Jay Cassel (unsigned), Appx 1,400 words
This article, a look back over what was then more than ten years since AIDS was first identified, offers a concise overview of government and community responses in Canada up to that time. For this online version some key names have been emphasized in bold, and some annotations made in brackets.
Special reference is made to AIDS-related material held in what was then called the Canadian Gay Archives. There is now much more of it. For information on current holdings, please feel free to make inquiries, using our e-mail link at the bottom of this page.
If 1969 to 1980 were the classic years of gay liberation, the years since 1981 have come to be known as the age of AIDS. Although most AIDS cases worldwide appear to have spread largely through heterosexual sex, in North America AIDS has been associated with gay men. The first identified cases were among gay men, and up to this point AIDS in North America has been most prevalent in that group.
Given the pattern of transmission of AIDS in North America, it was inevitable that it became bound up in the social constructions of sexuality and issues of morality and behaviour. AIDS has raised many fears -- of death, contagion, the Other, the unusual, the homosexual. In the past, fear of certain forms of sexuality was a central element underlying responses to sexually transmitted disease (STD). Homosexuality in particular jeopardized the sexual identity and sense of order of many Canadians.
When it emerged, AIDS seemed to be intimately linked to a way of life that ran contrary to established norms and strongly held beliefs concerning proper sexual conduct. AIDS soon became more than a health issue -- it became another field of contention in the struggle for gay rights.
Government response to AIDS in Canada was slow and not very substantial initially, particularly at the federal level. The first reports of AIDS cases in Canada were made in February 1982. At first Ottawa tried to cope with the new disease through the Laboratory Centre for Disease Control [a federal government body with a role similar to that of the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta]. In May 1986 the task was transferred to a newly created National AIDS Centre, which by 1987 became known as the Federal Centre for AIDS.
Many provinces were just as slow to organize special offices to deal with AIDS. This tardiness was compounded by low budgetary allocations to fight the disease. In the area of AIDS education, efforts aimed at the general public were not emphasized until 1986. The federal government first relied on the Canadian Public Health Association [a private body, some of whose work was federally funded] to provide public education about AIDS, only becoming directly involved in the fall of 1987. Despite talk of a national AIDS education program, nothing was developed.
Gay people were among the first to organize to confront the new health crisis. News items and articles on AIDS began to appear in The Body Politic, Canada's leading gay newsmagazine, by September 1981. In April 1983 the first large public meeting on AIDS held in Toronto was sponsored by Gays in Health Care.
Irritated by government inaction, and distrusting public authorities who in the past had been antipathetic towards them, gay people began to set up their own AIDS organizations in major cities in all ten provinces. The first were formed in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto in late 1982 and early 1983.
AIDS prompted the formation of many more local and community-based organizations than had any previous STD crisis. These organizations developed their own education programs, which were initially focused on the gay community. They pressed public officials to attend to the problems of prevention, diagnosis, management, and cure, and worked to secure the rights of gay people in general and people with AIDS in particular.
The first Canadian conference on AIDS was held in Montreal in May 1985, with a view to bringing these groups together to exchange ideas and to plan strategy. This meeting was the catalyst for the formation of a permanent coordinating body, the Canadian AIDS Society, in July 1986.
A continuing frustration with government inaction also prompted the formation of explicitly political organizations of AIDS activists, such as AIDS Action Now! (formed [in Toronto] in February 1988), which lobbied politicians and organized other forms of political pressure on governments, drug companies, and other institutions to secure improved treatment for people with AIDS.
In every sense, this is our history. We can be sure that the records of governmental departments of health and national organizations such as the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Red Cross will be preserved, for this task is entrusted to federal, provincial, and municipal archives. But who will preserve the gay community's story of AIDS?
AIDS and the Canadian Gay Archives
The Canadian Gay Archives (CGA) has [what was then] the largest collection of AIDS- related material in Canada. Its wide-ranging collection of pamphlets, posters, articles, and books on AIDS is both international and multilingual in scope. The CGA collected material related to AIDS from the discovery of the disease in 1981, and was in the forefront of documenting the progress of AIDS by publishing three of the earliest bibliographies on the topic, in 1982, 1983, and 1985 [see What we've published].
The CGA has also accumulated records relating to AIDS organizations across Canada, and houses the records of the AIDS Committee of Toronto and AIDS Action Now!. In addition, the CGA has expanded its holdings of material related to earlier efforts to control STDs, dating back to the 1920s.
The Records (Fonds) of the AIDS Committee of Toronto
In late 1988, the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) [born out of those community meetings held in Toronto in early 1983], began to preserve and sort a collection of basic records with the help of a volunteer, Doris Megehan. In 1990, Ed Jackson, director of education at ACT [earlier with The Body Politic, and a key player in the history of the Archives in the 1970s] approached the CGA to undertake the collection and sorting of ACT's records.
This work was taken up by Jay Cassel, a volunteer at the CGA. By the summer of 1992, the CGA had accumulated 123 boxes of material occupying over 18 metres of shelf space. The ACT records are the largest fonds in the CGA after the records of Pink Triangle Press.
They include minutes from the Board of Directors and various committees, correspondence, internal memos, collections of documents and publications, records of educational activities and experiments, materials related to the AIDSupport and Deaf Outreach programs, financial and fundraising records, pamphlets, audio recordings, and videos.
The records did not arrive in good order and many more hours will have to be spent sorting them. A preliminary inventory and finding aid has been prepared, however. [See Records: Inventories.]
Keeping the memory alive
AIDS has killed many gay people. All too often the material records of their lives, which document involvement in gay organizations or in the community, are destroyed or lost after they die. We must make an effort to collect the personal records of these individuals. The CGA has been successful in saving some -- for example, we have secured the personal files of Bernard Courte, Michael Lynch [see Records: Inventories], Gordon Montador, and Jim Quixley -- and is anxious to expand its holdings in this area. Please do not destroy private papers or libraries without first thinking of the Canadian Gay Archives.
We have received inquiries about making donations to the CGA in memory of loved ones. We are indeed pleased to accept memorial donations, which can be directed toward specific areas of the CGA, or towards particular projects. Recently we have received donations to purchase computer equipment and to buy books for the James Fraser Library.
For some years the Gay Archivist has listed a memorial column, and announcements of memorial donations will be made in future issues, if desired.
[For information on making donations to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives today,
see What have you got?.]
[What we've published] [Records: Inventories] [What have you got?]
[List of online documents] [Lesbian and Gay Archivist]