MONTREAL, July 29 – Dozens of protesters took over the stage at the opening ceremony of the 24th International AIDS Conference in Montreal to condemn Canada’s denial of visas to “high numbers” of delegates from the Global South.
Organisers of AIDS 2022 allowed the protest to take centre stage for approximately 10 minutes, as activists chanted “let us take the stage” and expressed their disapproval over Canada’s allegedly hostile immigration policies and inequities in health care access.
“Is the Canada government here in this opening to hear its racism effects? We demand them to be here to listen – no more AIDS conferences in racist countries,” South African HIV/AIDS activist Vuyiseka Dubula from Fighting AIDS Coalition said during the protest.
“The AIDS crisis is not over,” read one placard. Another reads, “HIV movement, fake allies?”
Organisers expect some 11,000 delegates to participate in the world’s largest meeting on HIV/AIDS, with about 9,000 delegates attending in person.
Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the International AIDS Society (IAS) which convenes the five-day conference, said her organisation is “deeply upset” that many delegates, including IAS staff and leadership, were unable to get Canadian visas to attend the Montreal conference.
“Ensuring broad participation in AIDS 2022 is vital for a simple reason; after four decades of responding to HIV, we know that we won’t reach our targets without involving all stakeholders at every level of HIV response.
“And of course, we know that underlying the difficulty experienced by many attendees of AIDS 2022 to enter Canada lies a broader problem of global inequities and systemic racism that significantly impacts global health.
“HIV, in particular, has always disproportionately affected the most marginalised,” Dr Adeeba said during the opening of the Montreal conference.
Canada’s International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan, who was scheduled to deliver a welcoming remark at the conference, cancelled his appearance.
Canadian actor and activist Omar Sharif Jr, who hosted the opening ceremony, in reference to visa issues faced by conference delegates, said: “To those of you watching from home, who were unable to make it here today, who were denied the right to be here, on behalf of all Canadians, I apologise.”
Sharif said he was “ashamed” of his government, adding: “Come on Canada! We can do better than this, eh?!”
Tim McCaskell, queer activist and author of the book, “Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism”, which documents 50 years of queer history in Toronto, in his address said conferences such as AIDS 2022 support a global conversation.
“Most of us in high-income countries hold passports that ensure us, more or less, seamless travel. But others face mountains of red tape and visa rejection. All stakeholders must have a choice of where to sit at the table,” McCaskell said.
“Immigration reform is critical, and if countries like Canada aren’t up to that, then we need to hold these conferences where they are.”
UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima from Uganda tweeted on Tuesday that her documents were repeatedly scrutinised and she was “almost refused to board” the plane going to the event.