The annual AIDS Walk saw about 150 people come out to help raise awareness. Organized by OUTSaskatoon and Aids Saskatoon, the event raised $43,655 of its $50,000 goal to increase prevention, education and free testing in the city.
Sean Ryan, OUTSaskatoon’s community engagement officer, says that having the AIDS Walk helps to destigmatize HIV and AIDS by making the supportive community visible.
“By having the AIDS Walk, it’s giving people recognition, it’s showing that there is an issue,” said Ryan. “But it’s also showing [that] there is a community behind you.”
The walk began at noon on Sept. 29 at the Roxy Theatre, the event’s community sponsor. It proceeded through Saskatoon’s downtown streets with the escort of police services.
Ryan says that although Saskatchewan has the highest HIV rates in Canada, Saskatoon’s AIDS Walk fundraiser is one of the highest-grossing in the country, which will help OUTSaskatoon continue increasing its outreach and clinic testing.
“Our clinics are running Wednesday and Thursday evenings,” said Ryan. “The goal is to have them running Monday through Friday, and then introducing HIV rapid testing by January 2020. With the rapid testing, you go in and it’s results within 60 seconds. You no longer have to wait X amount of days or weeks in order to get your test results back.”
Jason Mercredi, executive director of AIDS Saskatoon, says the walk also helps people understand the innovative work that the agencies are offering to respond to the HIV crisis in the province.
“We’re actually one of the leaders in HIV testing and that all started with a grassroots initiative,” said Mercredi. “We have more sites than a majority of [the] provinces and we keep advocating for more places to be able to do HIV testing and rapid testing.”
With the approval of Health Canada, AIDS Saskatoon will open the city’s first safe drug consumption site to work at harm reduction in July 2020.
“We know it’s a controversial topic but at the end of the day, it’s a public health issue,” said Mercredi. “If we’re going to do business as usual, we’re going to have the same results.”
Mercredi says the walk helps people know how AIDS Saskatoon is educating and helping people in the city. “Then when we want to push the envelope on what needs to happen in the community, people have that baseline understanding,” Mercredi said.
OUTSaskatoon’s executive director, Rachel Loewen Walker, says it is valuable to have HIV testing within a community-based organization because of the complementary services they offer.
“We’re making testing accessible so people can get tested in their communities at places that they feel safe and at places where they are already linked to other forms of care,” said Loewen Walker. “To all of the folks seeing the walk take place, it’s a reminder of how important this work is in the community and ensures that it stays visible.”
Mercredi believes Saskatoon’s record of being one of the country’s smallest AIDS Walks with the highest fundraising totals comes from the prairies’ unique cultural values.
He says this community support shows that Saskatoon has a good philanthropical basis and is one way prairie people get through the early winters together.
“When you go on the walk and see all these people beaming and showing their support even on a cold day like today, it really does make you appreciate the community that we live in,” Mercredi said.
Noah Callaghan/ Staff Writer
Photo: Victoria Becker/ Photo Editor