV and AIDs, is not surprised by the latest numbers. She believes the stats aren’t accurately collected and fears the situation is a lot worse than documented.

“They’re (stats) just a best guess and doesn’t sit well with me,” said Lambert. “It’s the best estimate that the government can come up with to figure out how this disease is affecting us. It’s likely worse for us because there’s not supportive testing strategies in our communities.”

She explained that the stats are skewed because not everyone may identify as First Nation, Metis or Inuit when being surveyed. And the statistics are always delayed, in this case they’re two years behind.

In some instances people will avoid getting tested, she said and 21 per cent of people living with HIV don’t even know they have it.

“It’s not a problem that’s easily solved. It’s not going to go away. Because of population growth, if we don’t start changing some of our foundational issues- we need to get into a healthy way of life again,” she said. “It’s really about getting back out into the communities to let people know that we’re here if they want to learn.”

The fastest way HIV/AIDS is spreading is through intravenous drug use. Lambert says addressing the issue also goes along with addressing underlying factors to addictions, which is related to trauma experienced by Aboriginal People.

“People sometimes don’t get the connection that the trauma and hurt is also part of why people use so much whether it’s alcohol, drugs or other substances and behaviour,” she said. “Our painful history is sometimes soothed by drugs and alcohol. We have great pains still that people don’t know how to deal with and it’s evidenced.”

She’s known Ward for over 25 years and calls him a brother and a visionary.

“Despite what he went through this was a role that was needed. He was actually able to fill that role by sharing his story so that other people didn’t have to go through what he’s gone through,” she said.

He’s had brushes with death along the way, including other health issues like triple bypass surgery and TB detected in his lymph nodes. However, the HIV is no longer detectable in his bloodstream and he is feeling fairly healthy now a day.

“The journey hasn’t been easy…,” and the journey continues for Ward, who said there’s still a lot of work to do.

“People still say to me you’re not going to go yet, Ken, because your work is not done yet. The elders who have always been my strongest allies, they told me, ‘We’re going to pray for you that you live a good and long life and have a good journey…’ That was certainly a very memorable moment in my life,” said Ward.

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