A dialogue in Vancouver

CHRIS WOOD July 15 1996

A dialogue in Vancouver

CHRIS WOOD July 15 1996

A dialogue in Vancouver

A word of advice to the impulse traveller: this is a good week to avoid Vancouver. With 15,000 physicians, activists, health officials and AIDS patients—not to mention assorted family members and travelling companions—expected to descend on the city for the eleventh International Conference on AIDS, the chances of finding a spare room range from slim to non-existent. By late last week, Vancouver tourism official Janna Ross conceded that any accommodation left unoccupied was “either grungy or very, very nice and very, very expensive.” Conference organizers, meanwhile, were billeting participants as far away as Bellingham, Wash., 50 km south of Vancouver, and the resort town of Whistler, 95 km north. But if rooms are scarce, there is hardly an issue related to AIDS that is not up for discussion, on display or frankly in the face of Vancouverites.

The largest conference ever held in Vancouver, in fact, has acted as a catalyst for a multitude of related events, from the purely commercial to the outspokenly countercultural. At the same time, both local authori-

ties and organizers of the five-day gathering were braced for the possibility that at least some participants would be more interested in confrontation than communication. “We have intelligence officers out there in the bars, restaurants and clubs,” said police spokeswoman Const. Anne Drennan, “listening for anything that might indicate something is afoot.” For their part, conference planners set aside time during the July 7 opening ceremonies to accommodate interruptions by demonstrators—even to the extent of allowing them 15 minutes at the podium microphones. Noting the depth of emotion that surrounds the conference subject, Rick Marchand, executive director of AIDS Vancouver, the country’s longeststanding advocacy group for people living with the disease, observed: “There are a lot of very, very angry Americans coming here. We hope their agenda doesn’t dominate the whole conference.”

If numbers counted for anything, radical activists like the Act Up troupes that planned to converge on Vancouver from Philadelphia and San Francisco seemed

likely to be overshadowed by those with more conciliatory messages. At least 50 corporations planned various degrees of presence—from booths at a trade show of AIDSrelated products to technical symposiums aimed at physicians. Other organizations, with an eye to the international media attending the event, planned to announce AIDS-related endeavors ranging from the launch of a book whose proceeds will go to AIDS research, to the unveiling of an ad campaign aimed at boosting support for more than 60 fund-raising AIDS walks to take place across Canada in late September.

A cultural program sponsored by conference organizers, meanwhile, was intended to carry its message beyond the media to Vancouver residents at large. A “festival” of AIDS-inspired films running from July 5 to 13 is screening documentaries, video portraits and dramatic features dealing with the disease, its victims and their families. Two performances by Ballet British Columbia

deal with the same theme, as does Sex Is My Religion, a provocative one-act play by Vancouver playwright Colin Thomas. At the subterranean Robson Square Conference Centre beneath the Vancouver Art Gallery (itself the site of an AIDS-related exhibit), a collection of paintings, posters, sculptures and other artworks offers the public still another window into the emotions sparked by the deadly illness. Said organizer Nancy Henderson: “We want it to be a bridge between the conference and the Vancouver public.” What the conference will leave behind in Vancouver is less certain. One clear positive impact will be more than $30 million that participants were expected to spend during their stay. But some advocates expressed concern that the event may also exhaust the generosity of contributors to local AIDS-related charities. “Donors,” worries Marchand, “may say, ‘I gave to the conference, I’ve done my bit.’ ”

But there is already evidence of a more benign effect. An AIDS awareness program, developed by Marchandé organization to help prepare Vancouver police officers and hotel, restaurant and bar employees to deal more comfortably with visitors who may carry the disease, has proven so popular that both the police department and several hotels have asked AIDS Vancouver to continue it after the conference ends. In a city where AIDS has become the leading killer of males between 25 and 49, that alone suggests the event will leave a lasting and positive impact, for locals and visitors alike.

CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver