The Early Days of AIDS Part 2: AIDS Awareness Week Recognized

From the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

In the 1980s, the number of people diagnosed with AIDS was steadily increasing across the world (as well as locally), underscoring the importance of raising awareness about the disease and how others could provide support at the same time. to people living with AIDS and their family members.

In 1989, local activist Gordon Brock advertised in the Sault Star for an HIV positive support group. Although there was a small response to his classified ad, he said he wanted[ed] to pave the way for the future.

He went on to describe how being HIV positive affected his life, from lack of resources and support to losing his restaurant job due to his diagnosis.

While he knew that going public about his diagnosis meant he was at risk of further reactions, he said he was not afraid.

“This is what I need to do if I can help develop more networks and support resources,” he said.

In 1990, Brock received $ 40,000 in funding from the Department of Health to help his support group; he planned to set up a hotline, fund an office for the Algoma AIDS Committee, and help develop other outreach programs.

By this point, the support group had grown to nearly 30 letters, with further demonstrations of support received from local government officials and hospitals.

“The future of the people of Sault Ste. Marie with the disease is no longer so gloomy because they will now receive the support they need, ”said Brock.

In November 1991, Brock opened a 24-hour hotline, run from his home by volunteers, which would provide information and support. However, on the day the hotline opened, Brock learned that his condition had started to deteriorate; he was put on AZT, an antiretroviral drug that could help prolong his life but with several negative side effects.

Ultimately, the Sault Star reported, medical staff advised him to stop working on the hotline, which cited his lack of support and experience.

In October 1991, nurses at Algoma Public Health found new ways to get their message out to the public.

As part of AIDS Awareness Week, the Sault Star reported that bar nurses were visiting local establishments to distribute condoms and talk about safe sex, including at the East Gate Hotel, Royal Hotel and at the Canadian Motor Hotel.

The nurses may have had to shout to be heard over the music, but the campaign was considered a success, especially when it came to reaching a younger audience, with around 2,000 condoms and information packages distributed.

Other outreach activities also came in the form of the Algoma AIDS Network, founded in 1992, which sought to bring Sault Ste. Marie up to date on AIDS information and advocacy.

According to President Peter Richtig, Ontario was about a decade behind other cities in terms of information and support. And 1992 was the year Sault Ste. Marie officially joined AIDS Awareness Week, with an information booth set up at the library and a red ribbon campaign that saw Mayor Joe Fratesi pinned with the AIDS awareness symbol.

According to Richtig, this was especially important because the average person seemed to think it wasn’t a problem here – that it’s something in a big city that we didn’t have to deal with.

Meanwhile, seven people in Sault Ste. Marie had AIDS and 18 others were HIV positive. In 1993, the Algoma AIDS Network opened an office in Sault Ste. Marie, with Richtig as executive director. In addition to serving as an information resource and providing support, the organization has also advocated for anonymous testing.

While people who have been tested for HIV in Sault Ste. Marie were guaranteed confidentiality, there was no local anonymous testing option; people who were concerned about their HIV status but were not comfortable giving a name had to travel to Sault Michigan, Sudbury or southern Ontario to get tested.

In 1995, Algoma Public Health was granted permission to offer an anonymous HIV test. However, even with these improvements, resources were limited.

Campaigners noted that most people have moved to southern Ontario and cities like Toronto to benefit from better networks of medical care and support; they usually only returned to the Sault when their condition worsened, so that they could be with their families.

However, there were also issues with the way HIV / AIDS patients were treated here at home.

A man, who asked to be known as Frank, to protect his privacy, spoke out against the way staff at Plummer Hospital treated his brother in his final days.

Some of the workers were afraid to touch him or offered minimal care, admitting that they were unsure what safety precautions were needed.

The hospital responded that the staff had received training on AIDS and could request more training if they wished.

A local woman who wrote a book about her son’s lost battle with AIDS (Not a total waste, published under the pseudonym BM Lloyd) described the mixed response she received.

There was support, yes, but she also faced being thrown down a staircase by students, slammed in lockers and taunted with homophobic epithets targeting her deceased son during school visits.

In 1995, Sault Ste. Marie’s All Walks of Life walk raised funds and raised awareness of local HIV / AIDS initiatives. Led by Casandra, a young HIV-positive girl, the promenade followed the river, between the Bondar pavilion and the locks. An estimated 250 people attended, exceeding expectations – perhaps a sign of a change in attitude and greater acceptance and support.

Be sure to check out last week’s article for part one of this two-part story on the ongoing journey to support people with AIDS.

Each week, the Sault Ste. The Marie Public Library and its archives give SooToday readers a glimpse into the city’s past.

To find out more about what the public library has to offer, visit and search for more. columns here

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