Paul Pighin, NDP candidate in London West, is making history in this election as the first openly HIV-positive candidate to run for office in Ontario and he makes no bones about what got him into running.
“When you go into an NDP campaign, or any campaign, you go in for a reason and this was my reason,” says Pighin, who says he hopes to raise the issues that are important to Ontarians living with HIV/AIDS in this election and in the provincial parliament.
Pighin, 36, who identifies as a gay man, has been living with HIV for 12 years. He says the province’s HIV strategy has marginalized people living with the disease.
“Right from the beginning, just to get on the system to get the medications you need is a total nightmare and the Liberal government hasn’t done anything to address that,” he says. “It takes you six months to get on the system because they do checks, which is fine, but those could be done more quickly if we reinvested in the social service staff who do them.”
“They make you go on Employment Insurance first, make you sell off everything you own,” he continues. “People who are HIV-positive for the most part are going to be healthy for many years after they start their medication. For somebody who’s established themselves to live off that income first before you’re able to even get on a system is sickening and saddening because they’re starting over again yet they’ve paid into the tax system for many years before then.”
Many people living with HIV receive meager benefits from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Pighin argues those benefits need to increase to account for the increased costs associated with managing HIV.
“When you have to live off $935 per month paying for the over-the-counter medications and some of those prescription drugs that aren’t covered just isn’t feasible,” he says. “There’s got to be an immediate increase to ODSP payments so we can eat properly and so we can pay for these prescriptions and be taxpaying citizens again and get back to work.”
Pighin knows firsthand the difficult of surviving on ODSP benefits.
“I lived in poverty the last five years,” he says. “I was 129 pounds. I was forced to live in a slum because the amount of money that’s allotted for shelter is $460. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the province you can afford to live for $460 and if you can it’s a slum.”
Pighin only managed to get out of poverty when he fell through a flight of stairs and fractured his back, for which he was awarded a lump sum settlement from his property owner.
“I got it in December of last year. I’m back up to 160 pounds. I’m able to eat properly and go to the gym,” he says, noting that he still has trouble finding work because he has to explain a five-year period of unemployment on his resume.
“When you explain it to an employer either they don’t want to hire you because of stigma or they’re afraid you’ll get sick again and not show up to work,” he says.
Pighin says a global approach to HIV/AIDS prevention and harm reduction should be promoted as part of the provincial HIV strategy.
“There has to be education, a single program for every school to teach,” he says. “Needle-exchange programs, safe-injection sites; that just goes for the spread of any disease.”
Pighin says running under the NDP banner was an easy choice.
“When I started looking at the parties and [at] who cares about the actual person the NDP was the only party that really stuck out as looking after working families, looking after persons like myself who may not have a voice,” he says.
Pighin says he thinks he is already having an impact within the party.
“I’m still fairly new,” he says. “I am an eye opener within the party, especially now disclosing this. It wasn’t something that I talked about to anybody. It was sort of a need-to-know basis but it’s important now to be in the forefront. If I’m able to do it and make someone else’s life better, it’s all the better. I think that once the campaign is done or maybe during the campaign that I’ll be the spokesperson for that.”
Pighin concedes that London has a reputation as a not-so-queer-friendly city. Until this year London’s civic leadership had for years refused to issue Pride Day proclamations or fly the Pride flag.
“There has been some concern with that,” he says. “You’re either accepting or you’re not; that’s just how London is. The more that we come out in the open and show people that we do live here, the less problems we’ll come into.”
Pighin says he hasn’t experienced any homophobia on the campaign trail so far.
“I’ve had no negative responses,” he says, “I would assume that I wouldn’t get any. I’ve got pretty good backing from the AIDS Committee Of London. I’ve had some people come on board including a paralegal. Both he and his son are HIV-positive and they’re ecstatic that somebody would stand up and do this.”
Still, winning a seat will be an uphill battle for Pighin. The NDP placed third in the riding in the last two elections — more than 18,000 votes behind the winner in both 1999 and 2003 — but Pighin says his candidacy alone will have an impact on people living with HIV in Ontario.
“I think it gives them some hope back in their lives again,” he says. “When you are diagnosed positive you go through many stages of acceptance and of course you don’t have role models.”