Canada Has an HIV Problem

By Brook Biggin


Saskatchewan docs call for a state of emergency. Trudeau hangs with Bono.

Both of these things happened over the past several days in our country. Both for the same reason: HIV.

Now, I recognize that’s not an entirely fair side-by-side. After all, Trudeau was hosting the Global Fund Fifth Replenishment Conference and Bono, a long-time HIV advocate, was in attendance. It makes sense that the two would share a table – and even an embrace at some point over the weekend. But fair or not, both of those things did happen. The contrast is there. And it is stark.

I can already sense the barbs forming in the eyes of my progressive peers.  In a system with only two parties who have a feasible chance of forming the federal government, one of which just decided that gay people should be allowed to get married – ten years after they were allowed to get married – I get why some progressives don’t respond well when one of their own lobs criticism at the only sane, human option for government we have.

But central to the very word “progressive” – in fact, you can’t even form the word without it – is “progress”. And we do not achieve progress by simply burying our heads in the sand, only to re-emerge to throw darts at our political opponents or fluff those we see as our allies. Progress requires clear, sober reflection on the challenges that face us as a people. It requires that we place people before party. And it requires a commitment to speak truth to power, regardless of whose narrative it strengthens or undermines.

Now, before I get to said truth, it’s important to clarify that I take no offense to Canada’s hosting of the Global Fund’s Replenishment Conference. To bring Bono back into the mix, I wholeheartedly agree with his lyric which states, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” In a world where we have all of the tools available to ensure that people living with HIV and AIDS can live long and healthy lives, it is deplorable that that opportunity be relegated only to those of us who live in high-income countries. So I laud Canada’s commitment to supporting the Global Fund and the work it does to create equity for those living with, affected by, and at risk of contracting HIV throughout the world. However, the good that one does with the one hand does not negate the negligence conducted by the other.

The truth is, Canada has an HIV problem:

1) The Federal Initiative to Address HIV/AIDS in Canada was written in 2004. The top song on the Billboard charts was Yeah!” by Usher ft. Lil Jon & Ludacris. “Desperate Housewives” was in its first season. I was attending a Pentecostal Bible College. That’s how old Canada’s HIV/AIDS strategy is. That’s a problem.

2) With no national pharmacare plan, access to HIV Treatment – AKA what an estimated 70,000 people living in Canada need just to stay alive – is inconsistent. Think of that for a second. There are people in our country in need of medication, without which they will die, who face significant barriers in accessing treatment. And that doesn’t even begin to shine a light on the barriers faced by those whose immigration status might deem them ineligible for access.

3) We now know these things: 1) The majority of new HIV infections can be attributed not to people knowingly living with HIV but instead to those who are unaware of their status. 2) People living with HIV who are diagnosed, have access to HIV treatment and take it as prescribed, thus achieving an undetectable viral load, are non-infectious and cannot transmit the virus to others. AND YET people living with HIV in Canada continue to be criminally charged, convicted, and many sent to prison for failing to disclose their HIV status even when, based on ample evidence, there is no risk that transmission would actually occur. Yet there has been no attempt by policymakers – some of the same ones who were in attendance at the Global Fund Replenishment Conference – to provide updated guidance to police and prosecutors to ensure that our legal system and how it is implemented is based upon facts and scientific evidence as opposed to stigma and phobias which disproportionately impact indigenous people, queer people, and people of colour.

And that is just a start. I am only one man with one lens and one set of experiences. If I had more space or if this was co-written with others living with or affected by HIV, I’m sure the list would be much longer. But length is irrelevant to the fact that the gaps addressed in that list are unacceptable. And regardless of which conferences are hosted by whom, which celebrities celebrate our leaders, and which HIV activists are seduced into inaction by a tall, handsome man in a salmon shirt, until all of the challenges on that list are addressed, it will remain unacceptable.

So, to Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister Philpott, and the range of other policymakers, leaders, and bureaucrats who have the power to shape our country’s response to HIV and AIDS, do strive to create equity amongst the people of this earth. Do reaffirm our commitment as a global player that refuses to face inward and ignore the needs of those in need. But do not allow what is shiny in one hand to distract you from what is slipping from the other. This is not a call for either/or. It is a call for both/and. And you will be held accountable.


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