Q&A: Elizabeth May on hunger strikes and Theresa Spence

‘I told her to be careful for her health,’ May says of Spence

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.*

And you stopped when Allan Rock put out a statement committing to certain actions, right?

Exactly. Which was negotiated back and forth for me through the quite magnificent and I really miss him terribly, Charles Caccia. Charles Caccia, who was at that time the chair of the environment committee, a former minister of the environment from the Trudeau era, he served for 30-some years when he finally retired from Parliament, he was a very strong Chretien loyalist and a dear friend of mine for many years just because he was a committed environmentalist. He was furious with me for going on a hunger strike because he thought I was going to hurt my strength and I should’ve warned them and what was I doing just going on a hunger strike? Well, we’re not getting any action, so I’m on a hunger strike. So Charles took it upon himself to negotiate back and forth between Allan Rock and me to try to come up with language and to try to convince Allan Rock. I don’t know what he managed to do at his end to get Allan Rock to commit to the statement he committed to, but on the 17th day of my hunger strike, Allan Rock delivered a commitment that was what I’d been asking for.

During the hunger strike, were you drinking water? What was the sum total of your intake?

I drank water and then on the third day of my hunger strike, I had doctors looking after me and the doctors were [MPs] Carolyn Bennett and Keith Martin. I told Theresa Spence that when I went to see her in the teepee, that we had the same doctor because Carolyn Bennett had come to check on both of us. And Keith Martin was the one who told me, you’ve got to watch out for digesting your own proteins, so you need to replace your electrolytes. So he told me I should be drinking Gatorade. And he also told me that I wasn’t drinking nearly enough water in my first few days, so he said, don’t just take sips of water, that takes too much of your energy. He said, just have a straw and keep constantly drinking water because otherwise you’re going to do long-term damage to your organs. So I really credit Keith Martin, because I didn’t bother to see a doctor before I started the hunger strike. He did me a tremendous amount of good by telling me to protect myself from destroying my organs.

Did you have some idea of how long you could go before you were in serious trouble?

No, no, none at all.

Had you ever been on a hunger strike before?

No. And as I wrote in that blog, people would say to me, what’s your exit strategy? Winning. So friends were getting increasingly panicked about it, about that I was going to really damage my health.

Turning to Theresa Spence, do you think she should end her hunger strike at this point?

I’ll put it this way: I know that when I was on my hunger strike, I reacted very negatively to people telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. But when I met with her, I told her to be careful for her health. Because what I’d observed about myself on a hunger strike is that I felt increasingly empowered. I felt increasingly alert intellectually and spiritually aware in a way that I wasn’t when I was eating food. I began to define myself … I went with the late Dennis Bueckert, way before my hunger strike started, he’d asked me to accompany him to the press gallery dinner, the first one I’d ever gone to, and I went to the press gallery dinner on a hunger strike, and sat there looking at an empty plate all night. Everyone at my table was saying, ‘I feel so guilty eating in front of you,’ but it was like, ‘I’m not hungry.’ And not only that, in my head I was a non-eater and food didn’t interest me.

So I warned Theresa that one of things that happens is you start thinking that you’re invulnerable. That you really can keep going forever. And you can’t. Your health is going to suffer. I’m very concerned that she’s saying she’d do this until death. Obviously that’s a very personal choice. That’s what she’s saying. I think that her friends and her family need to persuade her that she’s done enough. The prime minister acceded to her initial demand, a meeting happened. Now it’s true that the Governor General and the Prime Minister weren’t together in the room with the chiefs … but at this point I think the issues are moving ahead in, I think, a more positive way, with the commitment to more frequent meetings. And I think she should accept that she’s done a lot of good and take care of herself. That’s what I would say to her. But I really feel it’s improper for someone to say what someone on a hunger strike should or shouldn’t do. I did warn her that when you’re on a hunger strike, you do end up feeling that you can go forever. And you want to listen to your friends and your family at the point that they start telling you, we think you ought to wrap it up.

*Fun fact: As with any use of the grounds, official permission is required to stage a hunger on Parliament Hill. The form you have to fill out explains that: “Hunger strikes could be permitted with the permission of the Hill Committee; however, only during Hill operating hours (ie: between 7:00 am and 9:00 pm)”

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