Executive Director Richard Elliott said it best. “This year has had more challenges than achievements” he confessed to an attentive crowd at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s 20th anniversary gala in Toronto this past week.
Here’s what the Legal Network has faced in the space of a few short months. Funding cuts, courtesy of the Federal Government who will no longer fund anything even smelling slightly of advocacy. A stinging defeat at the Supreme Court where two high profile appeals dealing with criminalization of non disclosure resulted in a major setback with disclosure now required in all cases except for the safest of safe sex. And then just last week, perhaps an even crueler blow as Bill C-398 which the Legal Network pumped their heart and soul in to supporting went down, if not in flames, at least to defeat in a close vote at second reading. The term “Oy vey!’ was invented for these folks’ fortunes of late.
Anybody who knows the Legal Network and Richard Elliott in particular, who just last week was awarded the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal in Ottawa, knows none of these setbacks happened through want of trying. It’s our experience, in fact, that the Legal Network, under Richard’s direction, is one of the most hard working, dedicated and persistent working units in the HIV community.
Which is why it was a pleasure to celebrate – yes, celebrate - with them this week at toney Convocation Hall in downtown Toronto, where 20 years of work were being lauded as well as two awards handed out for excellence in human rights issues. Well known HIV physician Dr. Philip Berger won the Canadian award and the Andrew Rylkov Foundation won too for its work in challenging Russia’s draconian drug laws.
The star of the show however was undeniably Stephen Lewis, formerly special envoy to the United Nations on HIV/AIDS in Africa. An eloquent speaker at the best of times, the silver tongued 75-year old did not disappoint. I managed to corner him before he spoke with a question I’d thought was a bright one. “Mr Lewis” I said, “Canada is such a liberal thinking country. Why are we leaders in prosecutions for non disclosure of HIV?” “We are NOT a liberal thinking country” he said. “Of course that’s the answer” I said, immediately regretting I hadn’t asked him something brighter.
Behind the podium, Lewis was in fine form, immediately launching in to a glowing appraisal of the Legal Network. ”I am an immense fan - an unrestrained fan – of Richard Elliott, a shameless groupie” he said to laughter. “I love the work of the Legal Network. They are an astonishing organization, I want you all to recognize the enormous reach … it has an impact and integrity and reputation which is absolutely stunning around the world. Whether in Canada you are dealing with questions of injection drug use in the downtown eastside of Vancouver or whether you are dealing with decriminalization - where the Legal Network is right and the Supreme Court of Canada is wrong and one day the Supreme Court will understand the errors of their ways – or whether you are dealing with the astonishing defence by the Legal Network of Canadian access to medicine legislation, defeated by a reactionary, arbitrary, Neanderthal government whose ugly response to the legislation stands as an iniquitous moment in Canadian political history. That a piece of legislation which could have saved hundreds and thousands and millions of lives was considered inconsequential by the government and was defeated by seven votes, perfectly orchestrated, is a real shame on the integrity of the Canadian political system, and it’s heartbreaking. But it just means you rise to fight another day.”
Lewis described the decision of Health Canada to reduce the Legal Network’s funding as “absolutely outrageous, to cut back the funding on the suspicion that the material produced by the Legal Network might conceivably lead to advocacy is so insubstantial and nonsensical, it’s deeply wounding and offensive.”
Lewis spent some time too outlining his concerns for global health. “Let me remind you that there are 34 million people on the planet living with AIDS. There are 8 million people in treatment. We have a tremendous way to go before we can secure the health and survival of the other 26 million."
The indefatigable Richard Elliott was up next, his speech concentrating heavily on HIV human rights issues and the manner in which they had been tackled since day one. “It was clear early on in the epidemic” he said “that HIV would travel along and therefore expose the social fault lines of inequality, that HIV was not just a public heath disaster of staggering proportions but also a human rights disaster. And so it was also clear that any effective response to the epidemic would not only need to overcome the understandable fear of disease and death but would also need to challenge the deep seated range of prejudices against sex and drugs….The law for better or worse, plays a role in the evolution of the epidemic. Too often the law is hindering HIV prevention and care, too often it directs and enables abuse and deprivation “
I was particularly interested in what Richard would have to say about Bill C-398 as work in my own community has included collaborating locally with the Grannies for Africa to persuade our (conservative) MP to vote in favour of the bill. Richard has been incredibly helpful in this regard. Here’s what Richard said to the attentive crowd at the gala. “We started over knowing that it was going to be a tough slog. We have built an extraordinary coalition. I have to salute in particular the Grandmothers Advocacy Network. Despite all the efforts last week, that came to an end when the forces that are currently arrayed against those reforms won a crucial vote in the House of Commons by seven votes, However we can be proud of what we did and the work that we did to build that coalition is not for naught and we can turn that energy and that anger and our hope to something different.”
On the Supreme Court decision Richard mourned the setback but took consolation in the fact that “without our intervention the court will have likely not recognized that perhaps we shouldn’t be prosecuting people for aggravated sexual assault, at least in cases of safer sex.”
All in all it was a stirring and buoyant evening. Clearly the Legal Network could do with help financially – Stephen Lewis urged the crowd to take out memberships – but they are strong in spirit and resolve. Anyone who interacts with them often, as does PositiveLite.com, knows that their work continues unabated.
Like the Grannies, they remain a force to be reckoned with.
photos by Bob Leahy