An Exchange of Wisdom, Even

This is how Program Coordinator Jan Voordouw describes a program initiated by his non-profit organization Panos Caribbean, the Vancouver/Jamaica Exchange Project.

First, shall I tell you about Panos? Established in Washington, DC, in 1986, it is very much communication-oriented, in specific fields. With its head office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and its secondary office in Jamaica, Panos’ aim is to “help people participate in the development debate, in particular through the media.”  Among other exciting projects, it has established youth journalist groups; a number of projects helping rural Jamaicans to cope with climate change, including“Voices for Climate Change; has conducted research, offered fellowships and training in communicating HIV/AIDS-related issues; and in 2010 launched the ground-breaking“Oral Testimonies of Jamaican Sex Workers.”  Panos is now working harder to amplify the voices of marginalized populations in Jamaica; and it was with this in mind that the Vancouver/Jamaica project came into being.

A still from a video series produced by Kalilah Enriquez with funding from Panos on "Street Boys of Jamaica." (Panos website)
A still from a video series produced by Kalilah Enriquez with funding from Panos on “Street Boys of Jamaica.” (Panos website)

So, a group of seven Jamaicans (five journalists and two young politicians) recently visited Vancouver. The aim was to share experiences on discrimination against men having sex with men, which still exists in Vancouver, too; and to learn more about strategies to address the concerns of gays living with HIV/AIDS. Although Vancouver is a gay-friendly” city, it took decades to reach where it is today, says Jean-Claude Louis, who accompanied the group in Canada; and it is not by any means typical of the rest of the country. Everywhere has its complexities and its unique social issues. But Vancouver has put in place legislation and safeguards. It has established procedures, systems and entities (both governmental and non-governmental) that will always lend a helping hand, support, advise. Heal.

Vancouver, British Columbia (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)
Vancouver, British Columbia (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Dr. Hamlet Nation is a medical doctor, and a member of the People’s National Party Youth Organization. Several key issues emerged for Dr. Nation during the week-long visit, from his discussions with those working in the health system in Vancouver. Firstly, there is the important role of leadership in Vancouver; not at first local politicians, who “jumped in later,” Dr. Nation noted. Community leaders helped foster dialogue, and encouraged openness and easier information-sharing – qualities he recognized and admired when he visited the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. Dr. Nation also liked the STOP HIV/AIDS initiative piloted by Vancouver Coastal Health, which he regarded as proactive. Jamaica could easily adopt such a program of “treatment as prevention”  and early testing, he thought, using social media outreach to find those most at risk. He also liked the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control’s “highly targeted” programs.

Naomi Francis is well-known on radio, with her cheerful morning voice on Nationwide News Network’s “This Morning.”  Along with her co-host Emily Crooks, she packs a punch in incisive on-air interviews with politicians and public figures. She asked the question: How do marginalized Jamaicans tell their stories? Journalists love stories, of course. She felt the “stark” contrast in the way people communicate on human rights, noting that Vancouver was “proactive” in the way it works with First Nations people and other minorities, sexual or otherwise. Naomi met with Peer Navigators – HIV-positive gay men – at the Positive Living Society of  British Columbia, who had “found ways” to tell their stories. For them, she said, the acronym LGBT translated as “Listen, Guide, Balance, Translate.”  The Jamaican media is full of stories of “rampant violence” against gays, she says; but we are mostly looking at the symptoms of intolerance, anger, abuse. So, if those are the symptoms, then what is the root cause of discrimination against gays? “At the heart of it is an issue of poverty and abuse,”  Naomi suggests.

Wellness services offered by the Positive Living Society of British Columbia.
Wellness services offered by the Positive Living Society of British Columbia.
Vancouver is considered a "gay-friendly" city, but still has many social issues to contend with.
Vancouver is considered a “gay-friendly” city, but still has many social issues to contend with.

Collin Virgo is General Secretary of G2K, the young professionals arm of the Jamaica Labour Party. Although he completely avoided the issue of homosexuality, Mr. Virgo had some sharp comments and perceptive insights. He called the program “an amazing eye-opener.” Now, Mr. Virgo is what I would call a “character” – in the nicest way; he likes to be a little controversial, even “brutally frank,” as he puts it. In Jamaica“we are just wasting a lot of time,”  he observed, with a hint of impatience. “We don’t stay focused too long… We are always distracted by sideshows.” He contrasted this with what he saw in Vancouver – a culture of “seeing, feeling,” understanding and empathy. As well as what he called simply “common sense” solutions such as those offered by Insite – a supervised injection site for drug addicts. These simple solutions are not as easy as they seem to implement, Mr. Virgo observed; and politicians must “take note” of what he called “resistance from society” – which Insite also encountered when it was first established. “We cannot stay outside the system and help somebody,” Mr. Virgo added. “This is the dilemma of politicians.” Resistance from society. Something some politicians find hard to handle, it seems.

