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by Gerry Lavallée, CUPE Local 4092

My journey into this beautiful tapestry of culture and diversity that is the XVI International AIDS Conference began with the Opening Ceremonies on Sunday and it has been a virtual roller coaster of emotions from the start.

I never thought I would find myself embroiled in such a herculean effort to maintain my composure. At times, I felt my eyes sting and well up without warning as I experienced a range of emotions from joy, to frustration, to pride, and finally to shame.

Joy for the privilege of witnessing this great event and the opportunity to meet those who travelled from the far corners of the earth to be here so they could make a difference.

Frustration because 25 years into the AIDS epidemic people in parts of the world still don’t have basic human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against AIDS.

Pride because a foremost Canadian scientist risked his career by admonishing our Prime Minister on live television for going AWOL during one of the most important conferences of our time.

And shame because I realized that my sunglasses alone could pay for a full year of anti-retroviral drugs for a child infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.

Today I went about the task of learning all I could, buoyed by the confidence that I’d managed to avoid shedding tears in an embarrassing public display of emotion. And then it happened – the thing that finally pushed the emotional envelope for me was a simple smile.

It was cloudy and rainy here in Toronto and so I carried my collapsible umbrella in the fold of my conference bag. I don’t quite know how it happened but before I knew it my umbrella was rolling on the floor and a woman bent to pick it up for me. I hurried over to thank her and she acknowledged me with big smile. It wasn’t one of those obligatory or polite smiles that we as North Americans will give each other in passing on the street. It was a giving, genuine and soulful smile.

She was an elderly woman in traditional African dress. It dawned on me that she might well be one of the many grandmothers who now find themselves raising their dead children’s children because of AIDS

It was in that fateful moment that I was able to find the words to help define, for myself, the meaning of the XVI International AIDS Conference:

We are intrinsically linked to one another as human beings. Now more than ever is the time for us to make human rights the core of a global HIV AIDS solution.