Thirty years ago, in February 1988, AIDS ACTION NOW! convened its first public meeting. Arising out of a fierce and fabulous gay liberation movement that had already consistently confronted police violence and state oppression, their activist work has been absolutely vital in the fight for health justice in the Canadian context. At the AIDS activist history project, we have learned so much from interviews with activists in Toronto about the important early years of their work. George Smith was a vital part of that origin story, and we are delighted to lift up and explore a bit of his work in this feature.
Nous sommes fières et fiers de vous présenter l’enregistrement d’une présentation de l’histoire du SIDA au sein de la communauté haïtienne à Montréal. En 1983, les personnes d’origine haïtienne ont été associées au SIDA dans les médias et dans les politiques publiques au Québec, notamment par une déclaration de la Croix-Rouge canadienne (10 mars 1983). Cette conférence a présenté cette histoire, pour ensuite documenter la réponse de la communauté haïtienne. Les infirmières d’origine haïtienne ont été centrales à la réponse au SIDA, et ce panel a souligné leur contribution. L’activité avait deux éléments : une présentation plus formelle de cette histoire, suivi d’un échange avec trois infirmières qui ont réalisé ce travail.
Merci à Viviane Namaste, Marlène Rateau, Maud Pierre-Pierre, et Marie-Luce Ambroise pour leur participation.
For the 2018 International Women’s Day we want to highlight the brilliant work of Canadian women who have challenged and informed audiences with their activist films and videos for nearly 30 years. The collection of videos featured below focus on many aspects at the intersection of HIV and women’s experience, from lesbians and sex workers to immigrants and women of colour. The variation in content is matched by variation in form: narratives, animations, documentaries, experimental shorts, public service announcements, featurettes, and features.
While we wish all of these videos were available for streaming online, some are not. All titles are linked to streaming video or information about distributors that carry these titles.
Beginning with an opening scene that mirrors Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986), a lesbian interracial couple wake up in bed with one rushing to get up and out the door. In AnOther Love Story, the young woman rushing out the door is headed to a doctor’s appointment to do an HIV test. The narrative built around this couple’s relationship structures the video which aims to illustrate the issues facing women and HIV, and lesbians and racialized women in particular. Douglas & Micallef’s video appeared as part of the Toronto: Living With AIDS cable access series along with Glace Lawrence‘s The Colour of Immunity (1991) that we’ve written about previously. AnOther Love Story was also recently featured at an encore screening in Montreal for the 10th edition of Massimadi. Unfortunately, this video is not available streaming online, but it is available from Vtape.
Le Récit d’A, The Story of A, is an experimental travel diary. The video combines medical imaging, desert landscapes, and images from the author’s trip to visit a friend named Andrew in San Francisco. The accompanying voiceover track switches between philosophical musings about mortality and what we leave behind vis-a-vis Susan Sontag and Edmond Jabès, and an interview with Andrew, a gay friend struggling to survive with AIDS. Jumping between English and French, this very Montreal short is credited with reanimating the Quebec art scene to respond to the crisis.
Le Singe Bleu, retitled The Measure of Your Passage in english, is a philosophical mediation on living in the face of assured death. The film is part historical research on the disappearance of Minoan civilization—similar in style to what one would see on the History Channel today—and part reflection on the mass scale of death from the AIDS crisis. Much like Le Récit d’A, Valiquette’s introspective and autobiographical approach to filmmaking renders the philosophical musings on mortality at the height of the AIDS epidemic all the more visceral. And not to be missed is the video footage from the ACT UP Montreal World AIDS Day Women’s March in 1990 towards the end of the film, as this event was often noted in our project’s oral history transcripts. This beautiful National Film Board funded featurette won a Genie award for best short documentary in 1993 and is available streaming online in french and english.
