Man on a Mission
Funding HIV-AIDS research is still as crucial as ever. Alex Filiatrault takes up the cause Text Derick Chetty Photography Chris Chapman
New CANFAR CEO Alex Filiatrault takes up the cause of funding HIV-AIDS
I’M A PEOPLE PERSON,” says Alex Filiatrault in the Spartan offices of CANFAR. “I facilitate bringing people together.” This skilful social trait will come in handy for the dapper French-Canadian as he enters the third act of his professional life. After careers in finance and luxury hospitality – notably, at the Four Seasons and Shangri-La hotels – he was recently appointed CEO of the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the only organization solely dedicated to privately funding HIV and AIDS research in this country. Finding resources to support this is one of Filiatrault’s key functions, and just months into the new gig, he was tasked with finding co-chairs for the
organization’s signature fundraising gala, Bloor Street Entertains.
Not surprisingly, Filiatrault aced the task at hand as he recruited journalist and fashion maven Bernadette Morra and her husband, power realtor Jimmy Malloy, as co-chairs of the gala, now in its 23rd year.
One of the glitziest and most stylish events on the Toronto charity circuit, the gala features a unique popup dining experience each November, where blacktie-clad guests shell out big bucks to dine in the boutiques that line the city’s famed Mink Mile on Bloor Street West and the surrounding Yorkville shopping district. Culinary wizards, florists and decorators donate their time and talents to transform 18 of these venues – including Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss and Holt Renfrew – for one night to host a sumptuous dinner. After dining, guests will glide over to the Four Seasons Hotel to join a party in full swing.
And with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, it is a reminder there is still no cure for AIDS. Yet, there is a dangerous sense of apathy, particularly in the First World, ironically, due to good news – thanks to successful therapies and medication, the disease can be a chronic one instead of an automatic death sentence.
But consider some recent disturbing statistics of HIV and AIDS. Despite resources and information available, people are still being infected with HIV daily – six per day in Canada. Even more surprising is a 2016 report from the Public Health Agency of Canada that states new infections have been on the rise among people over age 50. From 2012 to 2016, newly infected rates have steadily increased – from 17.7 per cent to 24.3 per cent – in this age group. At the other end of the age spectrum, young people aged 15 to 19 account for only 2.1 per cent of new diagnoses. Also, women account for 24 per cent of new infections.
Such stats have led CANFAR to increase its national platform with awareness programs, particularly targeting at-risk youth. The organization has also increased its presence at the university level with CANFAR clubs on campuses, which encourage students to get involved in awareness programs.
But one of the biggest challenges the organization and others like it face today is the still-lingering stigma attached to the disease. It was one of the themes at the International AIDS Conference in the Netherlands this past summer, which Filiatrault attended for the first time with his long-time life partner, Dr. Graham Smith, a leading Canadian HIV-AIDS specialist.
“When people have other chronic diseases, they will talk about it, and it’s more socially acceptable, and people will surround them with love and support,” says Filiatrault. “But the stigma around HIV-AIDS makes people afraid to say they have it because it says, ‘I did something wrong.’ The stigma portion is paralyzing, and this is why these [infection] numbers are staggering.”
Which is perhaps why there is a renewed sense of urgency and a doubling down on fundraising efforts. The number of boutiques participating in this year’s Bloor Street Entertains has increased, and the event is on track to raise more than $800,000. Over the gala’s history, it has raised more than $7 million.
CANFAR-funded research programs have made contributions to discoveries, such as eliminating mother-to-baby HIV transmission, and have established Canada as one of the leading centres of research on the disease in the scientific community.
“For those of us in Canada and other resource-rich countries, the conference was a wake-up call to decrease new HIV infections, said Smith. “Some cities, like San Francisco, have started doing this. The rest of us, governments, physicians, other health-care workers, community organizations and people at risk need to be more actively engaged to reach the goal of ending HIV transmission.”
Filiatrault wishes that the work will one day make his role obsolete. “We’re hoping to lower new infections in Canada to less than 500 in the next five years. If we can achieve that goal, I’d rather be looking for another job in five years. The more we invest resources and raise awareness – this will reduce the rates of infections tremendously. I’d rather get to that point, and hopefully the scientific community finds a cure, which means we can close the CANFAR offices.”
Filiatrault with Dr. Graham Smith