Sask. government apologizes after HIV post featuring photo of gay couple slammed as homophobic

On Wednesday morning the posts were deleted and an apology was posted to the government's Twitter account. 

Posts that 'stigmatized HIV/AIDS and those that live with the disease' have been deleted

The provincial government has apologized for the now deleted tweet. (Government of Saskatchewan/Twitter)

Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman says the use of a photo of a gay couple in a government social media post about HIV numbers in the province is "disappointing," but did not go as far as agreeing with criticism that the post was homophobic.

"I recognize it is very disappointing that that was the image that people were seeing when we put out an image of what people with AIDS, on a day that should be celebrated, of how far we've come with the treatment of AIDS," Merriman said at the legislature on Wednesday.

The posts were shared on the provincial government's Twitter and Facebook feeds on Tuesday, which was World AIDS Day. The post featured an image of two men and the message that HIV is treatable and urged people to get tested.

It drew criticism in hundreds of comments responding to the post. 

On Wednesday morning, it was deleted and an apology was posted to the same social media accounts. 

"Yesterday in marking World AIDS Day, Government of Saskatchewan social media pages used a photo that stigmatized HIV/AIDS and those that live with the disease," said the statement.

"The photo has been deleted, and we unreservedly apologize."

Merriman said he did not approve the post. It was shared by an official within the Ministry of Health. 

"I will be speaking with [Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO] Scott Livingstone later on this afternoon to see what processes he has in place to make sure this doesn't happen again." 

Saskatchewan has the highest rate of HIV transmission in Canada. 

The most common risk factor for transmission in Saskatchewan is injection drug use, which accounts for 67 per cent of cases. 

In 16 per cent of cases, the primary exposure risk is heterosexual sex. In nine per cent of cases the risk factor was in men who have sex with men. 

Jack Saddleback, the interim co-director of Out Saskatoon, said the posts reflected poorly on the government's understanding of the issue.  

"This is an archaic viewpoint, an outdated one … and quite honestly a homophobic kind of mentality when it comes to how we view HIV and AIDS," said Saddleback. 

He said the province should focus its efforts on reducing HIV rates on harm reduction. 

Prairie Harm Reduction executive director Jason Mercredi says the government's social media post was 'tone deaf.' (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

Prairie Harm Reduction, formerly known as AIDS Saskatoon, requested $1.3 million from the provincial government to support its safe injection site, which opened this year in Saskatoon, but did not receive the funding. 

Executive director Jason Mercredi said the World AIDS Day post was "tone deaf" and fails to recognize good work that has been done in Saskatchewan toward reducing the HIV rate. 

"It just further reiterates that the government's not taking addictions at the same level of seriousness as other issues," said Mercredi. 

"And it's not getting the right attention. Harm reduction messaging should have been at the forefront of any World AIDS Day messaging in Saskatchewan."

Indigenous rates higher in Sask.

Statistics on HIV in Saskatchewan also show that Indigenous people account for 79 per cent of new cases. 

Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis, CEO for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, said solutions from within the Indigenous community are needed to address the high rates of HIV in this province. 

She plans to bring up the social media post at an upcoming meeting with provincial officials. 

"This really reflects the fact that the government doesn't care about what is happening here in this province," said Kisikaw Piyesis. 

"The government has not addressed this in ways that would help Indigenous people to look at solutions for what we are seeing in our communities."

She said grassroots organizations are not receiving enough funding to provide support for people with HIV and AIDS, and that Indigenous people are less likely to seek help from provincial authorities due to systemic racism. 

New diagnoses of HIV in Saskatchewan jumped 27 per cent in 2019, to 213 cases, up from 168 in 2018. Early data shows at least 118 newly diagnosed HIV cases in 2020.