The AIDS Committee of Toronto, a community-based AIDS activist organization and Ontario’s first AIDS service organization, was formally established July 12, 1983. Amid media hysteria, misinformation, homophobia and confusion, the Toronto-based groups, Gays in Health Care and the Hassle Free Clinic, organized a public forum on April 5, 1983 to discuss AIDS and Hepatitis B at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute of Technology. This event was attended by over 300 people, including members of The Body Politic, Red Cross workers, social workers, doctors and archivists, who put forward a proposal to establish a standing AIDS Committee. In response to Toronto’s first AIDS diagnosis 1982, the need for an organization that provided the public with up-to-date information and resources, support services and and advice regarding the virus, quickly became apparent.
Following the initial public forum, a series of meetings were held at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, which led to the establishment of the AIDS Committee of Toronto and its 5 working groups: Medical Liaison, AIDSupport, Fundraising and Special Events and Community Education. On June 9, ACT was successful in its bid to get the Canada Ontario Development Project grant of $62,000 which allowed it to hire 6 people for a period of 6 months. On July 12, ACT elected 10 people to their 12 member Executive Committee. A press conference was held on July 19 to officially announce the establishment of the AIDS Committee of Toronto. In its infancy, ACT worked out of the Hassle Free Clinic, which was followed by their move to an office located at 66 Wellesley Street E. On October 4, 1983, ACT was legally incorporated in the Province of Ontario as a non-profit charitable organization.
In its early days, ACT fostered a ‘bottom-up’ approach to health care and sought to mobilize the gay community. It had a small number of staff who coordinated the volunteer-based working groups whose members were elected as Board of Directors. As service demands grew quickly, ACT began to shift towards becoming a more structured organization, through the establishment of policies, procedures and a screening process for volunteers.
ACT’s activities centred around HIV prevention through sexual health education and providing support services for people living with and at risk for HIV/AIDS. The education campaigns and programs were initiated through forums, discussion groups, conferences and speaking engagements. On July 4, 1984, ACT organized the first AIDS Awareness Week which would later become a provincial and national event. The event was composed of panel discussions, benefits and press conferences. Education efforts also extended to brochure and poster projects, which were circulated to targeted communities and reproduced by external groups. ACT’s first brochure was “This Is a Test” which provided information on HIV antibody testing. On September 3 1985, ACT’s film “No Sad Songs” premiered. The film was directed by Nick Sheehan, profiling Jim Black, a man living with AIDS and the gay community’s response to AIDS.
In addition to education, the organization offered support services that were geared towards people worried about HIV/AIDS, people living with HIV, AIDS, ARC and PLS and their loved ones. A range of services were offered through programs such as the Buddy Program, Financial Assistance Program, Practical Assistance Program, Bereavement Program, the ACT Hotline and the Volunteer Counselling Services. These programs offered financial, practical and emotional support and assistance. In 1986, ACT announced plans to open North America’s first AIDS hospice. The hospice project resulted in the establishment of Casey House in 1988, which has since then operated independently.
ACT advocated for government action in response to the AIDS epidemic on the municipal, provincial and federal levels. It sat on various government committees and submitted briefs and reports on a variety of issues. When the HIV antibody test became available in Canada, ACT advocated for anonymous testing to reduce barriers to testing and stigma associated with HIV//AIDS.
In 1993, ACT moved to 399 Church Street. This location housed ACT’s Access Centre which operated a small circulating library collection, reference material and free up to date information on HIV/AIDS, which was made available for the public. In the early 1990s, ACT underwent restructuring as many community members felt that the organization had become burdened by bureaucracy.
In addition to its educational and support-based projects and campaigns, ACT organized other community events, such as the first AIDS Vigil, held in 1985. Fundraising events were also introduced. The AIDS Walk Toronto was an annual event started in 1988 in which community-based organizations participated to raise awareness and funds for AIDS,and to promote education and support services. Fashion Cares was an annual Gala fundraiser, which included fashion shows, auctions, banquets, and after shows. This annual gala aimed to raise HIV/AIDS awareness and funds for ACT in partnership with local and national designers, celebrities and businesses. The Fashion Cares Gala was held in 1987 at the Sherbourne Street Diamond Nightclub. September 9, 2012 marked the final Fashion Cares event, which was held at the Sony Centre.