A veteran Canadian activist and former United Nations ambassador told an audience at Mount Allison University Tuesday night that the resignation of Jane Philpott from the Trudeau cabinet represents a huge loss.
“The country has lost one of the best cabinet ministers that has emerged in Ottawa in decades,” said Stephen Lewis.
“That, of course hurts in feminist terms and it hurts profoundly in indigenous terms because she was the minister whom the indigenous community most frequently looked to.”
He said that when Philpott worked as a doctor at a Toronto-area hospital, she oversaw raising millions of dollars for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which helps HIV/AIDS victims in Africa.
Then, as federal minister of health and later, minister of indigenous services, Lewis said Philpott supported his efforts to take action against the high rate of tuberculosis among the Inuit in Nunavut.
He added that he has rarely worked with someone as principled as Philpott whom he believes was on track to become Canada’s first female minister of finance.
“It’s such an unusual moment historically in any country where someone of such prominence and of such decent motives decides she can no longer work with a certain leader,” he said. “I’m filled with admiration.”
Lewis’s comments came during an impassioned, hour-long speech that covered a wide range of topics including the continued spread of HIV/AIDS as governments and private foundations cut back on their efforts to fight the disease.
Lewis himself is co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World, an organization that tackles the root causes of the global pandemic.
“There are 37 million people living with the virus today,” Lewis told his Mt. A. audience. “There are 15.2 million people living today with HIV who do not yet have treatment and they’re struggling to get the treatment because access to drugs is still so difficult and the drugs can still be so costly,” he added.
“There are nearly 5,000 new infections every week in young women and girls between the ages of 15 and 24. In 2018, there were nearly two million infections overall and nearly a million people died,” he said.
“How can anyone say that the pandemic is over?”
Lewis scoffed at a recent report that an AIDS victim has been cured based on stem cell research. He said that even if a cure has been found, it will be available only in rich countries while victims in poor countries continue to go without the drugs that would prolong their lives.
Lewis called climate change the “single, most calamitous issue” facing humankind today.
“God knows how we’re going to get through the next generation without some kind of self-immolation,” he said.
“It really requires brave and courageous and unswerving leadership, which is not yet to be found,” he added.
“Everything is going haywire,” Lewis said, adding that sea levels are rising, oceans are warming and the poles are melting with more frequent hurricanes, floods and droughts all related to global warming.
“And the world sits back and watches,” he said. “A hundred and fifty countries got together in Paris and signed an accord which was utterly voluntary and they are not even meeting the voluntary targets that they established and by the way, one of the worst culprits is Canada.”
Lewis accused Justin Trudeau of following in Stephen Harper’s footsteps in avoiding action on climate change, although he said there is much more “rhetorical self-indulgence” from Trudeau.
“I know rhetorical self-indulgence,” Lewis said as the audience laughed. “I do it all the time.”
What students can do
When asked during the question period what students can do, Lewis said he always gives this piece of advice: “I urge them to choose one issue, the issue that they care most about.”
He added that the issue he cares most about is climate change even though he’s working in an organization seeking to get at the root causes of HIV/AIDS.
He said students can work for organizations such as UNICEF or other UN agencies or such groups as the Suzuki Foundation, CARE or Amnesty International.
He said he often talked to students when he taught at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“I was always amazed at the sense of urgency on the part of the students who wanted to get their education over with and go out into the world. This was particularly true of the young women,” he said.
“The young women, overwhelmingly in any class I’ve ever been associated with, wanted to go out and change the world.”