An Insite office in Vancouver.
An Insite office in Vancouver.

Dervan Malcolm is a highly experienced radio man – producer, presenter and program host extraordinaire. His program, “Both Sides of the Story,” addresses all kinds of topics on weekday afternoons on Power 106 FM (which is owned by the Gleaner Company, by the way). Dervan also chaired the last televised leadership debate during the 2011 election campaign in Jamaica. He has a fresh, open style; he is cool and he is impartial.

Now, Dervan reminded us of former Canadian Premier Pierre Trudeau‘s remark to journalists in 1967: “We take the position that there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”  M. Trudeau was actually echoing an editorial in the Toronto“Globe and Mail” from the day before. So, here perhaps, all those years ago, was an example of politicians and media working together towards a change of mindset, of culture. Of course, the process was a gradual one. Changing the way people think – introducing different ideas, sharing new insights, explaining, clarifying, suggesting… it is all a painfully slow and complex process. But M. Trudeau decided that his country had got to start somewhere, and there was in fact some legislation pending at that point to strengthen human rights for sexual minorities. So, it is most telling to note that the first time any Jamaican politician made a similar comment was when current Prime Minister Portia Simpson spoke during the televised debate that Dervan himself moderated on December 20, 2011. That is, almost forty-five years to the day after Prime Minister Trudeau made his remarks. What a very long time that is.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaking in 1983. (Photo: Reuters)
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaking in 1983. (Photo: Reuters)


Dervan believes that the rule of law must take center stage, and “must protect every single citizen.” During a meeting with the police in Vancouver, he recognized the importance of respect in dealing with sexual minorities and other disadvantaged groups. He also stated what seems to me the obvious when dealing with issues of discrimination and caring for minorities: the most important element is people. Yes, Vancouver has more resources than Jamaica; but many of the issues, he suggests, are not about resources but, yes, people – “We are all citizens.” We must do away with labels, with name-calling, with bullying. He learnt more about the latter topic from the Out in Schools program, which started up in 2004 in Vancouver. And it’s a very real issue for Jamaica too. Dervan described several other meetings with individuals who gave him deeper insights. Director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Dr. Julio Montaner, is a remarkable leader, he believes: “Not a talker, a doer.” (I get the feeling that Dervan is sometimes impatient with the many talkers in Jamaica; but after all, he engages them all day long!)

Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS

The Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver is a remarkable institution, by all accounts. As its website notes, “Many of the people who come here have had lives marked by trauma and neglect. They have often been rejected by family, friends and society.”  It is the legacy of Dr. Peter Jepson-Young, a young Vancouver physician who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He established the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation just before his death in 1992. The Foundation began to collaborate and enlist the support of the Vancouver Health Department and several other health-related institutions. It has grown from strength to strength. But when Dr. Peter was too ill to practice any more, he did something remarkable that helped the Canadian people understand more about HIV/AIDS at a time when many did not understand. 111 episodes of the “Dr. Peter Diaries” – short pieces, honest, sometimes humorous, always human – were aired just before the CBC television news each evening. The impact was enormous. Yes, people living with HIV/AIDS are still…people.

Dr. Peter Jepson-Young (1957-1992)
Dr. Peter Jepson-Young (1957-1992)


And what were the lessons learned for Jamaica? Even more importantly, what actions may follow from this enlightening encounter?

Dr. Hamlet Nation sees the need for “greater discussion and dialogue.” He plans to meet with officials in the Ministry of Health’s HIV/STI Program to discuss and possibly partner with them on the issue of marginalized populations vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. He feels that anti-discrimination legislation needs to be looked at much more carefully. Naomi Francis believes that we need to remove our blinkers and speak “boldly, honestly, openly,” as she witnessed in Vancouver – “re-frame the dialogue.” Communication methods need to change. Politicians must play a greater role in delivering anti-discrimination messages, said Collin Virgo, with the media playing their part (in fact, he seemed to think that there should have been a higher ratio of politicians to journalists in the Jamaican group). The optimistic Dervan Malcolm believes that understanding is slowly growing in Jamaica. He would like to develop the contacts he made during his visit, and to use his program to encourage tolerance. He believes there should be much more outreach – Jamaican gays and those living with HIV/AIDS are not “over there.” We must reach them “where they are.”

I confess to being disappointed that more members of the media – especially print media – were not present at the Panos press briefing – although, perhaps, this was not so surprising. Two members of the Jamaican group – the Jamaica Observer’s Ingrid Brown and Carol Francis of Jamaica News Network – were regrettably also absent. However, young broadcast journalist Kathy-Ann Yetman joined the discussion after the presentations. Almost immediately, the issue of “The Church” came up (it is always described this way, like one huge, immovable monolith). It is a brave pastor or church leader who will try to confront the issue of homosexuality head-on, everyone agreed. Kathy-Ann, who produces CVM Television’s excellent “Live at Seven,” noted that the program would be talking to Reverend Peter Garth – a fundamentalist church man with strong views – on the matter. Some churches, it was noted, were more progressive in their thinking. So there is always hope. Perhaps Panos could have invited one or two church leaders on the program, someone suggested.

