Though at first glance, Indigenous and African diasporic communities in Canada are vastly different, there is a common thread that runs through their historic and contemporary experiences —colonization, oppression and violence. Among the negative impacts today is a disproportionately high level of HIV compared to the general Canadian population. Dr. Ciann Wilson, Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, focuses on community based interventions, health and HIV/AIDS in African diasporic and Indigenous communities in Canada. “Addressing the disparity is about talking amongst and with each other,” says Dr. Wilson. “It’s about the impact of this disease in our communities and making strides in prevention.”
Dr. Wilson first took interest in the HIV field when she took an undergraduate course titled the Sociology of HIV/AIDS with Dr. Robb Travers at The University of Toronto in 2007. “I was a life science student, really trying to figure out where I could do the work that I wanted to do,” she says. “I had a social justice interest but wasn’t sure how I could tie it to the basic science world I was immersed in.” Now, social justice and community involvement is a guiding principle of her approach to health research. “We occupy such privileged spaces as scholars that it is our responsibility to make sure that our research matters and is beneficial for communities.”
Supported by a CIHR Doctoral Award and under the supervision of Dr. Sarah Flicker, Dr. Wilson’s PhD research, “Beyond the Colonial Divide” gathered youth leaders from Indigenous and African diasporic communities to discuss ways they could share resources and information and what challenges and opportunities exist with such a union. In addition to focus group discussions, she facilitated a collaborative mural made by the youth. The mural was not just an opportunity for the youth to talk with each other while working on a common goal, they also brought up hidden subtexts. “Art is an approach that people gravitate to and it can be an interesting way of conveying different layers of meaning,” says Dr. Wilson. “For instance, while in many of the discussions queer identity, sexual orientation and sexual minority status may not come up, you find those nuanced expressions in the art.”
As is often the case with community based research, the lessons learned were different than those expected in the outset. “I think I went into that space with a lot of idealism of what I hoped it would look like and the conversation that would come out of it,” explains Dr. Wilson. “The reality was that there is a lot of inter-community tension, from anti-black racism to ignorance around Indigenous histories and realities in Canada. That created a bigger conversation around how we can get to a place of understanding, how we can get at our similarities and differences in terms of our struggle. How we can support each other and make strides in achieving health and wellbeing.”
Continuing this thread of research, Dr. Wilson recently received SSHRC support for a project that will work with mixed-race Indigenous and African diasporic communities to produce community maps that trace familial geography and movement across Turtle Island (i.e. an Indigenous name for North America). Study participants will also tell the personal stories of their own identities as mixed-race Indigenous and Black peoples in a digital story telling format. “Historically there are over 400 years of Black and Indigenous relationships and resistance in Canada,” explains Dr. Wilson. “This project aims to spotlight the stories of a group of remarkable people whose existence has been largely erased in the Canadian consciousness, and this is timely given the call for truth and reconciliation.”
Dr. Wilson, along with several other emerging scholars are currently mentees of Dr. LaRon Nelson, the inaugural OHTN Research Chair in HIV Program Science for African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) Communities. The program is a recognition of the disproportionate impact of HIV on ACB communities. “I am part of a larger body of emerging African diasporic, people of colour, and allied scholars who are working with Dr. Nelson to engage in intervention based research with ACB communities across the province.”
Dr. Wilson will be leading a special session at CAHR 2017 titled “If it Don’t Fit, Don’t Force It”: In Search of HIV Prevention Theory For African, Caribbean, and Black Communities in Canada. Find out more about the 2017 CAHR Conference at https://www.cahr-acrv.ca/conference
The Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR), the CIHR HIV/AIDS Research Initiative, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network (CTN) would like to thank Dr. Ciann Wilson for her contributions to our understanding of HIV in racialized communities. Her work is part of a larger Canadian research effort that is making a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV in Canada and around the world.