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ACT faces tough times ahead, meeting told

Criminalization of HIV is growing concern

The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) is likely to face hard times ahead, the organization’s annual general meeting was told on Nov 24.

ACT presented its financial statements for the 2007-2008 year at the meeting. The organization ended up with a deficit of $233,542 on revenues of $6,371,093. Last year ACT had a surplus of $238,393.

“Government funding is down slightly,” said Peter Perdue, the chair of ACT’s finance committee. “Fundraising and community events were also down as were bequests. We’re obviously facing a difficult financial environment. Odds are that government funding to ACT will probably be less. Private donations, it’s going to be a struggle to maintain that level.

“We’re going to have to look very carefully at the operation to see if we can continue providing the same range of services and programs.”

Government grants were down by about $600,000 in 2007-2008 and fundraising revenue was down about $500,000. Fashion Cares, one of ACT’s major fundraising events, barely broke even at its May 2007 event and raised no money for the organization.

Glen Brown, the interim executive director, told the meeting that ACT had survived a tough year.

“It’s no secret that this was a year of significant financial challenge,” he said. “but despite the financial constraints ACT expanded its range of programs. I’m immensely proud to be part of an organization that went through that period really smartly.”

At the meeting ACT also reappointed two members of its board of directors and elected a third. Nelson French and Renee Lang were reappointed and Charlie McKee was elected to his first term.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary ACT held a discussion on advocacy and activism after the meeting. The speakers were Tim McCaskell, the cofounder of AIDS Action Now (AAN); Lang, a lawyer with the HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic (Ontario) (HALCO); and Angel Parks, the program coordinator for ACT’s Positive Youth Outreach.

Lang said that privacy issues and the criminalization of HIV are major concerns for HALCO.

“The privacy legislation in Ontario has huge gaps in it,” she said. “All we can do to help out people with privacy concerns is threaten lawsuits, which isn’t usually much of a threat.”

Lang said HALCO is trying to help build a coalition to oppose the criminalization of HIV.

“If enough really high-powered lawyers get involved in representing these people maybe the system can change,” she said.

Lang said that change is also needed to include the province’s public health system, pointing to the ability of public health agencies to issue Section 22 orders, which can be used to control a person’s sexual activities.

“A Section 22 order will say things like, ‘You must disclose your status before you do anything penetrative,'” says Lang. “Public health wants you to wear a condom and disclose for oral and anal and vaginal. It’s stricter than the Criminal Code, which generally says if you wear a condom, the issue of disclosure isn’t relevant.

“In Toronto Section 22 orders are usually issued when a person is diagnosed with an STD for the third time.”

Lang also said HALCO is fighting to preserve the confidentiality of medical information and ensuring that a positive HIV diagnosis is not shared by a doctor even within the medical system.

Lang said changes to the Ontario Human Rights Commission were also positive for people living with HIV/AIDS (PHAs). Cases now go directly to a tribunal, instead of having to be approved by the commission.

“The big plus is that a lot more PHAs are going to have their cases heard at tribunal,” she said. “Win or lose, that’s very important to the community.”

Parks said that increasing criminalization was contributing to the stigma faced by those who were HIV-positive, including herself.

“If I were diagnosed with any other illness I would not have to question whether my family and friends would be there to support me,” she said. “I would not have to worry about stigma or discrimination. I would not have to worry about being sent to prison if I did not disclose my status.”

Parks said the federal government has made such discrimination worse by its focus on harsher sentencing for drug offences and its attacks on harm-reduction programs such as needle exchanges.

“Since our current government has been in power a number of devastating changes have occurred,” she said.

McCaskell said that the battles fought by AAN in the late ’80s and early ’90s are still relevant today, especially with the changing demographics of HIV in Canada.

“We were able to amplify the voice of PHAs,” he said. “I can remember when it was a struggle to get the Canadian AIDS Society to have a certain number of PHAs on the board.

“There was the emergence of a certain PHA identity based on the notion that PHAs, no matter where they came from, had something in common.”

McCaskell also said that one of AAN’s struggles was to convince government agencies to focus on questions of treatment rather than just on prevention and stopping the spread of the virus.

“We were able to shift the frame that AIDS was seen as being a part of,” he said. “Prevention was the priority. We said, ‘What about the rest of us who are already infected?’ There was a shift from a public health perspective to a treatment perspective.”