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Ottawa AIDS Walk on chopping block, one year after revival; Scotiabank terminates sponsorship

Scotiabank served as the primary sponsor of the 30-year-old event for the past decade, bankrolling the fundraising walk to the tune of about $300,000 each year. Photo credit: Positive Living BC.
Scotiabank served as the primary sponsor of the 30-year-old event for the past decade, bankrolling the fundraising walk to the tune of about $300,000 each year. Photo credit: Positive Living BC.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional comment from Scotiabank.

One year after reviving the AIDS Walk in Ottawa-Gatineau, the Canadian AIDS Society says its plan to restore the annual fundraiser to its former glory is “dead in the water” unless someone comes forward to sponsor the national event.

The organization, founded in 1986 to be a “national voice” for people living with HIV/AIDS in Canada, said it’s struggling to find a big corporation to back the multi-city AIDS Walk, after one of the country’s biggest banks terminated its sponsorship.

READ MORE: HIV/AIDS groups scramble for cash after federal transition funds dry up

Scotiabank served as the primary sponsor of the 30-year-old event for the past decade, bankrolling the fundraising walk to the tune of about $300,000 each year.

Gary Lacasse, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian AIDS Society, said it’s relatively normal for big sponsorship contracts to mature and that he “respects” Scotiabank’s decision — but added that his organization would have appreciated more of a “soft exit.”

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“I was expecting something like this but I wasn’t expecting a complete … withdrawal of the walk so rapidly. I was expecting a one-year turnover,” Lacasse said. “It’s really hard to find sponsors. We have sent funding requests to the big banks (and) the big insurers.”

“We have sent [requests] to I think about 40 potential sponsors for the walk and they’ve all come back negative.”

Last year, the AIDS walk took place in 29 different locations in Canada. In addition to Ottawa-Gatineau, other Ontario communities that hosted their own walks included Guelph, Toronto, Durham Region, Kingston, Simcoe Muskoka, and Peel Region.

Any funds raised at a local walk benefit HIV/AIDS organizations in that community. All the communities that participated collectively raised $1.5 million last year, Lacasse said, and about $44 million in total over the past 30 years.

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In a statement provided to Global News, a spokesperson for Scotiabank’s sponsorship and philanthropy initiatives said the bank decided to terminate its partnership with the Canadian AIDS Society because it is “focused on aligning (its) donations to young people in the community.”

“As with any business, we review our investments, including our sponsorship partnerships, on a regular basis,” senior communications manager Erin Truax wrote in an email. “We did not take this decision lightly. We recognize the important work of [the Canadian Aids Society].

“We are proud of our nine-year relationship as sponsor of the AIDS Walk and wish the Canadian Aids Society and their partner agencies continued success moving forward.”

According to the Canadian AIDS Society, about 75,000 people currently live with HIV/AIDS in Canada. Lacasse said the largest number of people contracting the virus now are young Canadians — but he said it appears that Scotiabank, like other big corporations, is moving into more “niche” and “specific” funding structures “that HIV doesn’t necessarily fall into.”

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At Scotiabank’s invitation, Lacasse submitted a new funding pitch to the bank’s sponsorship arm focused on youth and “sexual health knowledge and capacity-building.”

Truax confirmed Scotiabank had received the proposal and said it is “currently under review.”

AIDS Walks usually takes place between early September and early October every year. While Lacasse said Scotiabank only informed the Canadian AIDS Society of its decision in December, Truax said the bank notified the organization “in the fall of 2017.”

With less than five months to go now and no new primary sponsor, Lacasse said his group just doesn’t have the “capacity” to put together an event in Ottawa this year — even though they just got it up and running again in 2017 after a two-year hiatus.

“I think it’s dead in the water, at the moment,” Lacasse said, adding that if an interested sponsor showed up “tomorrow or next week,” his organization would “for sure” try to pull something off.

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“At least to keep the name in the psyche in Ottawa — that we’re still there, that we still have needs — would be important to do,” he said. “It’s just sad, with two years without a walk and now we brought it back … there was a rebuilding of everything that was happening.”

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Lacasse said other communities across Canada — including Fort McMurray, Halifax, Truro, Moncton and Saint John, N.B. — are also “questioning” their walks.

READ MORE: Organizers of annual AIDS walk say HIV infections are on the increase in Edmonton

The Canadian AIDS Society’s sponsorship troubles come as the organization is coping with another financial predicament: the loss of about half a million dollars in funding it received from the federal government annually.

Lacasse said his organization isn’t alone there; many of the community groups that normally benefit from funds raised during the AIDS Walk were also recently defunded by the Trudeau government.

“It’s a double whammy to them and us,” Lacasse said. “It’s like a perfect storm at the moment.

“We know that we do bring effective work to the table to address HIV in Canada. We truly, at the core of our beings, find the government made a huge mistake.”

Lacasse added the cash that community-based groups score from the annual AIDS Walk is especially important because it’s “unrestricted” funding, whereas HIV/AIDS organizations often have to adhere to certain project criteria for other kinds of grants.

The director said the Ottawa-Gatineau walk raised about $5,000 last year — compared to the approximate $50,000 it raised in its heyday — for local organizations that support people living with HIV and AIDS, like Bruce House.

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“People have really great programming come out of this money because it’s innovative,” Lacasse said. “They go by the people they serve.

“It looks really small but the impact is huge.”

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