Over the past three to four years I’ve been attending every conference, workshop or training session I could to learn all there is to know about this virus I live with – and to find ways to get involved.
There are few things locally or around the province of Ontario that I haven’t already been involved in. I've been volunteering with two local AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs), doing some public speaking, trying my hand at facilitating peer led workshops, getting involved in community-based research and of course exploring the issue of social media, albeit on a national scale, here on PositiveLite.com.
The next logical step was to see how the AIDS movement is organized nationally. I had applied unsuccessfully in the past for scholarships to attend the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) AGM and Forum for People Living with HIV. This year, I was accepted.
CAS, I had learned, is an umbrella organization for a hundred or so AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) across Canada. Its two-day annual general meeting was held in Ottawa this year, and as usual was preceded by a two-day Forum for people living with HIV.
CAS’s mandate is to represent the interests of its member agencies and of all people living with HIV across Canada. It does this either directly or working with a number of national partners and agencies as well as government representatives, politicians and third parties.
I had been cautioned that these two events would be unlike what I was accustomed to attending in terms of scope and subject matter, perhaps involving heated discussion, and perhaps a hint of politics. It was all that and more. Being a new attendee, some unfamiliar subjects admittedly were a little over my head. But when I didn’t understand what was being talked about, there were plenty of people to break it down and guide me through it. People were helpful.
It’s expected that everyone participate in discussions. It took me a while but I was able to voice some concerns I had from my two local ASOs - I was a voting delegate for one of them. It became clear early on that one common concern from across Canada was that people living with HIV were asking for a larger role, a louder voice in what we do – and the formation of a national organization for people living with HIV, currently missing from Canada, was proposed. So I was happy to be able to vote in support of three motions to this effect, which passed. Being able to cast a vote for my peers was in fact a very proud moment
I see this as a call to people living with HIV to be more vocal within their local ASO and make sure their ASO is an active member of CAS. We need CAS to remain a powerful and important voice, whatever is the impact of funding realignments currently under discussion, a topic which occupied much of the four-day agenda.
It was a struggle to digest all that happened in those four days, and to figure out how I would report back on an event I was entirely new to. But I have to thank all the delegates; the support and respect we had for each other was a true show of solidarity. The long time delegates were extremely helpful and dedicated in wanting to strengthen and support each of us.
A few basic truths emerged though, things we need to reinforce. HIV is not going away. It has never been just a gay disease and being in that room, I saw the magnitude and diversity of what it is today - men, women, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, aboriginal, older people and youth together.
Fingers crossed, I’ll be back next year.
All photos by Wayne Bristow.