Stephen Lewis: “Canada’s Status in the World: How Does It Measure Up?”

At a recent HIV/AIDS session I attended, each participant was asked who their inspiration was that brought them there that day. I can’t remember what my ultimate response was, but had I answered honestly, I would have said Stephen Lewis. At the time though, his name seemed much too cliché and pedestrian for that particular forum. It was a personal travesty for me to have missed his 2006 International Week address, so when I found out he was coming back to Edmonton to deliver another lecture, I jumped at the opportunity.

So after dinner, Dickson and I headed down to the Timms Centre at the University for his lecture titled “Canada’s Status in the World: How Does it Measure Up?” It was nearly a packed house, and after quite the score of introductions, Mr. Lewis was welcomed on stage.

He framed his speech with a list of five provocations – nuclear proliferation, genocide (in particular, the current Darfur crisis), the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, and of course, the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Although I respect him as a knowledgable man with perspective on a wide variety of issues because of his travels, experience, and obvious appreciation for big-picture implications if inaction remains, Mr. Lewis’s lack of personal connection really weakened his discussion on the first four issues. He really did sound like he was posturing to the crowd.

By the time he reached his final topic, however, the rest of the address fell away immediately, and I was reminded of the fact that I was in awe of being in the same room with him, breathing the same air (I am not worthy!). His passion, intensity, and humanity resonated from the stage as he talked, among other things, about orphans, grandmother-headed families, the potential for a viable microbicide, the need for gender equality and sexual negotiation, and Canada’s own failed legislation allowing for a warehouse of ARVs to sit idle. Though many of the stories were included in Race Against Time, it was better hearing them from him in person.

Like Art Spiegeleman, Mr. Lewis possesses a vocabulary that puts me to shame. He was expectedly long-winded, but I don’t think anyone seemed to mind – the audience was clearly rapt throughout surreal pin-drop hour and a half (though really, all in attendance were likely already holding him in a state of public reverence, even before he ever had to open his mouth). I really liked how he managed to pull current media headlines and made them relevant to his topics (e.g. the War Crimes trial in Montreal, a UN negotiation with Turkey over the semantics of their Armenian genocide). He also had a genuine sense of humor (with regards to his time with the NDP, and I’m paraphrasing, but “the only difference between a cactus and a caucus is that with a cactus, the pricks are on the outside”).

Since most of the talk was decidedly apocalyptic, I was surprised that he was able to bring about an optimistic ending of hope. He even recommended a book, Stephanie Nolen’s upcoming 28, a collection of narratives centering on persons living with HIV/AIDS, that he believes is good enough to increase mainstream consciousness about the subject.

Perhaps I should have taken the reception as an opportunity to meet Mr. Lewis, but it’s more my style to admire from a distance, so we left almost immediately after the conclusion of the event. He’s a wonderful speaker, and I would not hesitate to attend another one of his lectures in the future.

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