Taking Our Place
On June 4, 1989, some 300 activists stormed the opening of the 5th International AIDS Conference in Montreal to demand that their voices be heard. Tim McCaskell reflects on a pivotal moment in Canadian AIDS activism.
I HADN'T BEEN very public about being poz before this picture was captured at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal in 1989. In those days there were real fears that the public health department might start quarantining HIV-positive people. There was a lot of hysteria. Moreover, even though I had done media for the Toronto-based activist group AIDS ACTION NOW! (AAN!) one’s HIV status wasn’t something that most polite Canadian reporters were brave enough to ask about.
AAN!, Montreal’s Réaction Sida and ACT UP New York had agreed to rally outside the conference centre during the opening ceremony. But at the last minute, ACT UP NY suddenly rushed the doors and everybody followed. The next thing I knew, we were on the stage with our signs and banners.
The hall was full of delegates waiting for then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to open the conference. Instead they got a bunch of angry activists. We had no plan. As I was the spokesperson for AAN! — the largest AIDS activist group in Canada at the time — somebody passed me the microphone. So, I opened the conference “on behalf of people living with AIDS in Canada and around the world.” I denounced the government for its inaction on AIDS, and before we left the stage we read aloud the Montreal Manifesto, a declaration of the universal rights and needs of people with HIV/AIDS.
The moment was a turning point, though I had no idea at the time. Most of us were thinking more about staying alive than about making history. But, from then on, it was clear that people with HIV/AIDS would not be on the outside looking in on discussions about this epidemic. We would be given a place at the table — or we would take it.