The 2014 Mark Wainberg Lecture will be delivered by Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. The CAHR Conference organizing committee bestows the honor of the Mark Wainberg lecturer to both honour Dr. Wainberg’s ongoing contributions and to recognize the efforts of others in the research community who exemplify the same traits of excellence, perseverance, and commitment to the cause of finding innovative and ground breaking ways to address the epidemic.
Richard entered into social justice and health activism early on in his adult life. “I came out while in university and got very actively involved in community education and organizing relating to LGBT rights and HIV. There were issues of great personal importance to me and to a community of which I’m a member,” explains Elliott. For Richard, pursuing law school with a focus on human rights and social justice advocacy was the next logical outgrowth of his interests. He was providing legal aid services for low-income people with HIV through a student services clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School (York University) in Toronto when the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network was founded. “When I got wind of the Legal Network in early 1994, it fit perfectly with my interests. I’ve been involved with the Legal Network in one capacity or another for 20 years now.”
After serving on the Legal Network’s board of directors and acting as one of its lawyers in its first court intervention, he joined the Legal Network staff in 1999 and has been heading it up since 2007. Projects in recent years include a nation-wide campaign to reform Canadian patent law to improve access to affordable medicines in developing countries, making the case for limits on criminal prosecutions in cases of alleged HIV non-disclosure, and advocating for access to needle and syringe programs in federal prisons. Richard shares the concerns of many in the HIV research community that evidence is not being considered in policy and law decisions surrounding HIV in Canada. “The science of HIV is an incredibly important part of the discussion in public policy,” says Richard. “And on some fronts – such as access to harm reduction, or drug policy as a whole – we are seeing a terrible departure from evidence in Canada. It’s damaging to the health and the human rights of millions of people, as well as to the public purse.”
His core belief, and the guiding principle of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, is to combine the best available evidence with human rights standards in strengthening the response to HIV. “All of our work to achieve legal and policy changes is aimed at trying to help people. If you look at much of the last 20th century, against the backdrop of great horror and injustice, it has also been a century of great progress in human rights. When you can make advances via one social justice struggle, it gives the next movement a boost.”
But change doesn’t happen overnight. “Sometimes you’re in a defensive mode, spending a lot of time and energy trying to prevent a more harmful policy from being adopted – and that further delays real progress in overcoming the HIV pandemic,” says Elliott. “But sometimes you’re able to shift things in the right direction. That’s incredibly rewarding and is a good reminder of why we do this work.”
The Canadian Association for HIV Research wishes to thank Richard Elliott and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network for their continuing advocacy of social justice and evidence-based policies in Canada. CAHR is proud to be presenting the Dr. Mark Wainberg Lecture Award to Richard at this year’s CAHR Conference in St John’s Newfoundland. His lecture will take place on May 1, 2014 and will be available online at the CAHR website the following day.