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Canadian and African Grandmothers unite against HIV/aids

In the midst of international terrorist attacks and great global unrest, seeing people continue to work across international borders and battle against forces greater than human conflict is truly inspiring, especially when it comes to the HIV/aids epidemic.

The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign connects Canadian and African grandmothers and gives them a platform in Sub-Saharan Africa to provide support for their grandchildren, whose parents have been decimated by the HIV/aids epidemic. There are over 14 million orphans in Africa after their parents contracted and died of HIV/aids and many grandmothers are raising their grandchildren alone.

The organization was founded in 2006 in Toronto. “The Stephen Lewis Foundation invited 100 grandmothers from sub-Saharan Africa to come to Toronto for a gathering and 100 Canadian grandmothers came as well. The Canadian grandmothers listened to the African grandmothers and what they have had to do to deal with the Aids pandemic,” Grannies for Good founder, a chapter of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, Joanne Gormely says. “It really created a connection between 250 groups of grandmothers in Canada in solidarity with grandmothers in Africa.”

The campaign is not a charity run by people who aren’t African, but instead is a movement created and controlled by African grandmothers and local field workers who have first-hand knowledge about what these communities need.

Gormley is one of the Canadian grandmothers who began a chapter in Montreal to support the campaign. She, along with other grandmothers, run events ranging from art sales to long-distance cycling fundraising for the grandmothers in Africa. Gormley has her own painful memories associated with HIV/aids. “I lost my own brother to Aids. I was still in grief of losing my own younger brother when I joined the group,” she says. “It touched me because I understood something they were living through.”

 Joanne Gormley (centre) with two of the other Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign members who attended the South Africa Grandmothers Gathering in Durban: Elizabeth McNair (L) and Carol Little (R). By Alexis Macdonald.
Joanne Gormley (centre) with two of the other Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign members who attended the South Africa Grandmothers Gathering in Durban: Elizabeth McNair (L) and Carol Little (R). By Alexis Macdonald.

Gormley, along with nine other grandmothers, also traveled to Africa to join a meeting of over 300 grandmothers in Durban, South Africa ahead of the 2016 World Aids Conference that ran from July 18-22. The group participated in protest of the lack of funding available to support the raising of these children, and joined over 2000 other grandmothers to Durban’s convention centre where the conference was being held.

The group of 10 traveled to South Africa and Zambia to see firsthand where their funds are going. The Grandmother to Grandmother campaign has raised $25 million over the last 10 years, with the proceeds going to various projects run by African field workers and grandmothers that live in the community.

The campaign has also provided jobs to women in the various communities that run the Grandmother to Grandmother projects. While on her trip to Africa, Gormley traveled with an African woman named Ida who originally grew up in abject poverty, and her husband had also passed away from HIV/aids. She now works for the foundation and her daughter is studying to become a lawyer.

These inspiring activists lobby governments across sub-Saharan Africa to take further measures to stop the spread of HIV/aids. The region has seen a 43 per cent decline in new HIV infections among children since 2009 due to UNAIDS global plan to eliminate HIV infections in the region. Public decimation of the antiretroviral treatment and educating has helped to lower the rate of HIV/aids. That being said, 24.7 million people are still living with HIV in sub-Sahran Africa due to lack of access to the medicine, with only 39 per cent of adults on the antiretroviral treatment.

Not only is this campaign helping reduce HIV in Africa, but this women-led group is also helping promote solidarity among women across the world. “The campaign promotes a sense of camaraderie and belonging by making a difference and being a voice for Africans in a global world. It helps in overcoming a sense of hopelessness,” Gormley says. “There is anger in those African women and they have a right to be angry. They deserve to be heard.”

The grandmother to grandmother campaign is a great initiative supporting women that are working together to solve issues from different cultures. We should all take these lessons from our elders and join the movement to help promote an agenda to eradicate aids from sub-Saharan Africa once and for all.

Ontario needs to make conservation a priority

Have you ever been hiking on Manitoulin Island or in the Niagara Escarpment and paused for a moment to appreciate the ethereal beauty of the natural land?

Conservation is the only way to ensure that certain areas remain protected  in Ontario. The problem is that it is no easy feat to keep land from the greedy hands of major developers, and every single day more of these natural habitats disappears. Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy is a land trust that is dedicated to ensuring natural landmarks are conserved in the province. Unfortunately, the province of Ontario has removed their funding and this leaves the charity in a difficult position to continue protecting natural regions.

As a land trust, Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy accepts donations of land for conservation and also helps property owners to protect their own land from buyers. The conservancy is spearheaded by Robert Barnett, a passionate conservation advocate and architect by trade. The charity has 151 nature reserves making up 47 km altogether in the province. Biosphere focuses operations in the escarpment, but has several reserves across the province and is the second largest conservation charity in Ontario.

Thomson Reserve near Wiarton, Ont. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy.
Thomson Reserve near Wiarton, Ont. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy.

However, the charity has been facing roadblocks since their funding was removed in 2012. In that same year, the provincial government released a new plan called biodiversity: it’s in our nature to compliment Canada’s decision to sign a mandate towards conserving 17 per cent of Ontario land by 2020. The plan indicated that by 2020, “17 per cent of terrestrial and aquatic systems are conserved through well-connected networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures”. Four years later, conservation areas stand at 4.4 per cent.

“The minister announced this plan in 2012 and now of course nothing is happening. They aren’t increasing the land protected area at all,” Barnett says. “The premier has given the minister a mandate to protect our biodiversity and once again, nothing is being done. The environmental commissioner at the time, Diane Sax, recommended that they put funding into protected areas. This means the environmental commissioner, the premier, and the biodiversity initiative are being ignored.”

More than that, the province removed the charity’s funding the same year they introduced the new plan to increase biodiversity conservation. Previously, Biosphere received $30,000 to $40,000 in provincial funding to support operations at the charity. Now, Barnett can only rely on cash donations and limited federal funding for the projects.

“We spend $100,000 a year to protect the land, for legal fees and getting inventories done. It costs $5000 to receive a land donation because of appraisals and paperwork,” Barnett says. “That is a lot of money for a charity and we just don’t have it.”

Barnett believes that the funding cuts are in part due to the budget cuts the Ontario ministry of natural resources has experienced in the last five years. That being said, natural areas bring $84 billion to the economy and the conservation funding only costs $135,000. The Ontario government could easily fund such a low budget to complete such an important task.

Cape Hurd where one of the cottages to rent is located. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere conservancy.
Cape Hurd where one of the cottages to rent is located. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere conservancy.

One MPP is trying to make a difference for property owners interested in conservation. Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle has introduced a private member’s bill to lower the property tax on private properties that place covenants protecting the land on their property. If a person owns a piece of land, they have the option to contact a land trust such as Biosphere to create a list of restrictions — known as covenants — to prevent future land owners from ever building a gravel pit on the land for example. In exchange for placing covenants on the land, homeowners receive a $100,000 tax receipt from Biosphere as a part of the land trust.

Placing covenants on the land lowers the property value, but the province continues to charge them the same property tax anyways. Colle has presented a bill to lower the property tax for conservation covenants to zero. The bill has had its first reading in 2012 and has since been stalled.  It is yet another example of the province not putting conservation of the land as a priority.

It is apparent that the province needs to pull up its britches and take conservation seriously. The fact that only four per cent of land in Ontario is protected when there is a mandate in place to have 17 per cent is unacceptable. The funding for Biosphere and other conservation charities needs to be reinstated and hopefully Colle’s bill will pass second reading and become law. Conservation doesn’t appear to be a priority — let’s make it one!

Merging music and charity: why does it work?

Music has the power to make you feel, think, and come together with other people. But, what if it had the power to make you give?

Music and charity work is an inspiring combination. Between spewing heavy lyrics or strumming sweet melodies about important world issues, it can teach people to make a difference. Many Canadian musicians have caught on to to this phenomenon and have decided to make stirring changes in the world rather than keeping fortune and fame for themselves.