This twelve-minute animation film was produced as part of the National Film Board’s Five Feminist Minutes program, a compilation of short films to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Studio D. Prowling By Night animates the true stories of sex workers in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood in the 1980s and highlights instances of police harassment, safe sex education, and sex worker’s rights. This film won the award for Best First Short Film at La Mondiale de films et vidéos réalisés par des femmes in April 1991. Unfortunately, the National Film Board has yet to make this video publicly available on their website.
Les Autres begins with a scene reminiscent of Stuart Marshall’s Bright Eyes (1986), where viewers are schooled in media literacy, examining troubling mainstream media representations of HIV/AIDS. The video continues in vignettes: women in a lesbian bar discussing condoms and safer sex; two high school girls talking about sex education in schools; a woman sitting on her bed demonstrating safe sex practices while discussing sex amongst women and lesbians; ACT UP Montreal protest footage; two women from GAP-SIDA (precursor to GAP-VIES) discussing HIV prevention amongst racialized women; documentary footage from an HIV/AIDS art show. In this montage video you can also find a young Karen Herland from Réaction SIDA whose AAHP transcript can be read here.
Safe Soap was produced as part of an artist residency hosted by Michael Balser at the Banff Centre and programmed as part of the Second Generation PSA compilation (along with nine other artists). Two 30-second versions were created, one heterosexual, the other lesbian themed. More can be learned about both these two videos by checking out the AAHP transcript of Golden, available in both english and french here.
Darien Taylor (& Michael Balser) – Voices of Positive Women (1992)
This documentary features the voices of nine women living with HIV from across the globe. Based on her co-edited book with the same title, Taylor presents powerful first-person testimonials about the challenges of being an HIV+ woman in the early ’90s. Importantly, this video highlights the medical negligence and bureaucratic denial that created such grave challenges for HIV+ women in the first place. Unfortunately, this video is not available streaming online, but you can check out Vtape for more information about getting your hands on a copy.
Alison Duke – The Woman I Have Become (2007); Positive Women: Exposing Injustice (2012); Consent: HIV Non-disclosure and Sexual Assault Law (2015)
One of the most important video makers working on HIV/AIDS today, Duke has produced three community-based documentaries focused on women and HIV over the last decade. Paying close attention to the intricacies of HIV criminalization in Canada, Duke’s two most recent works provide an important overview of the debates over sexual assault law and HIV non-disclosure—particularly as it affects women and people of colour. Toronto-based Duke’s video collaborations with Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network harken back to the artist-community organization collaborations at the heart of the short-lived Toronto: Living With AIDS cable access series from the early 1990s.
The Canadian AIDS Memorial Quilt has its roots in San Francisco, where a group of people came together in 1987 to create a living memory for those who have died of AIDS-related causes. In 1989, the U.S. AIDS Memorial Quilt went on tour across the United States and Canada. Many cities in Canada hosted their own displays, where they received hundreds of new panels that were created in memory of those who lost their lives during the HIV/AIDS crisis. These panels formed the basis for what is now the Canadian AIDS Memorial Quilt, which is comprised of more than 640 panels and over 80 sections.
The Quilt Website
While Nick Sheehan’s No Sad Songs (1985) is often cited as the first feature documentary about HIV/AIDS in Canada, it was predated by an interesting cable access program based in Vancouver, BC. Running monthly from 1980-1986, Gayblevision was groundbreaking in many ways—most notably its role as Canada’s first television series by and for queer viewers. Its period of operation also overlaps with the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Canada, and HIV/AIDS-related content appears in numerous episodes. From public service announcements, to in-depth analysis of mainstream media coverage, to press conferences, to direct address by PLWAs to other HIV-positive people, Gablevision covered the early years of the epidemic in ways no one else did in Canada. All in all, Gayblevision produced over 3 hours of HIV/AIDS related content for distribution on cable television in Vancouver. The Facts On A.I.D.S., produced as a special by Gayblevision in 1983, is the most concerted effort by this group of queer media activists to produce HIV/AIDS content. Ranging in focus, the special primarily functions pedagogically, educating viewers about medical and societal understandings of the disease at a time when little information was available, let alone non-judgemental. This episode also outlines the need for and emergence of a community response to the health crisis via AIDS Vancouver. A full description of the special with timestamps is available here.
