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AIDS Saskatoon closing La Ronge support operation

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WATCH ABOVE: AIDS Saskatoon says they had to close their La Ronge operation due to federal government cuts.

Changes to federal funding are going to take a toll on the fight against HIV in northern Saskatchewan. These changes are forcing Jason Mercredi to make a difficult decision, cutting AIDS Saskatoon‘s only support worker in the La Ronge region.

“This is a major setback, especially for northern Saskatchewan,” Jason Mercredi, executive director of AIDS Saskatoon, said.

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AIDS Saskatoon’s last funding agreement with the federal government was for $293,532 per year over a three-year period. But following a request to renew funding for operations through 2020, they were turned down.

The organization is one of 40 HIV-AIDS service organizations across the country being denied funding as the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) shifts its focus to prevention from care and peer support.

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“Peer support has been consistently identified as best practice for getting the hardest to engage people engaged in services,” Mercredi said. “And when we engage people in services, we save lives.”

After initial confusion, PHAC provided AIDS Saskatoon transitional funding until March 31.

“Transitional funding was provided to help organizations establish new partnerships, seek other sources of funding, transfer their services to other local providers, or close out their currently funded projects,” PHAC said in a press release.

The current support worker being lost in La Ronge is an Indigenous woman living with HIV, an invaluable support for the region. It’s a position she’s held for five years and her employment will come to an end on March 31.

“She’s devastated,” Mercredi said. “She’s a solid employee, she’s on our management team; we’re one of the few AIDS service organizations across Canada that actually have HIV-positive Indigenous women on the management team.”

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Adele Cook works out of the Scattered Sites Outreach Building in La Ronge, educating the public on the virus, operating the needle exchange and serving as an outreach person for HIV-positive people in the area.

According to Mercredi, having that support worker on the ground in La Ronge has helped significantly with resource development. This fiscal year, they’ve been able to visit 19 northern communities; they also held a body mapping art retreat to support HIV-positive women in the north. In 2017, over 100,000 condoms were sent to northern Saskatchewan to help with prevention.

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“We want local people on the ground,” Mercredi said. “Northern Saskatchewan is one of the hardest hit areas for new infections for HIV rates and so it’s going to be tough.”

HIV rates are on the rise across Saskatchewan, with 170 new cases in 2016 – 10 of those in the La Ronge region.

But the PHAC said the changes to the funding requirements doesn’t mean cuts to funding.

“Four previously funded organizations in Saskatchewan will receive the same or more funding from PHAC, and three new organizations, not previously funded, are now being funded to implement activities to address HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in Saskatchewan through the Community Action Fund,” PHAC said in a statement.

Battlefords Family Health Centre and All Nations Hope Inc. were also denied funding.

The good news is, talks to get AIDS Saskatoon’s funding reinstated are ongoing after the Canadian AIDS Society called for an external investigation into the funding decisions by PHAC.

“The answers being given for refusal of their projects were not in line with the project requests, so that was a big indicator at the time,” Gary Lacasse, executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society, said.

“There is some openness from the Public Health Agency and the Minister’s office to address these gaps.”

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Despite that, the goal remains the same for Mercredi.

“We just want to keep maintaining and supporting those communities as best we can,” he said.