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ABOVE: Patrick Keeler, Cercle Orange’s founder and previous coordinator

The Cercle Orange Story

Health care is not truly universal until everybody has access… 

Le Cercle Orange supports people living with HIV in Montreal who do not have access to health care. The project helps connect participants to medical, legal and community resources, including access to free medication and immigration support. It is often impossible for people in these groups to enter the healthcare system or pay for essential services. Resources for this population have existed in Montreal, but they have been limited, disconnected and difficult to navigate. We had the chance to interview Patrick Keeler, Cercle Orange’s founder and previous coordinator.

Why is Cercle Orange an important project in the HIV landscape?
I began working in the Montreal HIV community in 2010. Since then I have worked in a variety of roles, providing one-on-one support, conceptualizing and coordinating workshops, training sessions and programs to improve support and break isolation. After witnessing the urgent needs of people living with HIV in Montreal who did not have access to health care, I launched Le Cercle Orange as a quick and bold city-wide response, with the vision that no one living with HIV in Montreal should be left behind. By collaborating with financial partners, we have increased the capacity of Cercle Orange to support anyone living with HIV in Montreal without access to health care, by establishing partnerships with hundreds of professionals, community leaders and peer navigators, private clinics, hospitals, legal resources and community organizations whose contributions are essential to the project’s success.

What inspired you to start this project?
I’ve always been drawn to the community, and I’ve really enjoyed all the different roles I took on over the years. One of my more recent roles in the HIV world was providing information around HIV treatment with a local HIV organization. In that role, people living with HIV who didn’t have access to health care would approach us more and more often in need of support – international students, undocumented migrants, temporary workers – folks from a wide variety of backgrounds. They’d often come to us because they had no way of accessing medication or finding a doctor, yet no programs seemed to exist to help.

I knew that resources were out there. Many healthcare professionals have always been willing to see patients free of charge, programs through pharmaceutical companies exist that provide access to cost-free medication, and our city has so many fantastic community organizations. So the problem wasn’t a lack of resources, but that all of these resources were completely disconnected from each other and from the population, which made accessing them nearly impossible. A person without a wide array of contacts or extensive knowledge of this complex landscape would have no way of ever possibly knowing how to navigate existing resources. There was no system in place to harmonize these existing resources and make them accessible to the community. And that’s when the solution appeared. Around fall of 2019 is when I started speaking with ViiV Healthcare Canada and we created a Joint Partnership that became Cercle Orange.

What do you want people to know about health care and HIV?
Health care is not truly universal until everybody has access. This includes undocumented folks. This includes temporary workers and international students. It’s really disappointing that people living with HIV who don’t have access to health care are treated like second-class citizens in Canada. Cercle Orange has become a testament to the importance of the issue of health care for undocumented people. It has never been difficult for me to convince someone to jump on board and become a partner, to provide their services as part of our network of care. Everybody understands the need, and all of our sponsors and collaborators have been so generous with their time supporting the goals of the project. I think this shows that the government has a role to play, to ensure that we are truly supporting and treating everyone living with HIV, regardless of status.

This project was not only compatible but was also harmoniously integrated in our partner’s long-term goals. During my time coordinating this project, I learned about ViiV’s approach to the development of HIV treatments, which centres around people living with HIV, partnering with AIDS Services Organizations, and founding initiatives to serve every community affected by HIV. This approach paid off for us and many other community organizations. ViiV is the only global pharmaceutical company, solely focused on combating, preventing, and ultimately curing HIV/AIDS. By pledging to its vision to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, ViiV has certainly left a footprint in the fight against HIV in the community.

ABOVE: Patrick Keeler with Félix (a coordinator with Le Cercle Orange) and Patience (the directeur général adjoint at the COCQ-SIDA)

Where do you see the Cercle Orange project going in the future?
I believe this project should expand. First, I think it could become a Quebec-wide program, and needs of this population are certainly not restricted to Montreal – and neither is our capacity to expand the model outside of the city. Second, to my knowledge, a project like this doesn’t exist anywhere else in Canada so I would love to witness the implementation of a project like this in other provinces.

Another aspect of the project that is extremely rewarding is seeing our participants enter the healthcare system so they no longer require the project’s support. For instance, we were contacted by an individual without legal status about a year ago, and connected them right away with a doctor, medication, and immigration support. And very recently they became a permanent resident, obtained a health card, and are now helping us drive the project forward. Now that the project is two-and-a-half years old, we have begun to see these success stories like this, which is just amazing.

What is next for Montreal’s HIV community initiatives?
I would encourage everyone to get involved in their local HIV-positive initiatives. I am very excited that Montreal is one of the epicentres of medical and HIV research and houses multiple organizations dedicated to addressing the challenges of the HIV epidemic. The world’s largest conference on HIV and AIDS will be hosted in person in Montreal, as well as virtually, to make it accessible to as many people as possible. AIDS 2022 will take place this summer from July 29 to August 2, with pre-conference meetings beginning on July 27. We should all join the world of science to discuss HIV treatment innovations and contribute to ending this epidemic.

The conference will emphasize and reiterate the HIV epidemic as a threat to public health and individual well-being. Considering this topic is particularly dear to Cercle Orange, since the project is on the front lines of the battle to secure public health funding towards undocumented persons living with HIV, it is gratifying to see that support of our cause rightly occupies the centre stage at this conference.

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