By Aaron Wherry - Monday, January 14, 2013 - 0 Comments
Green MP Elizabeth May participated in a 17-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill in 2001. We chatted this afternoon about that experience and Theresa Spence’s current situation.
You went on a hunger strike about the Sydney Tar Ponds. Why did you decide a hunger strike was the right response?
Well, we tried just about everything. I was actually at a union hall in Sydney, meeting with community members, and there was one guy, quite young, under 40, a father with about four kids. I’d been working with the community a lot about the toxic waste, the contamination and he’d had to quit working in the steel mill because he got liver cancer. And we were waiting for another set of health reports to come out. I was at the Sierra Club at the time and I did a lot of grassroots organizing across the country and I’d written a book on the Sydney Tar Ponds and done a film documentary … I won’t list everything we’d done, but we’d done an awful lot to try to get attention on the health effects in the community and for the families. And this guy looked at me and said, ‘Elizabeth, nobody’s going to care what we do here.’ Because we were thinking, should we do a march, should we do a demonstration, what should we do? And he said, ‘Nobody’s going to care what we do here because nobody cares about us here.’ And I was sort of devastated by that and realized that, I go back and forth to Ottawa and I work in Ottawa and I know most of the MPs and most of the cabinet and it just hit me, if I went on a hunger strike and sat in front of Parliament Hill till they did something, they’d pay attention. It was very personal.
So I went on a leave of absence from Sierra Club, because I obviously wasn’t working properly when I was on a hunger strike. And I sat in front of Parliament, right next to that low wall immediately opposite the members’ door. My daughter was in grade five and I talked to her about it before I started and she said, ‘Well, the one thing is, mommy, I don’t want you sleeping out there. It’d be nice if you were home at night.’ So I’d make the trek every morning and I was kind of putting in an 8:30 in the morning till 5:30 at night shift in front of Parliament. And then there came a day when I wasn’t feeling up to making her school lunch and one of the young women who was living with us at the time took over school lunch duties, and then took over laundry for me, and then took over grocery shopping, because you do get weaker and weaker and weaker.
But the reason why I did it was, and I think this is why anyone does a hunger strike, is a feeling of desperation. It’s not the first thing you choose to do to get attention to an issue. And Mahatma Gandhi had a bunch of really good, clear pieces of advice about when a hunger strike works strategically. And one of the key pieces of Mahatma Gandhi’s advice was, you can’t hunger strike effectively if the person or the institution whose opinion you’re trying to change doesn’t have a moral compass, doesn’t have a foundation of conscience in which it’s possible to prick the conscience. So a hunger strike to get Hitler’s attention was never going to work, right? But a hunger strike in a Canadian context, and they’re not done very commonly, is, I think, a legitimate part of one’s response. In my case, I even got a permit. So I was actually doing a legally permitted activity, hunger striking in front of Parliament Hill.* Continue…