Two Pride Week events that feature members of the Ottawa Police Services (OPS) are developing into sites of protest, following the police’s treatment of an HIV-nondisclosure case in Ottawa.
The events in question are the OPS pancake breakfast, which is sponsored by the Police Liaison Committee, and the Human Rights Vigil, where a representative of the OPS hate crimes unit is rumoured to be a speaker.
Late last month, Ottawa’s police services board virtually ignored a proposal supported by several queer groups to develop guidelines for prosecution for HIV-nondisclosure cases, a move Brent Bauer of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative called “an act of cowardice.”
The liaison committee had planned to donate all proceeds from the pancake breakfast to three organizations: Capital Pride, the Ten Oaks Project and AIDS Walk for Life.
But Capital Pride is, for now, the sole recipient of those funds. Both of the other recipients pulled their support last week, citing the same concerns Bauer had with the relationship between the cops and the queer community.
Lee Rose, the vice-president of the board at the Ten Oaks Project, said the controversy has made the relationship between the police, the liaison committee and the community “fragile.”
“The committee right now is at a crossroads,” he said. “We think that the community must be engaged to rebuild the committee so that it may fulfill its vital and important mandate in the community.”
The Ten Oaks Project’s board has not taken a position on the criminalization of HIV, says Rose.
“It’s really the … lack of communication between the community and the committee,” he said.
Jay Koornstra, the executive director of Bruce House – the lead agency of the AIDS Walk for Life – expressed similar concerns as Bauer and Rose. And he said he wants to open lines of communication, not shut them down.
“This is not an indictment against the liaison committee, per se,” he said. “This is not burning any bridges. This will hopefully further encourage greater dialogue.”
That dialogue seems to already be in the works. Rose said Staff Sgt John Medeiros, Ottawa’s police diversity officer, reached out to and met with the Ten Oaks Project after hearing about its decision to pull out of the pancake breakfast.
“The meeting was good. It was a first step,” he said. “[Medeiros] informed me that the police are taking the issue seriously … There was recognition that there were some errors made.”
Medeiros told Xtra that the police have assembled a Critical Incident Critical Situation team, which they do from time to time when serious disruptions in community relations occur. He said it was formed on Aug 18 and is developing its strategy.
Medeiros plans to meet one on one with several agencies and organizations that are upset with how police have dealt with the HIV criminalization issue.
“There will be other incidents that occur,” he said. “It’s so important that we as a police agency and community members, when these situations occur, walk towards one another and engage in dialogue.“
Meanwhile, in an Aug 26 email to Capital Pride chair Doug Saunders-Riggins, Bauer expressed the concerns his group had with a police officer attending a Pride Week human rights vigil.
“On the 25th anniversary of Capital Pride, do we really want to give a platform to the one organization in town that has undertaken the most offensive and egregious human rights violations against our communities in recent memory?” he asked.
Bauer pledged to work with police in the future, but only on certain terms.
“We will continue to petition for a process to encourage OPS to entertain open consultations that will actually promote a safer and healthier community rather than the harmful, punitive and misinformed application of criminal charges as currently exists in our community,” he wrote.
Marion Steele, the co-chair of the liaison committee, was frustrated by the two groups’ decision not to participate in the pancake breakfast.
“We’re disappointed that they’re withdrawing. We certainly would have liked to have seen some of the proceeds go to them,” she said, adding that the proceeds numbered in the hundreds of dollars.
Steele added that she understood the concerns being raised, but offered a different solution.
“Our community is famous for standing together, so I can understand it from that point of view,” she said. “As an activist, to me it’s not about boycotting and not showing up. If anything, show up and tell us what it is that you need. We are the police liaison committee. We are not the Ottawa police.”
Steele said the liaison committee will look for other recipients of the pancake breakfast proceeds.
UPDATE: Capital Pride announced Aug 20 that the two events “will be run in partnership with Ottawa Police Services, despite ongoing controversy within the community.”
“As an HIV-positive man, I think this issue needs to be better understood by the community, and the Capital Pride Human Rights Vigil is one place where this can happen,” writes Tory Saunders-Riggins, community relations director for Capital Pride and organizer of the vigil. “The first step in this process is education and discussion on the topic of HIV criminalization and the stigma of being HIV-positive.”
Capital Pride also announced its lineup for the Human Rights Vigil: Helen Kennedy of Egale Canada, John Byers of the Ottawa Police Services Hate Crimes Unit and David Hoe of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa.