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By Sid Ryan
Sara Anderson, a 45-year-old native woman living in Sudbury, has just ended a 15-day hunger strike to protest the McGuinty government’s betrayal of people on welfare and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
Anderson, a single mother with a 15-year-old daughter, entered her hunger strike 18 days ago. Her goal was to embarrass the McGuinty government into living up to its pre-election promises to increase rates for Ontario’s most vulnerable people.
Earlier this week, the government moved to approve Anderson’s disability pension and temporarily increase her food supplement by a miserly $55 a month. An elder in her community convinced her to give up her hunger strike.
In the early 1980s, Anderson was a truant officer on the Grassy Narrows First Nations near Kenora when she was shot in the hip. Today, she suffers tremendous arthritic pains and has a hole in her hip from the gunshot wound.
Yet, Sara Anderson was forced to live on $300 a month after she paid her rent. She told me that the cost of bus fares alone for herself and daughter Sheryl, who attends high school, amounted to $131 a month. The remaining 169 bucks was spent on food and essential necessities such as hygiene products.
With a life that was more about survival than living, she decided to take on the system that made her a prisoner of welfare.
In Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario, an aboriginal woman shot in the line of duty ends up on a hunger strike fighting for her family, fighting to put food on her table and to receive a disability pension to which she was entitled. If this was a police officer, shot in the line of duty and denied a disability pension, there would be a massive public outcry.
For Sara, her recourse was an ages-old form of political protest used by ordinary people to challenge the powers that be. A visit to the DeDanaan web site shows that the hunger strike has its origins in ancient Celtic history. The Celts called it Troscad, roughly translated from Gaelic as achieving justice by starvation. The fasting was normally carried out on the doorstep of the offending individual or institution.
The right to fast as a means of compelling the accused to pay up was entrenched in ancient Brehon Law. If a person on hunger strike died, it brought great disgrace upon the accused and ended up costing the accused twice the original amount of the grievance.
William Butler Yeats summed it up when he wrote in his play The Kings Threshold about a poet on hunger strike against the king for leaving him out of his inner council. For every passing day that the life drains out of the poet’s body, so drains the credibility of the King.
Perish him to eat or drink?
While he is lying there, Perishing there, my good name in the world
Is perishing also. I cannot give way.
Because I am King; because if I give way,
My nobles would call me a weakling, and, it may be,
The very throne be shaken.
Using the hunger strike to draw attention to injustice has continued through the ages throughout the world. The emancipation of women would not have been won were it not for the Suffragettes in Britain who began using the tactic in 1909.
Mahatma Ghandi twice used the hunger strike weapon. The first time, he protested British rule of India and the second, the autocratic rule of the newly independent India.
Sara Anderson followed a well-worn path while she fasted to fight for her dignity and her family, shining the spotlight on a disgraceful state of affairs in Canada’s richest province. She was prepared to give her life in order to pass on a better one to her teenaged daughter.
In the end, the heartless Liberals were shamed into approving a disability pension and restoring the monthly food supplement for Sara Anderson. However, Ontario has 600,000 people on welfare, many living in the same conditions as Sara and her daughter.
Meanwhile, McGuinty is beginning to look more and more like Yeats’ king, afraid to act for fear of looking weak. If only he had one-tenth the courage of Sara Anderson.