4 min

Supporters vow to make AIDS drugs an election issue

Grannies target opponents, including former senator Larry Smith

A bill that would reform Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) — which would make it easier to sell cheap generic AIDS drugs to the developing world — died in the Senate when the election was called. Supporters of reforming CAMR have vowed to make this an issue on the campaign trail, and some of them have the organization to make this a reality.
For the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, a group of “grandmothers and grand others” from the Western world who pair with grandmothers in the developing world to address the challenges of AIDS there, they have already begun the work.
“We’re putting articles in every community newspaper, and continuing to write articles for major newspapers, and trying to get the press involved in this as much as we can,” says Bonnie Johnson, an Ottawa member of the Grandmothers’ national advocacy committee. “We intend to be asking questions at every candidates’ meeting, and we intend to get a question asked at the leaders’ debate.”
There are more than 240 Grandmothers groups around the country.
“We’ll certainly be at the meetings, and I’m sure that every grandmother that is canvassed door-to-door will be asking where the parties stand on this particular issue,” Johnson says. “We’re a multi-partisan organization, but we’re not trusting the Liberals or the Conservatives to bring this to a vote again. We’re assuming the NDP will because it was their private member’s bill.”
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has previously pledged support for CAMR, as well as for enhancing funding for developing countries to buy generic drugs.
During the votes on Bill C-393, which would have reformed CAMR had it passed the Senate before the election was called, all but two Liberals voted for the bill, and one of those MPs, Keith Martin, is not running this time around. Liberal MP Marc Garneau, who also opposed the bill, was not in the Commons for the vote on C-393. A number of Conservative MPs also voted in favour of the bill.
While those incumbent candidates who voted against the bill will face pressure from groups like the Grandmothers, another candidate who will be facing pressure is Larry Smith, a former Conservative senator running in the Montreal-area riding of Lac-Saint-Louis. Smith called for adjournment on C-393 several times during Senate debates, which allowed it to lapse under his name when Parliament dissolved.
“We really need to hold him to account,” says Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, president of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM). “Why did he only speak to big pharma and not to any NGO groups despite many, many phone calls, emails and messages to him asking him for a meeting, asking him if we could discuss our point of view on CAMR? We only ever got the assistant who told us repeatedly that he was too busy to meet with us, yet he did have time to meet with big pharma.”
UAEM is an interested group that faces additional challenges in this particular election. As their membership is largely students, they face twin issues of timing — a campaign run during exams and a voting date when students will be heading home — as well as the constant challenge of student apathy when it comes to getting involved in the political process.
“We’re just going to have to try to stagger things,” Kiddell-Monroe says. “Students are very committed to this issue and have been committed to the issue of CAMR for eight years. They are very frustrated and upset at what has happened.”
Kiddell-Monroe says that many students feel strongly enough about the issue that they are going to make the effort to make their voices heard in the election.
Other civil society groups are similarly getting involved in making this an election issue.
“We will certainly be putting together some material, backgrounders for the election, getting those out far and wide,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “I would expect that there are any number of Canadians who have been involved in the campaign to fix CAMR who would want to use those materials at the local grassroots level to engage candidates in discussion of those issues, to raise it at all-candidates’ meetings where those are happening, to be in direct communication individually with candidates.”
The Legal Network is also working on developing pledges to send out to candidates in every riding to invite them to pledge support to fixing CAMR, including the one-licence solution seen as key to making the legislation work. They plan to post responses online.
“We’ll update that page as candidates are indicating their position if they do, and if they don’t, we’ll just have the spot indicating that they haven’t responded yet with this pledge,” Elliott says.
Both UAEM and the Grandmothers plan to use social media tools to help spread the urgency of the issue throughout the campaign, many of those Grandmothers having learned to use tools like Twitter for the first time.
Johnson prefers the term “techno-grannies” to “silver surfers.”
“Most of us dye our hair,” she says with a laugh.
The interaction between the students of UAEM and the Grandmothers does send out a message, both groups believe.
“We represent opposite demographics almost, and appearing together is very powerful; there is a lot of strength gained from each other,” Kiddell-Monroe says. “There’s a very good match between the students and the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, so we keep very closely in touch with them.”
“Some of our grandchildren are these young people, and we’ve been involving them in that debate all along,” says Johnson. “For many of them, this may be their first time to vote, and we need to pass our history and our ideas of democracy on to the next generation, and it’s absolutely critical that we involve them in understanding the issues and getting out to cast their votes in this election.”