TORONTO – Ontario recently witnessed the official birth of a new advocacy and social network for and by people living with HIV/AIDS after an inaugural caucus in May 2015 that attracted a significant number of people living with HIV from across the province.
The Ontario Positive Asians (OPA+) Network is a collective of self-identifying Asians living in Ontario who represent ethno-racial connections to East, South-East, West, and South Asian countries, as well as the diasporic communities of Asians around the world.
Christian Hui, community engagement coordinator at Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS) and coordinator of OPA+, said, “When I was first tasked to coordinate it, me being an Asian person living with HIV, I had to ask if this is something we only wanted to engage East and South-East Asians in, or did we want to make this a broader group?”
Hui said the overall desire was to make the network as inclusive as possible, which included reaching out to Middle-Eastern and West Asian people living with HIV who, according to Hui, had very little representation and visibility in AIDS service organizations.
“It was through the recruitment of the advisory committee as well. They gave us many inputs.” Hui said the OPA+ advisory committee encouraged the network to be open to all Asians of diverse origins and lived experiences.
The first caucus meeting on May 23, 2015 in Toronto was a success according to Hui.
“There were 26 of us altogether, and we listed what the priorities should be. One of them was to increase visibility. Another one was to address overall health needs, including mental health, aging, and harm reduction. One other priority was to build social connection, and learn from one another. We want to encourage cultural exchange,” Hui said.
Fendy, a former migrant farmer in Leamington, now residing in Toronto, attended the OPA+ caucus and said joining the network was helping him access more social support and provided a space where his needs and concerns as both a person living with HIV and someone who identifies with LGBTQ communities were being addressed.
“The organization is strong. I feel confident sharing my issues and my problems,” Fendy said. He said the new network encouraged opportunities to strengthen peer-to-peer support, which was different than the kinds of services he accessed at AIDS service organizations (ASOs) in Toronto.
Fendy has been in Canada for nearly three years, and said when he faced a health crisis after his HIV diagnosis, ASOs like Casey House and ACAS stepped in and provided him with the compassionate care and support he needed in order to regain his footing.
Two ethno-racial ASOs in particular played a pivotal role in OPA+’s launch, ACAS and the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP).
Andrew Miao, support program coordinator at ACAS, said both agencies maintained a hands-off approach during their attendance at OPA+ advisory committee meetings, but the two representatives agreed to provide administrative support, such as booking rooms and offering modest funding for the caucus event.
“When I joined the committee, I tried to be very careful not to impose opinions from the agency. Although I’m also a PHA, I need to be careful. Is this point of view from the agency or from me? Most of the time, I refrained. We gave OPA+ members a space for them to decide what’s good for them,” Miao said.
From L-R: Fendy, Andrew Miao, and Christian Hui pose with the OPA+ logo and banner designed by one of the network's members
Miao said OPA+ had the potential to effectively represent the voices of Asian people living with HIV in Ontario, and was happy to see community members at the caucus who were not necessarily accessing services from ASOs.
Miao recognized the sometimes hierarchical relationships between service providers and people who sign on as clients.
“When I was told about this initiative, I was pretty excited because I knew there should be a space for PHAs, so they could have a collective voice. In my work, I serve clients with HIV, but sometimes it can be hard for them to let me know what they really want because they’re the service user and I’m the service provider,” Miao said.
Miao expressed hope that once OPA+ was firmly established and no longer required external support, he could take off his ASO rep hat and participate more as a peer member with voting privileges.
Hui echoed Miao’s observations about the challenges of meeting the needs of service users, and emphasized the important work OPA+ could do in advocacy.
“There are gaps in terms of services provided by ethno-racial or mainstream agencies right now. Despite the good work that the agencies are doing, sometimes the needs of Asians living with HIV are not always met,” Hui said.
Hui said, building gender inclusion and equity in the group were keys to the growth and success of the network.
“The issue of gender equity, including the needs of Trans* communities, and issues around gender-based violence, and substance use were raised as well at the caucus,” Hui said. “As much as there is work being done by the agencies, the caucus participants felt we needed to do something more. We might be able to get that out through OPA+, and channel that back to the agencies.”
OPA+ was all about putting GIPA/MIPA into action by building the capacity and visibility of Asian people living with HIV so they could effectively advocate for their collective aims and vision, Hui said.
Although the shortage of funds might pose a problem for future endeavours, Hui said the network would keep on the lookout for potential funding sources.
“It’s important for OPA+ to exist,” Hui said. “Just because our numbers are not as high, does not mean that our issues are not as relevant.”
For members like Fendy, OPA+ has played a significant role in helping him gain support as an Asian living with HIV, and has contributed to nurturing a more positive outlook on life.
“I’m not alone here anymore because of the many members of OPA+,” he said. “I can be open about myself. I’m happy, and after sharing my issues, I feel no pressure.”
OPA+ is currently working on building its social media presence. For more information on the group, contact Christian Hui via
All photos by Shazia Islam