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Early days of AIDS, part 2: AIDS Awareness Week is recognized

Looking back at the earliest days of AIDS in the Sault, Part two of two
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From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

In the 80s, the number of people being diagnosed with AIDS was steadily rising across the world (as well as locally) emphasizing the importance of raising awareness about the disease and how others could provide support to both the people dealing with AIDS as well as their family members.

In 1989, a local activist Gordon Brock advertised in the Sault Star for an AIDS/HIV-positive support group. While there was a small response to his classified ad, he said that he ―want[ed] to pave the way for the future.

He went on to describe how being HIV positive affected his life, from the lack of resources and support to the fact that he had lost his food service job because of his diagnosis.

While he knew that going public with his diagnosis meant he was running the risk of further backlash, he said he wasn’t afraid.

"That’s what I’ve got to do if I can help at all with developing more support networks and resources," he said. 

In 1990, Brock received $40,000 funding from the Ministry of Health to assist his support group; he planned to set up a hotline, fund an office for the Algoma AIDS Committee, and help with the development of other awareness programs.

By this point, the support group had grown to almost 30 letters, with additional displays of support received from local government officials and hospitals.

"The future of the people in Sault Ste. Marie with the disease is no longer so grim because now they will receive the support they need," Brock said. 

In November of 1991, Brock would open a 24-hour hotline, run out of his house by volunteers, that would provide information and support. However, the same day as the hotline opened, Brock received news that his condition had begun to deteriorate; he was placed on AZT, an antiretroviral that could help prolong his life but with several negative side effects.

Ultimately, the Sault Star reported, he was advised to discontinue his work on the hotline by medical personnel who cited his lack of support and experience.

In October 1991, Algoma Public Health nurses found new ways to get their message out to the public.

As part of AIDS Awareness Week, the Sault Star reported that bar-hopping nurses visited local establishments to hand out condoms and talk about safer sex – including at the East Gate Hotel, the Royal Hotel, and the Canadian Motor Hotel.

Nurses may have had to shout to be heard above the music, but the campaign was considered a success, particularly when it came to reaching a younger audience, with approximately 2,000 condoms and information packets given out.

Further outreach also came in the form of the Algoma AIDS Network, founded in 1992, which sought to bring Sault Ste. Marie up-to-date with respect to AIDS information and advocacy.

According to the chairman Peter Richtig, Ontario was about a decade behind other cities in terms of information and support. And 1992 was the year that Sault Ste. Marie officially joined AIDS Awareness Week, with an information booth set up at the library, and a red ribbon campaign that saw Mayor Joe Fratesi pinned with the symbol of AIDS awareness.

According to Richtig, this was particularly important because the average person seemed to be feeling this wasn’t an issue here - that it’s something in a big city that we didn’t have to deal with.

Meanwhile, seven people in Sault Ste. Marie had AIDS, and a further 18 were HIV-positive. In 1993, the Algoma AIDS Network opened an office in Sault Ste. Marie, with Richtig as the executive director. As well as serving as an informational resource and providing support, the organization also advocated for anonymous testing.

While people who were tested for HIV in Sault Ste. Marie were guaranteed confidentiality, there was no local anonymous testing option; people who were concerned about their HIV status but not comfortable providing a name would have to travel to Sault Michigan, Sudbury, or Southern Ontario typically to have the test done.

In 1995, Algoma Public Health received permission to offer anonymous HIV testing. However, even with these improvements, resources were strained.

Activists noted that most people left for Southern Ontario and cities like Toronto to take advantage of better medical care and support networks; they typically returned to the Sault only when their condition worsened, so that they could be with family.

However, there were also issues with how HIV/AIDS patients were treated here at home.

One man, who asked to be known as Frank, to protect his privacy, spoke out against how staff at the Plummer Hospital treated his brother during his dying days.

Some of the workers were afraid to touch him or offered minimal care, admitting that they were not aware of what safety precautions were needed.

The hospital responded that staff were afforded education on the topic of AIDS and could request more training if desired.

A local woman who authored a book about her son’s losing battle with AIDS (Not a Total Waste, published under the pseudonym B.M. Lloyd) described the mixed response she had received.

There was support, yes, but she also dealt with being thrown down a set of stairs by students, slammed into lockers, and taunted with homophobic epithets aimed at her deceased son during school visits.

In 1995, Sault Ste. Marie’s All Walks of Life march raised funds and awareness for local HIV/AIDS initiatives. Led by Casandra, a young HIV-positive girl, the walk went along the river, between the Bondar Pavilion and the locks. An estimated 250 people attended, exceeding expectations — perhaps a signifier of changing attitudes and greater acceptance and support.

Be sure to check out last week’s article for the first part of this two-part story about the ongoing journey to support those with AIDS.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here

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