It was a time that nearly changed the face of AIDS activism in Toronto: in the fall of 2004 the membership of the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation narrowly rejected amalgamation with the AIDS Committee of Toronto — twice.
“It was a surprise to imagine that the vote was the same twice in a row knowing that there were some different people involved,” recalls then-PWA board chair Robert Sirman. “It was a surprise but, frankly, a fact that a third of the members did not wish to see the two organizations amalgamate.”
The rules required two-thirds of each group’s membership to vote in favour of forming a larger and arguably improved AIDS service organization (ASO). ACT’s members responded with better than 80 percent, but PWA was mere votes away from tipping the balance in favour.
Economically the proposed merger made sense. Amid fears of dwindling funding, the new mega-ASO would save on administrative costs — one board, one executive director, one fundraising department — allowing more money to be put toward programming.
The difference in the client base and between the cultures of the two organizations led some PWA members to campaign against the merger.
“Those opposed to the merger were saying that PWA served a much poorer clientele than ACT did and that a merger would basically involve PWA being absorbed by ACT,” McCaskell recalls. “Therefore the people that PWA served would end up without a home to go to. What they were arguing was that the class differences within the community had become so great that one organization couldn’t serve both ends of the spectrum.”
When the first vote failed, it was by so small a margin that a second vote was held. Sirman says he believes this was key to moving forward with the final decision.
“I think the closeness of the first vote — less than one percent to hit that threshold to get it through — created an uncertainty, and I think there would’ve been some lasting doubt. The fact that there was the second vote and the outcome was the same made it easier to accept the results — that there was something meaningful going on here and that the organization was choosing its destiny.”
Since that time PWA has gone its own way, moving out of the building at 399 Church St it once shared with ACT to open new offices at Gerrard and Sherbourne streets.
“The move totally blossomed PWA as an organization in terms of programming and leadership,” says executive director Murray Jose, who adds that there’s more room and greater accessibility and that the new offices better reflect the ethos of the organization.
“Clients felt it at 399 Church without us trying to create it, but the physical space wasn’t matching the experience,” Jose says. “Coming out of the merger really focused what we looked for.”
Jose says there’s also a lasting appreciation for how important PWA’s culture is.
“What we learned in the community planning was that people really value choice. We want the services we need, in the geographical area that we need, in an organization that has a culture relevant to who I am. People did not want an ASO superstore, which is what they perceived the merger would have provided.”
But as feared, HIV/AIDS funding has become scarcer since 2004.
Jose says that PWA has responded by working more closely with other ASOs and sidestepping territorialism.
“There’s always been recognition of the potential value of partnering, even among people who didn’t agree with the merger conversation . . . making sure that there’s efficiencies and making best use of dollars.”
Looking back, Sirman says that PWA grew through that process of considering the merger, even though it never came to pass.
“I think that it has proved to be another form of empowerment for the organization to have gone through a period of considering its options and deciding consciously and deliberately to pursue a particular course, and that course was consistent with the course that had been laid out from the beginning.
“At the same time I don’t want to deny that there was a lot of tension through that period and some people had doubts whether we should even be entertaining any other course of action. And you’re a little terrified that that might leave lasting wounds.”
But Jose says there’s “very little” ongoing impact.
“Understandably, at the time emotions were high. It was hard to stay objective and to believe that everyone was acting in the best interests of PWA. It was emotional, and it did take some time to heal, but I think very few are holding on to that. I haven’t heard anyone mention it in years.”