AIDS group mulls how to preserve a Canadian quilt


A memorial quilt to honour the thousands of people in Canada who have died from complications due to HIV/AIDS has been preserved in a digital form, even as the actual quilt faces an uncertain future.


In the late 1980s, family and friends of people who had died at the height of the AIDS epidemic stitched together cloth panels to form the AIDS Memorial Quilt, sharing the stories of their loved ones at a time when the stigma around the disease threatened to leave people forgotten.

A Canadian version of the quilt sprung from that effort, one that has grown to some 600 panels.

The Canadian AIDS Society wants to preserve the country’s AIDS Memorial Quilt. 0:54

“It was a living legacy, because at the beginning of the epidemic nobody would touch people with AIDS,” said Gary Lacasse, the executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society.

As misinformation about how HIV spread, even funeral homes were hesitant to accept the bodies of those who died from the disease, Lacasse said.

“So this was the friends and the family who did stay with the people who wanted to acknowledge their passing in some stage or form.”

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was stitched together from cloth panels to tell the stories of people who had died from HIV/AIDS at a time when there was still a stigma about the disease. (Halie Cotnam/CBC)

Quilt panels stored in hockey bags

That desire to preserve the memory of those who died is behind the Canadian AIDS Society launch of on Monday, a website to reflect Canada’s historic losses to the disease.

But the actual collection of quilt panels, which the Canadian AIDS Society took over in 2013, is proving more difficult to care for, Lacasse told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning on Monday.

The quilt has a home in the Canadian AIDS Society office, but ideally they would find a climate-controlled space, similar to how the US version of the AIDS Quilt is stored, Lacasse said.

Right now the many sections of the quilt are being stored in 33 goalie bags and other assorted plastic bags, while the group looks for a more permanent solution, Lacassse said. If all of the panels were stitched together and unfolded the quilt would be a kilometre long and half-a-kilometre wide.

The AIDS quilt was a symbol of the fight against HIV in the 1980s. But thirty years later it’s being stored in 29 hockey bags and its keepers say its future is uncertain. 5:31

The permanent solution is proving difficult, Lacasse said.

“We looked for different alternatives but alternatives are few and far between,” Lacasse said, since many of the community-based HIV/AIDS organizations that might help out have lost federal funding as the government has directed more money toward HIV/AIDS prevention.

Lacasse hopes the website will help educate future generations to what people went through when the disease first appeared in Canada. And he hopes the quilt can find a way to live on, too.

“This is a living expression of the AIDS movement and how it came about,” he said.