Regardless of HIV Status, We Are All One Community

By: Nicolette Richardson

The Scotiabank AIDS Walk has been uniting people across Canada in the fight against HIV/AIDS for more than three decades. The Walk raises money for programming and services for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, and also raises awareness about HIV prevention, transmission and its social impacts.

Nine Circles Community Health Centre has been hosting AIDS Walk Winnipeg since the centre’s inception in 2001 and Executive Director Mike Payne says much has changed in those 16 years. “When we just started, there were a lot of people dying. That’s what it was like then; an event to honour those who passed away and to demand a response. And while there is still an aspect of that incorporated into the event, AIDS Walk now is also a celebration of resiliency. It’s a fun time, supporting people living with HIV and their families.” Ken Bristow – a Nine Circles board member who has been living with HIV for over a decade – echoes these sentiments: “the number of participants has greatly increased and there is more awareness now. Back then we were celebrating the lives of people who died; now we are celebrating life.”

The theme of this year’s walk is Tied Together, which reinforces the idea that there is power in unity and together we can end the spread of HIV and HIV-related stigma. It’s a concept that resonates with Ken. “Hundreds of people are tied together for one cause; it doesn’t matter who they are. For that one day, we all come together. Everyone participating is either infected or affected so that common string ties us all together,” he says. The walkers will embody the Tied Together theme by wearing red shoelaces that will be given out for free at the event.

One of the most important functions of the walk is to raise funds for programs and services for people Living with HIV, Mike says. “This year in particular is important for us because of funding changes. The changes have affected the delivery of some programming so fundraising from the Walk will help with that shortfall.” The other function of the walk is to “get us out in the public to really address HIV prevention and stigma,” Mike adds. It has been 36 years since the first HIV/AIDS case was identified in Canada, however significant reductions in HIV infections have not been achieved in Manitoba and stigma is still a barrier to HIV prevention, treatment and opportunities to thrive.

“HIV is not going away in the near future,” Ken says. “Because of improved meds and people living longer, HIV has lost some urgency. There’s no media coverage anymore. But HIV is still an issue. Too many people are still being infected, and we have to do something about that. The walk brings attention back to HIV even if it’s just for 2 days.”

One hundred and three (103) new HIV cases were recorded in Manitoba in 2016, joining the approximately 1,285 people living with HIV across the province. People living with HIV are diverse: they’re from different walks of life, and different parts of Manitoba. They’re our friends, our families, our coworkers, our community.  “HIV doesn’t have a face,” Ken says. “We need to have an awareness of the fact that it affects everyone somehow- financially, emotionally, however. You may not be infected, but you are affected.”

Is there a foreseeable end to new HIV infections? Mike believes there is, but only if we work together. “How can we make positive change? How will people living with HIV achieve their full potential? We have to work together. We have to help each other learn. We have to help each other in the fight to end new HIV infections,” he says. The Scotiabank AIDS Walk provides the perfect environment for us all to work together in the fight to reduce HIV infections and end HIV stigma.

Ken, who has been attending the Walk for 12 years, was asked to describe it in one word. “Awesome,” he says. “I always come away feeling great no matter what my role was or what the theme was. Every year I go now it feels like a birthday. It’s special because I’ve made it another year. I’m not sick or anything, but that’s just the feeling – it’s great to reconnect with everybody.”

Join Nine Circles on September 24 for the Scotiabank AIDS Walk. Activities start in Central Park at 11:30 am. To make a donation, and support people living with HIV, visit www.scotiabankaidswalk.ca/winnipeg. See you at the walk!