History Shows Hunger Strikes Weak

By Levine, Allan | Winnipeg Free Press, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

History Shows Hunger Strikes Weak


Levine, Allan, Winnipeg Free Press


Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence might well be the "inspiration to all Canadians," as former prime minister Paul Martin has described her. The hunger strike she started on Dec. 11 -- she has subsisted on a diet of water, tea and fish broth -- to protest the Harper government's treatment of aboriginal peoples' rights has received a great deal of media coverage. It even got her a meeting with the prime minister, which she now says she will not attend because Gov.-Gen. David Johnston will not be there as well. Either way, don't expect much more to come from this public protest.

Hunger strikes have always been a desperate and dangerous non-violent method of political action. They draw a lot of attention; yet, in almost every case, they produce few immediate tangible results.

British journalist David Beresford, who chronicled the hunger strike of Irish Republican Army prisoners in the early '80s, traces the tactic back to medieval Ireland, where a hunger strike was more personal. An individual who had been the victim of a perceived injustice literally fasted at the doorstep of the person who had wronged him.

If the hunger striker died without having his complaint properly dealt with, the defendant was deemed to be liable and was compelled to pay compensation to the victim's family.

"It is probably that such fasting had particular moral force at the time," writes Beresford, "because of the honour attached to hospitality and the dishonour of having a person starving outside one's house."

The poet W.B. Yeats wrote about this "old and foolish custom" in his 1904 play The King's Threshold. There is also evidence a similar practice was common thousands of years ago in India and was only outlawed in 1861.

Since then, hunger strikes have been employed as the last resort of the powerless against the powerful.

In the decade before the First World War, militant British suffragettes, whose demand for the vote was largely dismissed by the government, resorted to violence and were subsequently arrested. The women insisted they be treated as political prisoners. The government adamantly refused.

In turn, the women went on hunger strikes and the government, in its wisdom, responded with forcible feeding.

Few official policies in dealing with the women backfired more. No matter how safe the prison physicians declared the practice to be, the testimonies of the women who experienced this horrific treatment made the comparison to medieval torture believable.

The Times published this personal account by Laura Ainsworth on Oct. 7, 1909, two days after she had been released from prison.

"I was raised into a sitting position, and the tube about two foot long was produced. My mouth was pried open with what felt like a steel instrument, and then I felt them feeling for the proper passage. All this time, I was held down by four or five wardresses. I felt a choking sensation, and what I judged to be a cork gag was placed between my teeth to keep my mouth open. It was a horrible feeling altogether. I experienced great sickness, especially when the tube was withdrawn."

Numerous other women also decried the agony of the feedings, and more than 100 doctors signed a petition to end the practice. Eventually the government halted the forcible feedings and passed the Prisoners' Temporary Discharge Act, more popularly known as the "Cat and Mouse Act. …

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