Canadian AIDS Society lives to see another year, launching national ‘HIV testing day’

Thanks to new private donors who came through during an unprecedented budget crunch, the doors of the Canadian AIDS Society will remain open for another year.

In April, the non-profit organization’s executive director, Gary Lacasse, wasn’t sure that was going to be the case.

“It’s going better than anticipated in my mind a few months ago,” Lacasse said. “I knew we’d survive, but how I didn’t know. We’re still looking for funds to buckle everything down … but after that, we’re OK.”

The AIDS Society – founded in 1986 as a “national voice” for Canadians living with HIV – lost about half-a-million dollars in annual funding as a result.

When transition money provided by the feds ran out earlier this year, Lacasse said he had to replace all his full-time staff with contractors, cancel the society’s annual national forum and ultimately, face the possibility of shutting down operations altogether.

With the certainty now that the organization can plow ahead for another 12 months, Lacasse said he can rehire some permanent staff, commit to hosting an annual general meeting and complete a two-year research project into the medical use of cannabis the society began last summer.

While that’s helpful in the short-term, Lacasse said the organization still isn’t “out of the woods.”

“Our budget is one-third of what it was from last year,” he said.

To help cut down costs, the society just moved to a smaller office in downtown Ottawa. Lacasse said this will shave down their rent payments by about two-thirds.

The organization has also been unable to secure a new main sponsor for its national AIDS Walk – which typically takes place across Canada in the fall – since Scotiabank decided to end its 30-year sponsorship of the event late last year.

Lacasse told Global News in late April that, without a new sponsor, the AIDS Society just doesn’t have the “capacity” to co-ordinate walks in about five cities, including Ottawa. He said the walks raise much-needed money for local organizations that support people living with HIV and AIDS.

HIV/AIDS groups offering free HIV tests across Canada on June 27

The confirmed funding from private donors also allowed Lacasse to deliver on a pilot project that’s launching next week: the first-ever national “HIV testing day” in the country.

The AIDS society, in collaboration with local and provincial health authorities and community-based organizations, will be administering 1,500 to 2,000 free rapid HIV tests at more than 40 sites across Canada on June 27. The tests produce results in less than a minute.

While the details are still being finalized, Lacasse said there will be “some” locations providing free HIV testing in Ottawa, as well as in Toronto, Guelph and Durham. He said the online list of testing sites is being updated daily.

The pilot’s main goal is to reach individuals and groups who are “disproportionately affected” by HIV/AIDS and who “lack adequate sexual health resources and capacity for HIV testing,” a release for the event says.

This includes members of the LGBTQ2 community, off-reserve Indigenous communities, and individuals who use drugs, according to the release.

The Canadian AIDS Society says seven new HIV/AIDS infections occur every day in the country and one in five HIV-positive Canadians aren’t aware of their status.

Approximately 75,000 people in Canada live with HIV, according to the organization.