Two such artists are singer Nelly Furtado and Billy Talent drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion called Musicians & Charity: Finding a Way to Give Back through the three-day music summit at Canadian Music Week. Free the Children founder, Craig Kielburger and President for Artists for Peace and Justice Canada, Natasha Koifman, joined Furtado and Solowoniuk to talk about the causes closest to their hearts.

Nelly Furtado has been a long-time artist in Canada, but was very down to earth in person, smiling and laughing comfortably while she discussed the importance of charity work in her music. “There are so many great charities, as an artist you ask yourself what is this amounting to? Above all, it is your intention that matters,” she said. “What makes you feel angry? What gives you that fire in your belly? If you can’t align your career and success with something bigger than that, it is really unfulfilling.” Furtado’s success with her charity work reflects the global reach that musicians can have in leading people to donate and make a difference in the world.

Furtado recently received the 2016 Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award for her work with Free the Children. Furtado traveled to Kenya with the charity in 2011 to build a school. Her last album, The Spirit Indestructible also raised money to open an all-girls school in Oleleshwa, Kenya.

Furtado explained that you don’t need to have a lot of money to make a difference through music either, just passion. Local charity events are always in need of entertainment and it is a good way to practice your skills as a budding artist. There is also an opportunity to dedicate funds from a song or album to a cause. For example, Canadian musician Anjulie is a friend of Furtado’s and recently released the song, “Dragonflies”. The funds from the song will go to support the Canadian Women Foundation’s Campaign against Violence.

Solowoniuk, who is the long-time drummer of Billy Talent, is also a strong supporter of merging charity and the music industry. The drummer was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1998 when he was in his late 20’s. Solowoniuk is a soft-spoken man dressed in casual clothes, but sincere when he talks about his disease.

In 2006 he founded F.U.M.S, a charity dedicated to help youth with MS go to university. On behalf of Solowoniuk, Billy Talent puts on an annual concert on boxing day to help the organization.  “As a young adult, it was hard to go through a change in my life dealing with a disease that doesn’t have a cure, I just thought I’m going to put on a punk rock show,” he said. “People grabbed onto that when they found out I wanted to donate money and start these youth programs. We started a camp for kids with MS too. It has grown into something beautiful. When you believe in it, it will go so much further.”

Free the Children is arguably one of the most successful charities in Canada and Kielburger, who was only 12 years old when he founded the charity, is constantly thinking of innovative ways to help different causes worldwide. WE Day is one of the ways that Free the Children is helping kids take part in making a difference in the world in a fun way.

The annual event is hosted in 14 stadiums in North America and a variety of famous musicians and celebrities perform. The kids attend for free when they commit to work for a charitable cause through their school.  Last year, in Toronto, WE Day was held at the Molson Amphitheatre and featured performers like Hozier, Carly Ray Jepson, Demi Lavato, Magic Johnson.

Music is no doubt a powerful tool. Musicians have large social media followings and are able to influence people around the world to help make a difference. They also have the financial backing to make a credible difference and can use songs or albums to disseminate integral messages about global issues.

What fascinates me is why musicians with so much power and money have a desire to participate in charity work. Furtado spoke of the lack of ultimate fulfillment that results from fame. When you reach your pinnacle of success, if you don’t do anything with that power and resources, it can be unsatisfactory. Instead, charity work is humbling and artists a way to share their success and achieve true greatness through their work. If every musician thought this way, imagine the changes that could be achieved in the world. Furtado, and other musicians who do charity work as well, are truly incredible.

All of the inspiring panelists emphasized the importance of helping a cause you believe in. If you find something that impassions you to make a difference it won’t feel like a sacrifice, but instead a worthy project to take part in. Seeing famous musicians passionately support further impacts other people’s faith in supporting charity work and makes you realize that everyone is capable of making a difference. We all have an obligation to help people and the planet even in a small way.

How would you change the world? Once you find out, the rest will fall into place and you can make a much-needed difference.