Maclean's 2003 Canadian of the Year: Stephen Lewis

THE STAKES are impossibly high, the cost of failure all too easily measured in the sick, the dead, and the children who are left behind.

Maclean's 2003 Canadian of the Year: Stephen Lewis

THE STAKES are impossibly high, the cost of failure all too easily measured in the sick, the dead, and the children who are left behind. Stephen LEWIS has a job no person in their right mind would envy, tasked with making indifferent governments and their seemingly uncaring citizens pay attention to a tragedy they have ignored for two decades. It is a wonder the United Nations' special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa does not break under the stress. It is miraculous that against such long odds, he seems to be succeeding.

The 66-year-old politician, diplomat and activist is Maclean's inaugural choice for Canadian of the Year because of his vision, perseverance, and above all his passion. Always articulate, he has devoted his energy, optimism and, occasionally, white-hot anger, to prodding the world to action. And after the hopeful developments of 2003 - George W. Bush's pledge to spend US$15 billion over five years to fight AIDS, Canada's promise to change patent laws and make drugs available to those suffering overseas, a World Health Organization plan to put three million people into treatment - the battle's tide might finally be turning in his favour. "When people are dying by the thousands every day, unnecessarily, when we've had this horrendous pandemic unfold for two decades while the world stands by and watches - you'll do anything in your power to move the process," says Lewis. "I don't care what it takes. All I know is that every time I go to Africa, I am shaken to my core."

The evidence of Lewis's lifelong love affair with Africa is scattered throughout his Toronto home - photos on end tables, a line of carvings on the mantel, paintings on the walls. When his friend Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, asked him to take the job - technically a part-time position - in 2001, he didn't hesitate. But Lewis was unprepared for the horrifying on-the-ground reality of a disease that could kill as many as 200 million people by the middle of the century. His voice quavers and his eyes mist when he recalls the already dead and soon-to-die who haunt his days. On the latest trip - Lewis travels to Africa at least once a month - it was a grandmother he met near Johannesburg. She has lost all five of her adult children to AIDS, and now cares for her four grandchildren, all of them infected with HIV. "That's Africa. That's the reality of AIDS," he says.

At the beginning of 2003, frustrated and disheartened by Western nations' willingness to ignore the crisis and commit "mass murder by complacency" while they devoted billions to ousting Saddam Hussein, Lewis agonized over whether he could continue. But he decided to turn his despair and anger to advantage, and push all the harder. "I'm still at the end of my rope because I find myself not handling things well when I travel. I get too distraught, too quickly," says Lewis. "But what is my emotional disarray compared to the hell that is happening? I'm in a great rage now, as I understand how many lives we have lost. But I don't want to leave until I see the breakthrough."

In the past few months, he has helped harness the power of celebrity to raise awareness of the cause, meeting with U2's Bono, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. In December, Lewis brought Oprah Winfrey to Zambia to see some of the growing number of AIDS orphans - 11 to 14 million under the age of 15 in sub-Saharan Africa - and witness the devastation first-hand.

At home, he has started the Stephen Lewis Foundation (www.stephenlewis foundation.org), devoted to providing small-scale funding to communities dealing with the ravages of AIDS. In nine months, it has raised close to $900,000, mostly from individual donations. In Namibia, the money will pay for funerals and coffins; in Kenya, for home care for the dying; in Zambia for a prevention program. Lewis says he has been humbled and revitalized by the outpouring of support. "If our governments were one-tenth as generous as average Canadians, the problem would be solved," he says. "Truthfully, when I see what we can accomplish with money on the ground, it's the only time in my life I have wished I was Bill Gates."

Maclean's December 29, 2003