Bob Leahy: I wanted to talk to you about the government’s 90-90-90 statement on World Aids Day. It was very interesting that few picked on up on it. What’s your observation about why it didn’t get out properly?
Julio Montaner: There is no way I can answer that question - - but let me go back a little bit further. As you know, I’ve been trying to get national attention to 90-90-90 and the need for Canada to take an ownership role, given that this is largely based on our work. In that context when it came time to go to the United Nations in September, I sent a letter to each one of the leaders of the parties – this was during the elections – and I explained the whole thing and argued that Canada needed to take a positive stance towards 90-90-90 and I was hoping that I would have the support of the government to lobby for an End To AIDS as a sustainable development goal, and the 90-90-90 strategy as part of that. The Harper government did not engage. I talked to the bureaucracy at the time and basically was told that they would not oppose me but they could not support me.
Anyway, I had a supportive statement from the NDP and most interesting, as for the Liberals, Hedy Fry, who is my local MP, brought Justin Trudeau to my office and we had a long meeting. We talked about everything from treatment as prevention to drug policy law reform and he went on to write the letter that I sent you. He made a commitment there that I thought was very good.
Before we go on, your meeting with Trudeau sounds interesting. Tell me what you thought of him.
I found Justin Trudeau extremely interested, extremely knowledgeable, very sensitive to the issues we are concerned about and honestly I did not expect the letter and I was surprised by the candour of the language. I was very impressed by the grasp he had of the issues. Much had been made of the fact that he may be too young or not ready, but I found him extremely capable, very articulate and very sophisticated in the way he approached all the issues we were talking about.
So what happened between then and World AIDS Day?
Lo and behold when he won the election with a majority government, I immediately wrote him a letter and I followed up with my contacts in Ottawa – and was told that the Prime Minister had been busy since the election. So it came to me as a very gratifying surprise that despite the fact that the government was distracted with so many other things, that they issued the very specific statement on World AIDS Day (endorsing 90-90-90) from Jane Philpott, the federal Minister of Health.
How did you feel when you read that statement?
Elated. I was ecstatic. To me this was the signal that everything we had been lobbying for was foremost on the Prime Minister’s mind and that he has every intention of fulfilling the commitment he made in that earlier letter to me personally. After a very dark decade, as the Prime Miniister said, “sunny days are here” – and it looks to me like they are pretty sunny and they are here to stay. There is a multitude of things we have been asking for that have not even been considered by the previous government – whether it’s the renewal of the National AIDS strategy, to set standards of care for HIV, to adopting 90-90-90 to moving forward with legal reform to addressing the criminalization of sex work - the list goes on and on.
Have you received any indication that they might be receptive to more supervised injection sites like Insite?
The Liberal party’s position on supervised injection sites is that they are in favour of them. I’m hearing there would be no opposition whatsoever from the Federal government. I suspect we will no longer have resistance to what we had before on the medicalized heroin program and there will be an opportunity to have supervised injection sites elsewhere, where they are needed.
I wanted to ask about the reaction of everyone else to the World AIDS Day announcement – in fact there was no reaction because they weren’t aware of it. But moving forward where do we all go now?
You know I have been of the opinion for quite a long time that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) needs to be reformed. If we learned anything during the Harper years it was that the Prime Minister had an opportunity to interfere with decision making at PHAC. The agency reports directly to the Minister of Health and the Minister of Health to the Prime Minister's Office, an arrangement which is really unacceptable. In my opinion, PHAC should be reporting to the people of Canada, and be responsible for the best possible public health.
I’m not putting this government on the spot because every sign we have had from them on areas of common interest has been very positive. But I don’t think either we can miss the opportunity to elevate PHAC to a higher level of accountability by making sure that we make it independent of its political masters. We now know that PHAC is open to political abuse. We need to act so that never again will PHAC come to support political decisions against the best scientific evidence, for example with supervised inject sites, simply because it was unpalatable.
And the role of the national partners like CAS and CATIE and CTAC in all this as we move forward in al this is what?
I think all the national partners should come together, but I also feel that at PHAC, some national partners have been hampered in their ability to do their best work because they felt that their funding was potentially compromised by the federal government’s position. We need to sanitize the whole mechanism and ensure that people can do the work with independence without having to worry about their funding being compromised.
So I’m hearing that you are able to speak out where others can’t because you don’t have funding issues with the federal government to worry about.
That’s correct. We’ve declined funding for the ability to speak out to the government.
Very interesting and food for thought for all those engaged in the work we do. Julio – congratulations. 90-90-90 is looking like a win for you and a win for Canada too. Let’s keep on talking.
Thank you Bob and I’m sure we will