International AIDS quilt warms the North

William G. Dawson was the first aboriginal man from the Yukon to die from an AIDS-related illness, and he’s left a creative legacy to be…

William G. Dawson was the first aboriginal man from the Yukon to die from an AIDS-related illness, and he’s left a creative legacy to be treasured for generations to come.

One of the Kwanlin Dun citizen’s final wishes was that he be commemorated through a panel of the International AIDS Memorial Quilt.

So after he passed away in 1993, Dawson’s sisters set to work cutting and sewing a panel dedicated to the memory of their young brother.

This is the first time the panel has been back in the Yukon since it was stitched 10 years ago.

The Dawson memorial and 10 blocks of the quilt made the journey north to Whitehorse to hang at the Yukon Arts Centre.

It’s the first time in history the quilt has been displayed north of 60.

“The quilt began as a grassroots project as a way of remembering people who have lost their lives to AIDS,” said Patricia Bacon, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, which partnered with the Yukon Arts Centre to bring the quilt to Whitehorse.

The quilt project began in 1987, and is now the largest ongoing art project in the world.

As Bacon speaks, the Queen tune Crazy Little Thing Called Love blares from a stereo behind her.

It’s a tribute to another panel that’s also made the journey to Whitehorse — one dedicated to legendary rock band’s frontman Freddie Mercury.

It’s inscribed with a line from the band’s famous tune Bohemian Rhapsody: “Any way the wind blows.”

The AIDS quilt is no regular blanket — its dimensions are staggering.

The entire quilt has approximately 5,700 blocks, each of 3.6 square metres.

That makes the entire quilt an impressive 114,300 square metres, enough to cover 272 basketball courts.

Each block contains approximately eight panels commemorating different individuals.

HIV, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the virus that causes AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a disease that destroys the immune system.

HIV is spread through unprotected sex, sharing needles or equipment for injecting drugs, using unsterilized needles for tattooing or piercing, through occupational exposure in health care settings and from infected mothers to their newborns, according to Health Canada.

There are treatments to hinder the progress of AIDS, like antiretroviral drugs that suppress HIV reproduction, but there is no known cure or vaccine.

Fifty-seven thousand Canadians are currently living with HIV; approximately 17,000 of them do not know they are infected.

Forty-five Yukoners have tested positive for HIV between 1985 and 2005.

However that number is a bit misleading, said Bacon.

The Yukon has a transient community. As well some people are reluctant to get tested because of privacy issues in the territory’s tight-knit communities.

Nationwide there has been a 20-per-cent increase in the number of positive HIV reports in the past five years.

“Rates are on the rise, particularly in First Nations and aboriginal communities,” said Bacon.

“So there is cause to be concerned.

“We’re not doing enough and rates are continuing to climb.”

Aboriginals represent three per cent of the national population, but six per cent of HIV infections, said Bacon.

Blood Ties will host a series of events next week leading up to World AIDS Day on December 1.

Four new panels crafted by Yukoners who have lost loved ones to the disease will hang with the quilt.

They will be presented in a ceremony at the arts centre on December 1 at 3:30 p.m., before they are stitched in to the quilt.

The quilt will hang in the arts centre foyer until December 4.

It can be viewed free of charge from 12 to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and 12 to 5 p.m. on weekends.