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No new federal AIDS strategy

Funding frozen under Tories' Public Health policy

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Across the country, groups serving people with AIDS are holding their breath.

That’s because, as of early November, the Conservative government hadn’t decided which organizations would get federal cash in 2008 and 2009, according to documents obtained by Capital Xtra.

Public Health Agency of Canada faxed a letter to organizations who run AIDS programming on Nov 9. It says that the AIDS Community Action Program would see a short-term extension until March 2009. It also suggests cash will only be available to groups already receiving money. And it comes with a warning.

“All Grants and Contribution programs are currently being reviewed to ensure that they are closely aligned with the Agency’s priorities, current research and evidence,” says the letter, sent from public health’s Atlantic office.

The Conservatives have been quietly steering the civil service toward more socially conservative messages.

It’s a move that’s been condemned by both the Liberals and the NDP.

The federal government, under health minister Tony Clement, has already reduced AIDS funding by $1 million in Ontario this year by scaling back the “time limited” funding basket. Combined with the letter, it points to a shrinking pot for groups that receive money from Ottawa.

The NDP has been watching AIDS funding decline, says their health critic, Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

“I don’t think anybody can take that concern lightly,” says Wasylycia-Leis. “The funding is inadequate as it is.”

AIDS groups, like many social and public health services, have faced stagnant or declining funding bases since the mid-1990s. With cash scarce, leaders of individual AIDS groups have been reluctant to speak out against the formulas, worried that they will get left out the following year.

And that’s already happening, says Liberal public health critic Carolyn Bennett. She says the Conservatives have been “very vindictive” in their funding choices.

“Clearly the government was unhappy with the way it was treated at the AIDS conference last year.”

In Aug 2006, attendees at the 16th Annual AIDS Conference garnered national attention by holding up pillowcases that read “Sleep in, Steve?” at the televised opening ceremony. They were protesting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision not to attend. Clement was booed even though organizers asked the audience to be respectful.

Without stable, predictable funding, groups can’t maximize the benefit they get from federal dollars, Bennett says.

“These little extensions, six months a year, there’s no way for organizations to plan ahead,” says Bennett.

Clements office asked representatives from public health to comment. And public health would only say that the process is “not unusual” and that “the Government of Canada continuously reviews grants and contribution programs to ensure the program delivery is accountable, effective and efficient.”

Liberal MP Paul Zed has written to Clement asking for a long term funding increase for AIDS groups. AIDS St John is part of his New Brunswick riding.

“I want to urge you not only to maintain but also significantly increase the level of funding for AIDS organizations like AIDS St John, which exist across Canada and perform vital health and educational functions,” Zed writes in the letter dated Nov 13.

Removing public health money would cripple the ability of some organizations to provide anonymous testing, needle exchanges, education and prevention programs, according to Zed’s letter.

And it’s those programs that are the likely target, according to some.

“They’re not keen on any of the harm reduction programs. They have a very narrow-minded approach when it comes to these areas,” says Wasylycia-Leis.

This news is the latest in a string of Conservative moves made by policy rather than by Parliament. Harper and the Conservatives have quietly been shifting government priorities within the bureaucracy — a strategy that doesn’t require a majority in the House of Commons.

The Cons came under fire when it was revealed last fall that the word “equality” had been excised from the Status of Women mandate — a move they made through policy rather than legislation.

Similarly, Montreal’s Black & Blue festival was denied cash it used to receive under a federal economic spin-off program in Quebec. Organizers were told that the program would only benefit “family friendly” events — a new policy that disqualified the fetish fest even though they had been receiving funds for several years.

AIDS groups appear to be the latest victims of the government’s shifting priorities.

But for NDPers like Wasylycia-Leis, the situation shows that the current Parliament is dysfunctional. In a thinly-veiled dig at the immobilized Liberals, she says that minority situations can be a good check only if the opposition are living up to their obligations as legislators.

“Decisions are made that are not immediately brought before Parliament, but you can generally deal with that in a minority Parliament,” she says.

The NDP have been on the offensive since Liberal leader Stephane Dion declined to vote on the budget.

“You can hold the government to account not just on the legislation program immediately before you, but based on their budgetary priorities,” she says.