Tammy Yates: How I became one of Canada’s top HIV advocates

Ever since I was an embryo in my mother’s womb, I knew that I wanted to work with the United Nations (UN) for three simple reasons.

Firstly, I wanted to leave the world in a better way than I found it—cheesy, but still very true. Secondly, I wanted to travel extensively. And, thirdly, I just have an intense passion for French and Spanish and I thought that working in the UN would get me an opportunity to do all three. And, thankfully, I did fulfil that dream!

Photo: Tammy C Yates (right) pays a courtesy call to Tobago House of Assembly (THA) chairman Orville London on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). (Courtesy UNFPA)
Photo: Tammy C Yates (right) pays a courtesy call to Tobago House of Assembly (THA) chairman Orville London on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
(Courtesy UNFPA)

The people who are closest to me in the world have heard that story before and now, I’ve shared it with all of you.

The logical question that follows that statement is: “Then why did you leave the UN to work with a national Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Canada?”

Between 2008 – 2012, I worked with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Branch Office in Port-of-Spain and rose to the most senior position in the office.

Was it what I expected?

Let us just say that it is a slow process to see results from your work with the UN. As I like to remind people, UN staff are international public servants as their bosses are governments around the world.

Consider the bureaucracy that plagues a national government, multiply that by all the governments that are UN member states and you could just imagine what can happen there!

At the end of the day, however, I loved every second of every day that I worked with the UN; because I believed then, as I do now, in what the UN stands for.

And everyone thought that I had a screw loose when I decided to quit the UN to migrate to Canada, with no job lined up, in a leap of faith to see what opportunities the international scene might present.

Thankfully, the gamble paid off. On Monday 16 February 2015—yes, Carnival Monday back in Trinidad—my workplace, the Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation (CWGHR) quietly made history when I was appointed as the Executive Director.

Photo: CWGHR executive director Tammy C Yates.
Photo: CWGHR executive director Tammy C Yates.

It was the first time a black woman was selected to head one of Canada’s ten National Partner Organisations in that country’s HIV response.

From as long as I can remember, I was just always engaged in social justice issues. I guess one would have called me an old soul in a young body at the time.

After schooling at Diego Martin Secondary, St Francois Girls’ College and UWI, I worked the night shift as an international operator with TSTT before I won a full scholarship from the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust/Chevening Scholarship Fund.

During my study leave, TSTT started offering voluntary separation packages and, as I knew that I would not fulfil my UN dream if I stayed at TSTT, I took a package.

From there, I worked at the Caribbean Regional Network+ (CRN+) and UNFPA, which brought all of the social justice issues close to my heart under one professional umbrella.

I think it was quite natural for me to try to get back into the same field when I migrated. So it was a strategic professional decision to remain in the HIV sector here in Canada.

The CWGHR was founded in 1998 and is a national charitable organisation working to improve the quality of life of people living with HIV and related conditions through rehabilitation research, education, and cross-sector partnerships.

At CWGHR, we define rehabilitation as any services or activities that address or prevent body impairments, activity limitations and social participation restrictions for an individual. Thankfully, HIV is no longer a death sentence for people who have access to anti-retroviral therapy (ART).

Photo: A HIV awareness poster. (Courtesy BCHDMI.org)
Photo: A HIV awareness poster.
(Courtesy BCHDMI.org)

However, as a complex chronic condition, HIV is what we refer to as an ‘episodic illness’ which may lead to unpredictable periods of illness and wellness. CWGHR, is a pioneer in Canada and the world on the policy issues related to HIV as an ‘episodic disability.’

When I did research for my job interview at CWGHR in December 2012 and read about the link between HIV and disability, it was initially startling to me.

On the one hand, I could hear the voices of my close friends living with HIV throughout the Caribbean—many of whom were advocates at CRN+ and UNFPA and my mentors—raising with indignation at the thought of linking HIV and disability.

But, on the other hand, I clearly saw how the experiences, policy and program issues of the disability movement, were mirrored in those of the HIV movement. Even the language of inclusion and diversity being used was the same!

While there is a national program that provides ART to people living with HIV in Trinidad and Tobago, I would like to issue a call to action for my friends in the HIV movement at home to ask government, employers, unions, healthcare professionals, and other stakeholders: How is T&T maximizing the potential of people living with HIV, now that it is an episodic illness?

What polices, programs and services are in place for people living with HIV to maintain and/or return to meaningful active living if there is an episode of illness?

Many people ask me if I would like to move back to T&T one day. My short answer is “yes.” I have a few other dreams to fulfil first but, once I do, I’ll happily park my picnic mat under the shade of a blooming poui tree by the Queen’s Park Savannah.

Photo: Sitting under the poui trees at the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain. (Courtesy Citizensforconservation.org)
Photo: Sitting under the poui trees at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain.
(Courtesy Citizensforconservation.org)

For me, the Queen’s Park Savannah, with the blossoms of the poui trees forming a natural carpet, is the most beautiful site in the world!

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  1. Excellent and well done Ms Yates. Extremely proud of you.

  2. Well done Tammy, I’m so proud of you.

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