OTTAWA and VIENNA - When critics jumped on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to stay away from a major international AIDS conference that draws heads of state, his office pointed out that Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq attended as the representative of the Canadian government.
But Ms. Aglukkaq's performance did little to impress some of the doctors and scientists at the gathering.
Julio Montaner, the outgoing president of the International AIDS Society who is also a Canadian, saved his parting shot for the government of Canada, issuing a sharp rebuke.
"I must recognize Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the chair of this year's G8 and G20 meetings and his health minister, Leona Aglukkaq, for demonstrating, once again, their incredible ability to take credit where none is due," Dr. Montaner told the conference Friday.
"I am ashamed to say that the Government of Canada has punched well below its weight in funding universal access and supporting those affected by HIV and AIDS in Canada and around the world."
Ms. Aglukkaq announced Tuesday the government will invest $60-million in an AIDS research and prevention program - with half going to AIDS research and the other half to the maternal-health initiative Mr. Harper introduced at last month's G8 and G20 summits.
The promise of funding came a little more than six months after the government scrapped a plan to build an $88-million vaccine plant with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, part of a $111-million commitment toward the search for an AIDS vaccine that was announced three years ago. The Gates Foundation will contribute up to $28-million of the new initiative.
Critics who were in Vienna said the Gates Foundation was surprised to find that a large chunk of the new funding would go to the maternal-health initiative. But a representative of the foundation told The Globe it is very happy with its relationship with the Canadian government.
Still, Dr. Montaner, has described the Canadian government's response to the global AIDS pandemic as "insufficient and disappointing."
And Ms. Aglukkaq was the target of additional criticism after she told Canadian delegates she would not sign the Vienna Declaration - a scientific statement that argues the criminalization of drug use is fuelling the HIV/AIDS epidemic - because it clashes with Canada's National Anti-Drug Strategy, which is designed to prevent people from using illicit drugs in the first place.
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