IRIS-Estrie faces major cuts to prevention programs

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

Although the call for help for IRIS-Estrie came on April 1, organizers made clear that it was no joke.

For more than 33 years, the organization has worked to prevent and advocate for treatment for HIV-AIDS and other sexual and bloodborne infections, working with some of the region’s most marginalized populations.

Now, it’s facing the possibility of having to cut some of its most essential programs after a $260,000 annual grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), equivalent to 70 per cent of its annual budget, was not renewed.

Interim executive director Charlène Aubé says the funding financed specific projects for AIDS awareness and prevention among sex workers, men who have sex with men, drug users and people with criminal records. She says over the last year, it has allowed the organization to connect with 3,500 people and distribute 60,000 condoms and 44,000 clean syringes.

“These are people who don’t have a lot of trust in the system, and these programs allow us to meet them where they are, in bars and rooming houses and places where people shoot up,” says Aubé. “We do free clinics with nurses, and sex education seminars in schools, youth centres and rehab centres.”

She says PHAC refused the organization’s request for funding because it was viewed as a request for core mission funding – which is a provincial responsibility – rather than project funding. When she appealed to the provincial government, she says, Health Minister Christian Dubé’s office sent the organization a $3,000 cheque. “That’s largely insufficient – it doesn’t pay for our basic mission, and the province did not approve our request for more funding.” IRIS-Estrie hasn’t decided what programs will be cut as a result of the loss of funding.

Ken Monteith is the executive director of COCQ-SIDA, a provincewide network of AIDS and STI prevention organizations. “We’re lucky that provincial [core] funding exists, but it’s massively underfunded. When we don’t have enough core funding, we have to turn to project funding – and projects always come to an end and have to be reinvented to get funded again, which is ridiculous.”

For Aubé, the organization’s struggles “show that people who are vulnerable don’t deserve help and that sexual and bloodborne diseases don’t matter…even though cases are rising and these conditions are easier to prevent than they are to treat.”

Aubé and her colleagues have launched a crowdfunding campaign and are planning a benefit supper and a fundraising collaboration with a local tattoo artist, but she’s worried that the funding will be a drop in the bucket: “These are things that will bring us a maximum of $1,000, and we don’t have the human resources to do anything bigger.”

The IRIS-Estrie announcement came barely a week after TransEstrie, which advocates for the rights of trans and non-binary people in the region, faced closure before receiving last-minute grants from a federal program and from the office of Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette. In light of that, Aubé says she and her colleagues are “holding out hope.”

Neither the PHAC nor the Ministry of Health and Social Services was able to respond to detailed questions by press time.

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