Mitchel Raphael on tips from politicians for hunger strikes

Elizabeth May recalls going 17 days without food


On Dec 11, Theresa Spence began her hunger strike with only water, medicinal tea and fish broth as sustenance. Many opposition MPs spent time with the Attawapiskat chief to offer support. Some have had first-hand experience with hunger strikes and fasts.

In 2001, Green leader Elizabeth May, then executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, went on a 17-day hunger strike. She was demanding the Liberal government relocate families living near the Sydney Tar Ponds toxic waste site in Cape Breton. Once health minister Allan Rock agreed to meet her demands, she ate a strawberry. Her choice of what to eat first came from a friend who said it was a First Nations tradition.

For her hunger strike May drank only water and Gatorade. The sport drink was on the recommendation of former MP Keith Martin, who is also a medical doctor. Martin said Gatorade would replace May’s electrolytes, something she needed to do if she did not want to permanently damage her organs. “After a couple of days, you don’t feel hungry,” says May. “You feel an extraordinary level of intellectual clarity. I never had clearer thoughts. The endorphins kick in so you can survive until the food comes.” In December, Liberal MP and Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett, who is also a medical doctor, had intended to go to New Zealand to study how that country has integrated the culture of its indigenous Maori people. But once Chief Spence began her hunger strike, Bennett chose to stay home and has met with Spence several times. The MP says the recommended way to go off a hunger strike is to eat rice, bananas, apple sauce, Gatorade and Jell-O, noting the body needs glucose and carbs.

May’s hunger strike was in the month of May, so the weather was fairly good and she was allowed to stay right outside the members’ door of Centre Block. This wouldn’t be possible in the post-9/11 era, she notes. Former NDP leader Alexa McDonough stored a chair and placards for May in her office. May would sit from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, then return home. Her daughter would mark off each day on a board with a magic marker. On the 17th day, May’s daughter told her she had to end her strike because the marker had run out. Coincidentally, later that day, Rock met her demands. May had lost 25 pounds.

She says it took her five days to resume normal eating. After the hunger strike, she says diets that had worked for her before were no longer effective because her body was always on guard for famine. Around a decade later, May, who had protested in front of the members’ door, walked through it as an MP. “It felt really damn cool.”

Before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, NDP deputy leader Libby Davies went on a one-week fast to raise awareness for homelessness and hunger in Canada, particularly in her riding of Vancouver East. She sustained herself on tea, juices and V8. “I felt pretty good, actually. It took this pressure off. It really helped me focus.” Each day she stood at the busy corner of Main and Hastings with a flip chart, on which people could write comments about the homeless. Some are “unprintable,” she says. The fast, after it was over, also led Davies to start eating healthier, something she says she’s been able to maintain.

One of the longer hunger strikes by a Canadian politician was in 1986, when Liberal senator Jacques Hébert planted himself in the Senate lobby and refused to eat for 21 days. He opposed a move by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government to kill the Katimavik youth program, which Hébert had founded in 1977. With the help of Jean Chrétien, a non-profit foundation was founded to save the program. Hébert ended his hunger strike with a glass of grape juice. Katimavik’s funding was restored by the Chrétien government, until Stephen Harper’s Conservatives cancelled it last year.

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