A full list of Gayblevisions episodes are available streaming online thanks to one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres, VIVO Media Arts Centre. Special thanks to Karen Knights at VIVO for her insight into the Gaybelvision collection!
The Legacy of Jon Gates (1993) – 52 minutes, colour, english
by Peter Davis & Harvey McKinnon
Jon Gates moved from Vancouver to Ottawa in 1989 to push Canadian-based international development agencies to deal with the AIDS crisis in the global south—particularly sub-Saharan Africa. He worked for the International Committee for AIDS and Development (ICAD) where he would interface with the groups like Oxfam, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, and the Red Cross. At the heart of Jon’s international solidarity activism was a call for people in the global north to refuse a therapeutic vaccine or cure for HIV until the pharmaceutical companies, who would no doubt control the supply and prices, made it accessible to the global south. His speech pre-dates the successful triple-combination therapy announced at the World AIDS Conference in Vancouver in 1996, but he had a clear view of the future to come and the challenges that would accompany it. Had Jon survived until triple-combination therapy had become a regular treatment regimen for HIV infection, undoubtedly he would have had much in common with renowned South African treatment activist Zackie Achmat, refusing treatment until it’s available to all.
Gates’ call for international solidarity was most clearly articulated in his keynote speech at the 1992 Canadian AIDS Society meeting shortly before his death and captured in the documentary from Villon Films posted above. To learn more about Jon Gates’ work, check out the video above and/or read our oral history interview with John Foster.
Anyone who tells you that AIDS activism was only a bunch of white gay men who got mad because suddenly their community experienced oppression isn’t telling the whole story. It’s understandable that people get history wrong when, as Suraj Madoori recently wrote: “Even after 35 years of HIV/AIDS, the stories of critical Black activism are notably absent in the dominant media and movement narratives.” Consider for example the narrative of the film How to Survive a Plague, which presents the history of AIDS activism in the US as mainly about the interventions made by white gay men involved in treatment activism. There are so many stories that haven’t been told, have been forgotten, or that have been only partially captured. Anti-Back racism impacts on the dominant AIDS narrative, whether it be the racist construction of “African AIDS” or the systematic forgetting and eclipsing of Black AIDS activism and organizing.
While the AIDS crisis is a condensation of many social relations including sexuality, gender, race, class and much more, often when only the ‘sexuality’ part is focused on and separated from the web of relations it is part of a white gay men’s narrative emerges. While in no way denying the devastation that the AIDS crisis inflicted on white gay men and the importance of their activism, this is only a part of the story.
Early on, societal responses to AIDS often cited the so-called “4-H” conception of who was affected (Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users). From the beginning in Haitian communities, especially in Canadian cities like Montreal and Toronto, activists had to fight against anti-Black racism not only from the Red Cross, the government, and the medical profession, but also from many of the AIDS Service organizations. Since the emergence of the pandemic, many responses from governments on down to the individual level were racist, ableist, anti-drug-user, as well as being gay-hating. Talking with AIDS activists about the history of their work reminds us over and over again about the ways history—and how we tell it—matters. For World AIDS Day 2017, we’re taking a cue from the New York City-based organization Visual AIDS to reflect on the place of Black activists and cultural workers in the histories of AIDS activism in the Canadian context. This year’s Day With(out) Art commissioned video programming centres Black narratives within the ongoing AIDS epidemic; there are vital threads of connection between this contemporary work and the histories we are documenting in the AIDS Activist History Project.
