Nova Scotia

AIDS advocate Janet Conners remembered as a voice 'impossible to ignore'

Janet Conners was thrust into the spotlight in the 1990s after she contracted HIV. Conners, who died on Saturday, spent her life advocating for a safe blood system in Canada.

Conners became the one of the faces of the tainted blood scandals in the 1990s

In the 1990s, Janet Conners fought to break the stigma around AIDS. She was one of the first women to speak publicly about testing positive for HIV. (CBC)

At a time when people faced a terrible stigma over being HIV positive, Janet Conners spoke loudly.

Conners became an unwavering advocate for a safe blood system in Canada and is credited with pushing officials to call an inquiry into the country's tainted blood scandal.

Conners died Saturday morning. She was 66.

Her death has sparked tributes from across the country from those who say she has left an indelible mark on Canadian history.

She contracted HIV through her husband, Randy, who became infected through tainted blood infusions in the late 1980s.

Janet and Randy Conners were instrumental in pushing for an inquiry into Canada's tainted blood scandal. They testified about their diagnoses, and spoke openly about the challenges they faced. Randy died in 1994. (CBC)

"I think she was a revolutionary," Kassandra Schoemaker, Janet Conners's daughter-in-law, told CBC's Maritime Noon in an interview on Tuesday.

"I think that she showed and reminded people that we can and do have the right to question and to know what's happening. She was just a powerful force to reckon with."

Schoemaker said her mother-in-law spent her final years spending time with her grandchildren. She said her death was unexpected. Schoemaker said they took her to the hospital after she developed a cough and found out she had cancer.

"She had been living her life to the absolute fullest not even knowing how sick she was because she had become so strong in dealing with her physical pain. In a way, it was a little bit of a gift to not have had it slow her down," she said.

"Janet really was one of the first women to become public with her HIV status," said Kat Lanteigne, the executive director of Blood Watch, an organization that advocates for a safe blood system in Canada.

Lanteigne was also a family friend.

"There was such stigma about that virus. What Janet did was really put a human face and normalize what people living with the virus look like."

The Conners pushed Nova Scotia to become the first province to settle with those who were affected by the tainted blood scandal, forcing other provinces to follow suit. Randy Conners died in 1994, but that didn't stop his wife's efforts.

"Janet's advocacy and activism can't be overestimated," said Lanteinge. "She did so with such passion and honesty."

Nova Scotia compensates victims for tainted blood

30 years ago
Duration 2:35
Thanks to lobbying by Janet and Randy Conners, Nova Scotia is the first province to compensate residents.

As a federal finance minister, Allan Rock says he met countless advocates on the job. Few, he says, stood out like Janet Conners.

"Janet was truly exceptional," he said. "In my very first meeting with her, I was struck by the enormous power she brought to the table."

Rock says it was nearly impossible to make a decision against her wishes, because her arguments always made sense.

"She always maintained a firm eye on what she wanted to achieve and what we had to achieve as a country in order to make sure that such a thing never happened again," Rock said.

"Her moral voice was impossible to ignore. She had quite an impact in Ottawa."

He says she used her personal tragedy to create a platform that eventually helped all Canadians.

"We have an excellent blood system in this country today, and I think one of the people we have to thank for that is Janet Conners."

MORE TOP STORIES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

With files from Brett Ruskin

now