ACO celebrates life, struggles, and triumphs of Ottawa’s HIV/AIDS community

Vuk Cvetanovic Lalovic • May 17, 2024

(Asif A. Ali\ACO)


The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, held by the AIDS committee of Ottawa (ACO) and Bruce House, offers a celebratory gathering in tribute of the struggles and triumphs of those afflicted by HIV\AIDS.

Last week the ACO commemorated those lost to a disease that still leaves many marginalized and stigmatized. The event itself gathered like-minded partners for the purposes of remembering those lost, and invigorating the community spirit the organizations have kindled for over three decades.

Both the ACO and Bruce House are some of Ottawa’s most storied institutions, with Bruce House’s 35th anniversary held just last year. Their milestones serve as a continued reminder that these missions of stable housing, healthy living, and readily accessible disease identification and treatment have always stood on the shoulders of a united community.

The battle for an integrated, anti-racist and prejudice-free location for sufferers of HIV/AIDS has been a difficult one, and one which disproportionately affects members of the queer and BIPOC communities. With about 55 new cases per year in Ottawa, the commemoration is a welcome chance to gather the community around a day of unity and thoughtful remembrance.

The nondescript building, tucked away on the corner of Main St. near the Rideau Canal, belies the sheer variety of attendants all fighting the grief of losing a loved one. The ACO created a comforting atmosphere with free refreshments and a BBQ afterparty.

However this was only the beginning, as a panoply of guests and community members alike organized themselves for a variety of performances.

A particular highlight was that of the multi-instrumentalist Eric, who played the drums and ngoni, a West African string instrument, in a brilliant manner, inviting the participants to dance. Delivering a touching series of eulogies, he spoke of the universal unity of all people, and declared that ‘’eternal life is what we are gathered here for… it is life through memory,” a poignant summation of the power of remembrance, especially in the context of heavy stigmatization.

Many participants found themselves praising the heart found in his music, with one commenting it helped to “connect oneself on a spiritual level.”

After Eric came the musical talents of Gustavo, whose repertoire, consisting of songs from Venezuela, Chile, and the Spanish region of Galicia, were tied together by a feeling of loss, but also that of a profound love. The resonant guitar, paired with heartfelt vocals, was a reflection, not just of the difficulties of loss and degradation but of the fact that a community remains, “still here, still singing,” as told by the artist.

The musical acts would give way to a short message, courtesy of journalist Ali Al Ashoor. Expressing his gratitude at the opportunity to work with the ACO, he gave thanks to the many participants of the Carleton University’s journalistic collaboration with Bruce House.

Through a series of interviews, both with volunteers and those afflicted by HIV, the students of Carleton University’s faculty of journalism wrote biographies highlighting the difficulties, but also the achievements of these contributors. Their stories commemorate the 35-year long efforts of the Bruce House community in fighting for the creation of a safe and inclusive space for sufferers of HIV\AIDS.

(Vuk Cvetanovic Lalovic/CHUO)


This candlelight memorial event showed off the trailer for 2023’s I Don’t Know Who You Are, a story about a young man desperately trying to gather money for an HIV-preventative treatment after a sexual assault. With a place of honour at Toronto’s International Film Festival (TIFF), the film’s themes of abandonment, desperation and isolation strikes a cord for many and marked a sober reflection on the fates of those who have passed.

Lifting the audience’s spirits was a stunning encore performance by Eric, whose performance on the ngoni was punctuated by calls for participation from the audience. Rousing the assembled guests, the instrument, which is traditionally reserved for ceremonial purposes, was able to “recall where we are coming from, even from far away,” a sentiment uniquely communicated by music.

(Asif A. Ali/ACO)

The event was closed out by a small auction of visual art, with painter Norm B. designing a variety of artistic collections for the event. With depictions of landscapes, abstract art, and even superheroes on display, the sheer diversity of the showing was a proud demonstration of the community’s artistic talents, and only strengthened the message of unity that permeated the entire event. With a final applause and message of thanks, the guests filtered out and eagerly filled their plates.

As was stated by Eric, people are, in essence, “only made of stories.” Gathered around the table, their communal commemoration of those they had lost marks a bittersweet chapter in still-moving stories.