Many of our interviewees reflected on the role race and racism played in the Canadian government’s responses to AIDS, and on the important activist work of antiracism and community organizing within racialized communities. In this short post we want to highlight just a few of the key interviews we’ve conducted thus far that speak to the vibrant work people did. This isn’t a comprehensive narrative of this critical, often ignored work, but a snapshot direct from activists who were there. So continue on for a hint of the amazing work they did organizing with the Black Outreach Project, Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP), and Community Organizations Mutually Battling AIDS Together (COMBAT). It is also important to note that this work organizing in Black community spaces was often in direct solidarity with other groups organized around racialized subjectivities, including Zami, Khush, Alliance of South Asian AIDS Prevention [ASAAP], Gay Asians Toronto [GAT] (later Asian Community AIDS Services), the AIDS Cultural Network. As Anthony Mohamed told us, many of these groups “are still alive today and still doing wonderful work within the various communities that they’re a part of.”
On the East Coast in Halifax, Kim Bernard was the founding organizer for the Black Outreach Project, which originated from the Halifax-based PWA Coalition. Kim told us “I believe that the Coalition saw that there was nothing being done in the Black community around HIV and AIDS education, awareness, information and that there was no support for people that have identified as being HIV-positive. I do commend them for recognizing that as a problem in our community and a gap.” Kim’s work was funded by a grant, and at the start she was the only person working on the project. She remarked, “Then they got a grant to hire somebody. It’s a typical thing, you only have one person, so when you only have one person trying to cover all of the Atlantic provinces… That can be challenging.” She went on to set up a vibrant board to support the project, to hire students to work with her (one of whom took over the project when Kim moved on), and to make meaningful connections in Black communities across the east coast. Part of that work was a multi-level “needs assessment” to figure out what the situation actually was for Black people in the Atlantic provinces in terms of HIV and AIDS; Kim and her team wrote up a comprehensive report about their findings from that work. In our discussions with her, Kim also highlighted the ways that, although the PWA Coalition recognized the need to do work in Black communities, they didn’t confront the systemic racism that structured all of the responses to HIV and AIDS. As she said, “There are probably individuals in the system that get the point but when the whole system is racist, it becomes an institutional/systemic issue. It is difficult to see change.” Kim had brought some of the material from the Black Outreach Project to our interview with her, which we were able to scan and include in the archival materials files; there is a wealth of amazing material there.
In Toronto, Douglas Stewart told us about the rich web of organizations and community formations through which his and other people’s political work around HIV and AIDS arose. He said, “part of the larger context here is trying to identify a space for Black queer people to be able to name and identify our own experience, and to figure out what life can look like beyond that. Let me just say, personally, that’s why I got involved. And then other people came with some of that, but other interests as well in terms of being in those spaces for those conversations. And so I think that part of that was also really figuring out where and when and what that looks like in relation to different kinds of movements that are part of my identities, so being queer, being Black.” Doug was centrally involved with the formation of Black CAP (Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention), a community organization that was celebrating its 25th anniversary the summer we did this interview with Doug. He narrated their beginning, saying, “it was important for, again, some of the reasons I just talked about in terms of the barriers to people even being engaged in HIV and AIDS, where the conversation was situated, where it was seen as coming from, and who was part of that conversation? So, part of it was to partner with a respected Black community organization. At that time it was Hara
mbee, and it was a social service community organization. And so we were based in their offices… So, it’s now a Black community conversation.” Doug also importantly drew lines of connection between early work in these historical contexts and contemporary struggles that groups like Black Lives Matter continue to wage. He reflected on how oppression shapes the conditions of our work, saying, “part of it’s about how we have to always own and acknowledge how white supremacy and racism and heterosexism is still integral in how these systems are set up… And so even when we have these initiatives that are somehow supposed to be pushing against that, we’re always negotiating and making deals with all of that, at all kinds of levels. And so it just feels like we’re in this messy game continually.”
