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3 min

AIDS Action again

Activist group gears up for another round

This dark November Thursday night, there isn’t much of a view out the windows of the 519 Community Centre. About 40 of us are sitting on utilitarian chairs arranged in a semicircle at one end of a long narrow room on the third floor.

The ceilings are high, the duct work is exposed and the floor is concrete. It is unclear whether this space is finished — after all, exposed duct work is rather fashionable. What is clear is that the assembled group wants to ensure that AIDS Action Now (AAN) isn’t finished. The revival (resuscitation?) of this “funky little group” is the night’s main agenda.

From the time it burst onto the scene in January 1988 until the late 1990s, the Toronto activist group scored many important victories for people living with AIDS. But for the past half dozen years, AAN has made only cameo appearances.

The organization emerged from semi-hibernation again this past summer to help inject some energy — and demos — into the International AIDS Conference, held here in Toronto. The demonstrations captured attention, for example at the opening ceremony, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s no-show was widely denounced.

But more importantly, the Toronto conference clearly had an invigorating effect. A lot of the news from the conference was discouraging. But the energy, anger and urgency of some of the exemplary international AIDS activists was contagious and helped to galvanize activists here. The effect was to propel AAN stalwarts back to their organizing ways. The meeting last Thursday night was the second such gathering since conference and a lead up to World AIDS Day, on Fri, Dec 1.

Lord knows there is no cause for complacency about the future of Canadian government domestic or international policies with respect to AIDS.

l The current federal government (Harper wants it to be called “Canada’s new government”) has recently, ominously, initiated a review of the Federal Initiative To Address HIV/AIDS (also known as the AIDS Strategy). It was just over two years ago that its renewal was announced. At the time funding for the AIDS Strategy had been frozen since 1993, even though the number of Canadians living with AIDS had grown to an estimated 57,000 up from 32,000 in 1993 and Canada’s per capita spending for people with AIDS was half of Australia’s. The 2004 renewal included a gradual scale up of funding for the strategy over five years. But now, two years into the renewal, the Conservatives are talking about looking for “value for money”

l Despite gaining worldwide attention and kudos in 2004 for being the first developed country to change its laws to allow for the export of relatively inexpensive copies of AIDS drugs to developing countries — in recognition that the needs of humans should take precedence over international patent laws — Canada has not yet exported any such drugs. As Tanzania’s ambassador to Canada, Omeni Sefue, put it: “Children are becoming orphans because the drugs that could keep their parents alive are not available”

l Far from diminishing, the stigma of having HIV/AIDS may be increasing due to the growing number of criminal prosecutions for sexual assault here Canada. For example, one woman spent nine months in pre-trial custody in the Penetanguishine jail, and had her name reported across Canada and her photograph distributed by the military, because she is HIV-positive and had sex with a soldier from Camp Borden. Her crime was failing to disclose her HIV status. In 2005 she was sentenced to one year of house arrest and three years of probation. As the Canadian AIDS Society put it: “Treating HIV-positive people like criminals only creates an environment of fear and increases stigma and discrimination toward people living with HIV.”

In the past 10 years, much has changed. The advent of protease inhibitors a decade ago led to longer lives for many with HIV/ AIDS, and the number of AIDS service and advocacy organizations has increased, tackling some of the work formerly done by activists. But there are more and more Canadians are living with HIV/AIDS, and many find themselves living in poverty and facing issues around access to care, affordable housing and medication.

Glen Brown, a longtime AAN member, was one of the organizers of last week’s meeting and coined the term “funky little group.” It’s a reflection of the fact that AAN is beholden to no one and is unfettered by the constraints that typically come with government or pharmaceutical company funding. One good thing: AAN doesn’t have to worry about having funds cut if it makes a lot of noise about an injustice, or mounts a demonstration, because it doesn’t get any such funding.