It’s Pride Month in Toronto, which means a month of events and celebrations highlighting the strength and diversity of our community.  It also means that community members and allies have an opportunity to reflect on our history and the important moments that help to define who we are, while bringing forward momentum.

There’s something to be said for bringing your whole self, with all of your intersections and experiences to the table, having them recognized. Unique challenges and barriers can present themselves as part of those intersecting identities and when we make safe spaces to elevate these experiences, true healing happens. This year’s focus on Canada’s Indigenous community is an important way the Toronto’s AIDS Vigil is creating those spaces.

Steven Hobé, AIDS Vigil Committee of Toronto Co-Chair recently commented, “With this year’s theme of ‘In The Spirit of Wellness and Healing,’ we aim to shed light on the struggles the Indigenous community faces with HIV/AIDS in Canada. In 2014, Canadian Indigenous people were 2.7 times more likely to contract HIV compared to other ethnicities.”

Leonard Benoit, Client Care Coordinator in the Indigenous community, added “This year’s theme speaks to community: it acknowledges that we leave no one behind.”

We had the opportunity to speak with Leonard and Steven to learn more about this year’s theme and what we can do as a community for HIV/AIDS organizations, once Pride Month is over.

Pink Play Mags: This year’s theme speaks to the community: it acknowledges that we leave no one behind. How can we ensure we do this beyond the vigil, especially for the Canadian Indigenous Community?

Leonard Benoit: We encourage continued open and honest dialogue that addresses the needs and challenges of Indigenous people. The Vigil is an opportunity to speak about these issues and then continue the conversation in the coming months and years.

PPM: How can we ensure that all HIV/AIDS organizations are adequately serving Canada’s Indigenous Community who are “2.7 times more likely to contract HIV compared to ethnicities”?

LB: By being culturally safe and aware. It is so important that we do this without judgement. It goes back again to open conversation about subjects that sometimes might seem contentious or taboo. This is our way forward.

PPM: Can it, and if so, how can this year’s focus on the Canadian Indigenous community contribute to Reconciliation? 

LB: We need to break the barrier of stigma and acknowledge the disease for what it is and have a safe place for people to be themselves and spiritually heal and thrive.

PPM: Many young folks are far removed from what the AIDS crisis was really like and may not understand why these vigils are so important to our community. What would you say to those who have such questions?

Steven Hobé: I think it’s important for us to always honour the past and the struggles that have gone before us. We are very lucky in Canada to now have, for the most part, an accepting society. This is due to those who fought on our behalf against discrimination. Unfortunately, there still exists prejudice against people who live with HIV. The AIDS Candlelight Vigil is an opportunity to come together and reflect on our past and future — To remember, honour and celebrate those who have passed from AIDS or AIDS related illnesses, or who have given their lives in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

PPM: If folks aren’t able to attend, how can they still contribute to HIV/AIDS organizations, research and breaking stigma year-round?

SH: We are lucky to have an active social media presence with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and in the coming months plan on expanding our activities. We encourage people who may not be able to attend the Vigil to follow us, and keep in touch all year round. In terms of contributing, the work being done by our AIDS service organizations is invaluable, and we urge people who would like to get involved to reach out and volunteer or donate. If people are unsure of where to start or which organization to approach, they can contact The 519 for support.

Toronto’s AIDS Vigil is in its 33rd year, taking place Tuesday June 20th at Barbara Hall Park at The 519 where thousands of LGBTTIQQ2S+ community members will remember, honor and celebrate those who have passed from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses, or have given their lives in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The event begins at 9pm.

About the Author

Cheryl Costello is the founder of The Finding Hearts Project, also writes for the Brampton Focus and formerly wrote at The Loving Instant. She has also worked with Fortune 500 and Financial Post 500 companies to bring greater attention, awareness and action for LGBTQ+ issues, giving the community a powerful voice. She has conducted workshops for LGBTQ+ students on the power of reclaiming their power through owning the stories they tell and was also a Keynote speaker at a Toronto World Pride event in 2014. If she isn't writing or organizing in the community, she's out with her camera, wandering a bookstore or out hiking among trees and water. Have a question you want to see answered on the blog? Stop by her page on Instagram, join in the good vibes and send her a message: @cherylalisoncostello