And the other almost immovable group, the politicians? Investment in older politicians is all but “wasted.” The burden is on the younger politicians to influence, to use different language, to lighten and sharpen the dialogue, to turn a laser-sharp focus on the issues that we are trying to avoid. The Jamaican people who we are trying to pretend don’t exist, or aren’t as important as certain other Jamaican citizens.

Why is this program so important? It’s not an academic exercise. It is an inspiration that will hopefully be a springboard for action. I congratulate all those who participated, and in particular the dedicated people at Panos for giving them this opportunity. I only feel sad for the many individuals and organizations who declined to participate in the Vancouver Exchange, once they learned what the focus was. Perhaps they might like to do a similar tour in Jamaica, instead. That would open their eyes, too.

Dervan Malcolm commented during his presentation, “Leaders must lead.” Or as management guru Peter Drucker said,

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.

Let’s get to it. Let’s make a change for the better. Thank you, Panos.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, I just learned on television that no government representative attended the funeral of Vanessa Wint today. I guess they had better things to do on a lovely, sunny Saturday. Vanessa, a sixteen-year-old in the care of the State, committed suicide in an adult prison (where she should not have been held). But then, Vanessa was just a poor teenager with psychological problems, who was deemed “unruly.” Another of those Jamaicans whose lives are, somehow, less valuable. Politicians. Businessmen/women. Leaders. Followers. Can we all please try to care a little more, this year?

Vanessa Wint, who took her own life in December, was finally laid to rest today. No government representative attended her funeral, according to a TV Jamaica report.
Vanessa Wint, who took her own life in December, was finally laid to rest today. No government representative attended her funeral, according to a TV Jamaica report.

Sharing Wisdom to Improve HIV/AIDS Treatment (in News) (

Love and Peace (

Jamaica paper publish anti-gay hate cartoon for Christmas (

Sex survey finds alarming trend among young people (

A Great “Dig” for Jamaican Bloggers ( (British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS website) (Dr. Julio Montaner) (Positive Living Society of British Columbia: Peer Navigators)’s-legacy (HIV care transformed by Dr. Peter’s legacy) (Vancouver Coastal Health: STOP HIV/AIDS) (British Columbia Centre for Disease Control) (Vancouver Coastal Health: Insite) (British Columbia Civil Liberties Association) (Dr. Peter Centre) (CBC: Dr. Peter Diaries)


7 thoughts on “An Exchange of Wisdom, Even

  1. It starts with the legal framework to provide protection to all in society. From that social attitudes will change. Is the Jamaican Government brave enough to do this?


    1. Ah, Jack. That is the $65 million question!! I am not wildly optimistic on that front. It will take courage but as that young politician said, political leaders are afraid of “resistance from society.” In other words, they continue to lead from behind…


  2. Nice article. But I wish Jamaica was not linked or compared to Vancouver. And making reference to Vancouver and Britiish Columbia should have more of Canada in the article. Afterall, we do enjoy so much freedom as HUMAN BEINGS, not by definition of who or what we are – gay, straight, bi,tran, black, white, native or yellow.
    To say that Vancouver is a ‘gay friendly’ city will give jamaicans the silly idea that we are as barbaric as most ignorant Jamaicans are on issues affecting LGBT people. Vancouver is quite open to be yourself and has all variety of people. I wish more was talked about the INSITE facility in Vancouver.
    Whenever I visit our nation’s capital in Ottawa, I always MUST make a visit to the supreme court. It’s this great institution that gave us all the right to marry who we choose and to ensure that discrimination will end – it still exists but to a lesser extent. Where is the court’s involvement in Human rights in Jamaica ? and THE CHURCH ?! Dear god! Typical jamaica always bringing up the church like we are so godly in Ja : crime, murders, rape, lynch killings….
    Thanks for the post as always, Emma.


    1. The idea of the exchange with Vancouver was because it was a city which has had its challenges but has, as you say, made a conscious effort to treat everyone as HUMAN beings. I think I emphasized that in my article. It is just that, as you have noted, Jamaican society has ostracized certain groups. Some Jamaicans’ lives and wellbeing is more valuable than others.’ Actually, I think the whole team visited the INSITE facility (but of course, injecting drugs is not an issue in Jamaica) and they were very impressed by it. You are right though, Jamaica’s Supreme Court has not (yet) taken a stand on human rights. There may be one or two cases coming up, though, that will force it to do so. Thanks so much for your comments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.