Two weeks ago, I found myself at the Newmarket Health Centre, where Conservative MP Lois Brown was making an announcement of new funding for the AIDS Committee of York Region (ACYR).
It was a tastefully subdued affair. ACYR’s executive director, Radha Bhardwaj, gave a speech outlining the accomplishments of her organization and some of the unique challenges of providing services for HIV-positive people in the sprawling region north of Toronto that’s home to more than one million people.
Brown spoke eloquently of her own relationship with HIV, forged when her mother, a retired nurse, saw the virus emerging in the region and decided to volunteer with patients many other health professionals refused to treat.
Brown then announced that the agency was receiving $162,400 over two years from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) AIDS Community Action Program (ACAP) to fund a “Community HIV Engagement Program,” which will “increase awareness and visibility of the impact of HIV/AIDS in the region and will improve individual, organizational and community-wide knowledge about HIV prevention and transmission,” according to a government press release.
The announcement noted that a big part of the new program will focus on engaging at-risk populations, including the homeless, drug users, youth and immigrant women. Notably absent from the press conference and briefings was any mention of gay men, who still make up the largest cohort of new HIV diagnoses.
But perhaps that’s not surprising. The epidemic is different in York Region than it is in Toronto, ACYR board chair Marnie Sigmar explained to me. More gay men live in the city or would feel more comfortable accessing services there. In York Region, which has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the GTA after Toronto and Peel, the clientele is noticeably more female and immigrant or ethnic minority.
Sigmar seemed very interested in attempting more outreach to gay men but confessed that she isn’t sure how to do that given there aren’t any gay bars or gay neighbourhoods in the region. She said ACYR would try to reach out on social networking sites and the internet.
Shortly before ACYR received its funding, the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) found out it was losing the funding it had received for years from ACAP to run services for women and Portuguese-speakers.
PHAC had reworked the ACAP funding criteria to limit the number of programs a single agency could receive funding for, specifically to spread the money further outside of Toronto, where many older AIDS service organizations have run multiple programs for years.
Again, that shouldn’t be surprising. Toronto is home to 75 percent of Ontario’s 26,000 estimated HIV patients – almost 20,000 people. For comparison, ACYR estimates its client base in the low hundreds.
This isn’t to denigrate the good work ACYR does. Nor do I think it’s as simple as the Conservatives punishing gay downtown Torontonians for not voting Conservative and rewarding the tiny organizations in Tory-friendly suburban ridings — really, do you think HIV workers are a target Tory demo? Besides, the Tories have a third of Toronto’s ridings now, too.
The changing nature of the epidemic requires flexible and dynamic responses from our government and our service providers, and that can be provided only with stable and predictable long-term funding.
Instead, PHAC left agencies across Ontario dangling for months, then hastily issued a call for funding over the Christmas holidays, leaving organizations with little time to table serious new proposals.
I’m unconvinced that a provincewide wellness retreat for HIV-positive women or services for lusophones are the best use of limited public funding to fight HIV, but by keeping ASOs in the dark and limiting their number of applications, the government hobbled their ability to respond to the epidemic in new and better ways.
The result will likely be increased stresses on AIDS services in Toronto, decreased awareness in the epicentre of the crisis, and a resulting increase in the HIV caseload in Toronto.
PHAC and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq should be ashamed.