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

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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

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