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Stephen Lewis is on a global mission for AIDS relief

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Stephen Lewis, politician, diplomat and humanitarian, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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Stephen Lewis likes a good fight - and he's never been afraid to speak his mind. In late October, Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations is in London, lobbying the British government to pony up for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

In the wake of a storied political and diplomatic career, Mr. Lewis has remained a tireless champion of humanitarian causes. In 2003, he launched the Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation, whose self-described mission is to support community organizations working to turn the tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Mr. Lewis also co-directs AIDS-Free World, a New York-based advocacy organization.

"The combination of the two gives me the singular opportunity of concretely helping on the ground with food, clothing, shelter, school fees," he says, "but also doing a lot of the advocacy on the contentious issues, from the Global Fund to sexual violence."

Mr. Lewis - who criticizes the Harper administration for freezing foreign aid increases until 2014 - has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of AIDS victims worldwide. Although five million people are in treatment for AIDS, Mr. Lewis says, as many as 10 million more need help.

"Right at the moment, when we could turn the tide, we are running into very, very critical funding problems which may turn out to be catastrophic for lives, particularly in Africa."

The 2003 Order of Canada recipient would be the first to admit that he comes at things from the left of the ideological spectrum. Politics and activism run in his family. The son of David Lewis, former national secretary of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and national leader of the New Democratic Party, Mr. Lewis says he was happily brainwashed from an early age.

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"I was licking envelopes for the CCF before I was speaking," adds the 72-year-old, who chaired the first international conference on climate change in 1988. "I got drawn into the world of causes and of social justice, and I must say I loved it."

After dropping out of law school in the 1960s, Mr. Lewis lived and worked in Africa. He served as Ontario NDP leader from 1970 to 1978, becoming head of the province's Official Opposition. In 1984, former prime minister Brian Mulroney named Mr. Lewis UN ambassador, a post he held for four years.

His international activism throughout the 1990s led to his appointment as UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006. During those years, Mr. Lewis made it his job to do what he could to comfort the dying.

He praises mining companies Anglo American in South Africa and Botswana's Debswana Diamond Co. for providing treatment to sick workers and helping their families. "These are very enlightened interventions, and they're emerging more and more in the business world in the heart of the pandemic."

Mr. Lewis wants corporate Canada to pressure Ottawa to confront the growing HIV/AIDS crisis in aboriginal communities. Globally, he says, Canadian mining firms in particular must take communicable diseases far more seriously.

Between disease, poverty, war and climate change, Mr. Lewis concedes that the world is in terrible difficulty - and that progress is at best incremental. "The phenomenon of globalization may have improved the lot of millions of people in China and, to a lesser extent, India," he says. "But the improvement in the human condition in the more impoverished countries of the world - particularly those in Africa - that's still in a downturn."

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As he tackles these problems, Mr. Lewis draws inspiration from many other people. His daughter Ilana Landsberg-Lewis is executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which has funded some 300 projects in 15 countries. On the AIDS front, he says he finds strength in the courage and resilience of women afflicted by the illness. "You feel positively delinquent if you can be self-indulgent when all around you, people are moving heaven and earth to survive."

This month, Mr. Lewis is back in Africa - which is reeling from the slowdown in international funding to combat HIV/AIDS. "There's tremendous panic developing on the ground over the cutbacks and over the consequences for those who need treatment," he says. "It keeps you going. There's always another battle to fight."

Stephen Lewis on what makes a strong leader

Obviously, you want to be able to take people with you and to encourage them and to work with them and to support them, and all of those things are facets of leadership. But I've often thought that the most important quality is to have a set of convictions from which you do not deviate, and you pursue them tenaciously and determinedly. And that's a decent sense of leadership. And there's not a great deal of that in this world at the moment, where political leadership vacillates from one set of convictions to another. Convictions are abandoned too easily.

On his early political struggles, and losing his first election as Ontario NDP leader

In the very late '60s and very early '70s, there was a period of tremendous tension and turmoil within the party. And I must admit that I came close to resigning. It came to a head shortly after my leadership was in place. And dealing with democratic socialism when it's fighting internally is always the bane of a socialist party. It happens almost on a cyclical basis. And I must say that it, for a period of time, got me down. And I did think, briefly at any rate, that maybe my political life should end. But my family and my closest friends and colleagues talked to me about it and said that was foolhardy and precipitous.

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