Dionne Falconer was involved with Black CAP in those early years. She had been part of the Toronto-based Black Women’s Collective (BWC), which did vital political work including challenging white hegemony in the BWC feminist movement and published their own newspaper. Through her involvement with BWC, Dionne joined the work that Black CAP was doing. She reflected on her experience as a young organizer doing outreach work, saying: “So, you have all of the issues interspersed, intermingled and addressing them, because that’s one of the things that HIV does is that it does bring all the issues together and you can’t always tease them out or pull them apart. You’ve got to address them all at once.” And as Dionne articulated, it was vital to have groups like Black CAP because, as she told us, “I mean there was AIDSphobia and the stigma around living with HIV, but also people didn’t want to go in a place where they didn’t see themselves reflected. And that’s also the reason for a place like Black CAP. Just like the reason for why ASAAP started—or any of the other groups was that, again, people want to see themselves reflected and feel like, ‘Oh, this is a much more welcoming environment.’ … Or, the way that they were treated when they went in, like, i.e. you’re coming in for services and no one’s paying attention to you. It’s like you’re invisible. And so, I think that those kinds of situations happened for people and thus also meant that, ‘You know what? I don’t want to go back.’ Suddenly, you’re also trying to deal with HIV, you’re hearing a lot of things … Because, remember, these are early days, so treatment is not what we see today. People are dealing with all kinds of illnesses and sometimes not fully understanding what exactly is going on in their bodies, struggling with it, not wanting to go to the doctor’s, not connected to an HIV doctor, so for all of those kinds of reasons.”
Although we haven’t talked with her directly yet (if anyone knows where she is, contact us!) Jackie Wilson was another vital force in early AIDS activism in Toronto’s Black community. She organized a group called COMBAT (Community Organizations Mutually Battling AIDS Together). Sri, a white activist who supported Jackie’s work, told us, “COMBAT was mainly focused on women and thereby had to focus on straight families. Jackie said, ‘The best access to straight families in the Caribbean communities in Toronto was through the storefront churches, so that’s where we are going to go. Every week, we are going to talk at the storefront churches. You are going to make sure the PA is working for me. You are going to make sure all the logistics are happening. You are going to hand out flyers and things.’ He continued, ‘And basically, she said if you come in, if you approach a Jamaican church as a queer organization, they’re just not going to let you though the door. The message is just never going to reach its target. And that was her position, so she said, ‘I’m going to be the straight lady working with straight people about how they get AIDS and how they are at very, very high risk, and any denialism is going to stand as a barrier to that.’ And she basically said, ‘Look. I can go places Black CAP will never get into.’”
Jackie has also shown up in our interviews as raising key questions about Black community concerns at a pivotal retreat that AIDS ACTION NOW! held at the Hart House Farm in 1989, which sparked a series of conversations about interlocking oppressions as they manifest in people’s experience of HIV and AIDS. Gary Kinsman remembered Jackie’s intervention at the Hart House retreat in his interview for the project: “And Jackie was raising important questions about racism and racialization, but also about how to do AIDS work in communities of people that were not gay-identified at least—how to do that. It was also raising questions then not only about treatment access but about all of the sorts of issues related to AIDS and HIV… So, some sort of notion of broadening this out to include especially issues and areas of concern related to people of colour and to women. I mean that was raised, I think, in some important ways at this retreat and there was some major resistance to that.” At many points in our interviews we heard people reflect on how AIDS organizing pulled them to reflect on the complexity of people’s entangled political identities – that while many of them may have started from one subject position, much of the work really required having a complex, intersectional approach. Activist Renee du Plessis told us, speaking about her inspiration to take leadership from the people most affected by systemic oppression in responding to HIV and AIDS, “I think I would say the challenges were that the group that was the most affected was not exclusively well educated, with a multitude of resources. Gay men also included poor men and First Nations men and immigrant men, you know. And then it started also getting to be where I became more and more aware of criticism that lesbians were holding, and that women in general were holding, both to the organization and what they were doing and their presumptions on who was actually the most affected.”
As we move toward the end of funding for this oral history project, we are continuing to document and remember AIDS activism with a commitment to challenging anti-Black racism and to centering those most affected by the ongoing crisis. As Doug said towards the end of our conversation with him, “You know, as James Baldwin would say, you can’t change anything unless you face it.” On this World AIDS Day, we reflect on what it means to face the ways that racism has shaped and continues to shape people’s experience of HIV and AIDS.