5 min

A legacy goes on the block

AIDS stamp collection to be sold

Credit: rtesy British Columbia Philatelic Society

Such a small thing, a stamp. Yet the passionate philatelist will go to any length to obtain a rare specimen. AIDS activist and stamp collector Blair Henshaw wrote 2,300 letters to get his: In 1992, seven years after being diagnosed HIV-positive, he launched a personal campaign to secure a Canadian AIDS awareness stamp.

By then he had started a special collection of world AIDS stamps and had discovered that Canada had yet to issue one. In late 1995, he received confirmation that Canada Post would indeed issue an AIDS stamp the following year. Joe Average was commissioned to design the new stamp, which was featured at the 11th International AIDS Conference in Vancouver.

Then federal health minister David Dingwall declared, “As you know, having Canada Post approve a special stamp is not a simple process. Hundreds of proposals are received each year. AIDS has long been among the leading candidates for a special stamp. But this stamp is much more than a collector’s item. It is first and foremost an awareness-raising tool to sensitize people about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Thus, Canada became the 59th postal jurisdiction to issue an AIDS awareness stamp.

Blair Henshaw kept on collecting until his death from AIDS-related complications in 2002. By that time, his collection numbered in the thousands and was acknowledged to be the most complete in the world. Now, his entire stamp collection goes on sale Nov 8, at the downtown Vancouver Hudson’s Bay department store.

The collection has been divided into 72 lots for sale by auction, with the exhibition collection of AIDS awareness stamps and related archival material-correspondence, draft designs, etc-constituting a single lot. Previews will be held two weeks prior to the auction at All Nations Stamp and Coin. This may well be the last opportunity to see Blair Henshaw’s prize-winning exhibition collection as he conceived it.

Blair Coldwell Henshaw was born in Digby, Nova Scotia in 1949. His father was a farmer and his mother a gossip columnist for the local newspaper.

“They both had their own places about two miles away from each other and they were quite happy that way,” he said in an oral-history interview a few years ago. “I basically lived with my mom because my dad lived way out in country, down a little gravel road, and my mom made the choice to move the children to a community outside of Digby so they could be educated.

“I had the reputation of being the community queer. I remember male-to-male encounters going back maybe, to when I was 10-just playing in the barn, in the hay, that sort of thing. I didn’t know that it was labelled homosexuality, but I didn’t mind it. But I didn’t want people to find out that I felt I was different. Then I fell madly in love with the reverend’s son and, ah, dear me! This was when I was about 12 or 13, and that confirmed it; yeah, I’m definitely different.

“I guess I was sort of coming out then, in a strange way. I was about 17 or 18 when I finally called myself a homosexual.”

In addition to her newspaper work, Blair’s mother was also the town florist and death sitter. “In those days people died at home, and because I was still living at home but was not old enough to be left alone, sometimes when my mother was called-a neighbour would say: ‘Well, so and so, they’re ready to go, can you come sit with them?’-my mother would have to take me along with her. I usually stayed close by my mother’s side, sort of just very quiet, and my mother would try to explain that this is a natural thing, this happens to us all eventually, and it isn’t anything to be afraid of. Maybe that has helped me to deal with our current situation in the gay community, where I’m not so much afraid of death and dying, ’cause a lot of people are quite afraid of death and dying.

“She was just there to comfort the person that’s leaving. I remember one particular time. Just two houses down the road, Mildred and her husband, John. They must have been in their ’70s. Mildred was dying. John came over and said: ‘Well, I think Mildred is going now, could you come over and sit with her?’ and my mom went over and took me with her. I remember my mom sitting by her bedside; Mildred was having trouble breathing, and my mother was fanning her with a newspaper just to get the air circulating, just comforting her. She’d sort of hum a song and when Mildred was ready to pass over, when she went, my mom said, ‘It’s okay, she’s gone.'”

Years later, Blair was able to emulate his mother in this role. “I was able to hold my father’s hand at his deathbed. I went back home and I spent three days in hospital by his bedside and I actually saw him pass over.”

Due in part to his childhood experiences, Blair felt that he had developed an intimacy with death. “I was in nursing for about four years and I had quite a bit of experience with death. Sharing that final moment with someone, even if you don’t know them, I look upon it as an honour. It’s sort of like you’re their guardian to see them safely over this threshold, and maybe there’s nothing, but it’s very comforting for me and I think for the person who is in that position.

“When the AIDS epidemic came along, and I was starting to lose an awful lot of friends, my way of thinking changed. I started thinking back to me as a child going with my mom as a death sitter and I thought, ‘Well, this dying thing isn’t that bad after all.’ That’s not the right way to say it, but it’s comforting. It doesn’t have to be so morbid and depressing. It’s a special gift.”

As an HIV-positive gay man, Blair felt that he had a personal stake in AIDS education and awareness. “I was still going out to the bars and you would talk about this indescribable illness, but until it hit someone close to you, you didn’t really feel that it was urgent: ‘Oh well, they’ll come out with a vaccine for it, they’re working on it.’ I think we looked upon it as just another sexually transmitted disease, so maybe we’d better slow down a bit or start to take precautions.

“But then in 1980-with me in 1983-there were a group of us, 20 or 30-that all came down with the same symptoms. We weren’t a group as such, but it just happened within almost a two-week period. I went to St Paul’s, and it was funny: I went into the emergency and they were doing bronchoscopes and all kinds of stuff, and two or three of my other friends were there, too. We were all sort of ‘Oh, I’ve got the same symptoms.’ And they didn’t know at that time what it was. And now, years later, they went back and confirmed that the whole group tested HIV-positive.”

“I tell people each day is a gift. Why, why am I given this gift of still being here? Maybe I have something to contribute? I don’t know. I think I do, maybe with this stamp.”

* For information concerning the sale of the Blair Henshaw AIDS awareness stamp collection, please call Brian Grant Duff at 604.689.2230 or e-mail:


Brian Grant Duff.