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Federal government to review Canada’s tough HIV laws

HIV criminalization, funding for HIV and hepatitis organizations on the agenda

“Men, women and trans persons deserve to be respected,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the red ribbon flag raising on Parliament Hill in front of Centre Block on Dec 1, 2016. Credit: Dylan C Robertson/Daily Xtra

The Canadian federal government says it will attempt to reverse one of the world’s toughest legal systems for people with HIV/AIDS, a move advocates say would be a major change in how Canada deals with the virus.

“Just as treatment has progressed, the criminal justice system must adapt to better reflect the current scientific evidence on the realities of this disease,” Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a Dec 1, 2016 statement for World AIDS Day.

The government is considering creating prosecutorial guidelines, which could ask judges to consider less severe sentences for people charged in HIV non-disclosure cases, based on the real risk of transmission and the accused’s intention in the case.

That would be a major change for a legal system that has given harsh sentences to people living with HIV who have exposed others to the virus — regardless of their intent or whether the disease was actually transmitted.

“I intend to work with my provincial and territorial counterparts, affected communities and medical professionals to examine the criminal justice system’s response to non-disclosure of HIV status,” Wilson-Raybould says in the statement.

HIV/AIDS organizations say more than 170 people in Canada have been charged with criminal offences for failing to disclose their HIV status, with some facing murder charges. In October, the executive director of the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario said he’s heard other countries ridicule Canadian courts at global conferences.

“Canada remains a world leader in prosecuting people with HIV,” said Ryan Peck, during a panel discussion on LGBT issues that included activists, scholars and parliamentarians. “It provides a disincentive for people to get tested in the first place.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined the AIDS Committee of Ottawa in temporarily raising a red ribbon flag on Parliament Hill, in front of Centre Block on December 1, 2016.
Dylan C Robertson/Daily Xtra

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network welcomed Wilson-Raybould’s statement, noting that more than 70 prominent Canadian medical experts called for a major legal reform in a spring 2014 statement.

“It is very important to see this is finally recognized as an issue by the federal government,” Cécile Kazatchkine, a senior policy analyst, told Daily Xtra. “The law needs to catch up with science. Those are concerns we have been voicing for years.”

In addition to its announcement on HIV criminalization, the government marked World AIDS Day with a slight boost to funding to tackle the disease, and a brief ceremony where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined the AIDS Committee of Ottawa in raising a temporary red ribbon flag on Parliament Hill.

“I encourage every Canadian to get tested,” Trudeau said, adding it was a matter of “being aware of and taking care of our own sexual health.” He also took aim at HIV stigma, saying that “men, women and trans persons deserve to be respected.”Health minister Jane Philpott spent the morning taking a rapid-HIV test at Ottawa’s Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health. She later announced $3.5 million for biomedical and clinical research on the disease, as well as a national conference in February 2017 on sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections like HIV and Hepatitis C.

The federal government spends roughly $76 million each year on such research. Philpott came under fire this fall when changes to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s $26.4-million fund for HIV and hepatitis C organizations resulted in numerous previously-funded organizations losing their funding.

Philpott restored that funding until 2018, leading some groups and the Conservative opposition to demand long-term support.

Outside the House of Commons on Dec 1, Philpott said the February 2017 conference will look at “how we can support community agencies.”

The government also unveiled its estimates on the roughly 75,000 Canadians living with HIV. According to their figures:

  • 80 percent of HIV-infected persons know their status
  • 76 percent of those diagnosed are on treatment
  • 89 percent of those on treatment have suppressed viral loads.

Last year, the Liberal government endorsed a 2014 UN AIDS plan known as the 90-90-90 targets, which aim at reaching 90 percent in all three of the above categories by 2020.