I wanted so much to be here for the official opening of the XVI International AIDS Conference, which we are honoured to host in Canada this year. This conference will give us a wonderful opportunity to form a lasting bond of fellowship.
I would like to extend
our warmest welcome to all of you who have travelled from far and wide
to share an astonishing array of experiences and perspectives. Your efforts
will ensure that, one day soon, we will be able to put an end to one of
the most insidious epidemics of our time.
You will remind us that life is our most precious possession and that we need a planet wide approach if we are to have any hope of protecting it.
I would even go so far as to say that we need to globalize our efforts to fight the threat of AIDS; a kind of globalization, in the most noble sense of the word, with the sole purpose of saving lives, giving us the opportunity to rethink the world in the spirit of a true global community. More than anything, you are giving us a lesson in humanity.
I can still recall the fear, the hostility felt by some when we first began to hear about AIDS some twenty-five years ago. It was not long before the witch hunt, so to speak, began as the infectious nature of this new disease became widely known.
I could barely contain my anger when, at its worst, I heard people around me saying that this disease was the result of "deviant" behaviour, a punishment against those who continue to be stigmatized and condemned. AIDS brought with it a shame that could not be named.
You may recall that the Haitian community, to which I belong, became a target of that campaign of discrimination, unleashed like a vicious beast.
The hardship of the devastating effects of the illness and the pain of loss would soon be joined by the insidious loneliness of segregation.
But as we now know, AIDS knows no boundaries, nor has it any regard for our prejudices or the ways in which we ostracize and abandon one another. Is that not reason enough to put those prejudices to rest and come together to fight this universal threat? Is that not reason enough for us to show that we are equal to the task and that humanity is not divided between those who matter and those who are forgotten?
AIDS is now the fourth leading cause of death in the world. AIDS indiscriminately strikes children, women, and men; AIDS devastates national economies already ravaged by poverty; AIDS destabilizes communities around the world.
Take for example sub Saharan Africa, where the situation is the most alarming. Just over one tenth of the world's population lives in that area, including nearly 64 per cent of all people living with HIV. Two million of them are children under the age of fifteen.
Southern Africa accounts for approximately 43 per cent of the world's children in this same age group living with the disease. AIDS is threatening to decimate an entire generation; the very future of a continent is at stake.
The situation is dire. We must act now. We cannot remain indifferent to the devastating toll that the AIDS epidemic is taking. Those of us who live in such affluent countries have a moral responsibility to do something and work together.
Canada is among the countries that answered the United Nations' call in June 2001 to halt the spread of AIDS, and signed the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. We support a co ordinated effort on all fronts, from governments, the private sector, communities, researchers, and individuals who are willing to join in the planet wide efforts to find a cure. And it is our firm belief that the rights and dignity of those living with HIV or those at risk must be recognized, respected and defended.
Having said that, much remains to be done here at home. The number of HIV positive Canadians is continuing to rise. We must address their needs more vigorously and creatively. We must help them to become more self sufficient and reduce their vulnerability. We must guarantee that they have access to health care, treatment, care and support, right across this country. And with this same determination, we must adopt effective prevention programs that reach those at risk because information above all else is the most powerful weapon we have against AIDS.
We must be relentless in our fight against discrimination, which breeds fear and ignorance. We must ensure that people living with this disease are not treated like pariahs. And let me be frank: to give up would be irresponsible, simply unforgivable.
The battle against AIDS is a battle for life. It is recognizing that every life is precious, in every corner of this world. It is declaring that everyone is entitled to freedom, dignity and a sense of self-worth. Today, I have the opportunity to applaud your efforts and, on behalf of all Canadians, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Just as, in closing, I applaud the invaluable efforts of citizens who, across this country, in their families, villages, neighbourhoods, in our schools, our hospitals, our streets, by offering help, making donations or reaching out to someone in need, are helping to curb the threat of AIDS. Even the smallest gesture can make a difference.
And I cannot agree more with the poignant conclusion of the latest UNAIDS report: "Defeating AIDS must be a shared, global and non-partisan agenda. To move forward, we must demand that commitment-from our leaders, our institutions and ourselves."
Thank you, and may my best wishes for success go with you.
It is with great pride that I now declare the XVI International AIDS Conference officially open.