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Case #355

Environmental Activist Uses Hunger Strike to Win Legal Victory


Elizabeth May sat on the steps of Ottawa's Parliament Hill every day for two weeks, ingesting only water and Gatorade. She lost 15 pounds and was too weak to get around without a wheelchair. Still she talked ceaselessly to government officials about the children whose pictures she had brought with her, many of whom were born with birth defects and whose lives revolve around allergies, migraines, and medications because of the poisons in their backyards.

When the government of Nova Scotia shut down the Sydney Steel factory in 2000, after operating the plant for over 30 years, it left behind one of North America's largest hazardous waste dumps. Much of the effluent accumulated in the "tar ponds," a tidal estuary that now holds 770,000 tons of toxic sludge. (New York's infamous Love Canal contained 21,000 tons.)

May worked for 15 years to relocate the factory's neighbors in the small city of Sydney and clean up the area. In 1999, the government finally acted, moving a few residents from highly contaminated Frederick Street, but paying the 14 families below market rate for their homes and refusing to acknowledge any health risk.

In what she calls a "snap decision," May began a hunger strike on May 2 to call attention to the plight of Sydney residents. The benzene, tar, cyanide, and other by-products of the steel making process that have seeped into the soil and groundwater can cause various cancers, heart and kidney disease, and brain damage. Some citizens live with respiratory problems, hair loss, burning eyes, and high levels of premature births. The city's 25,000 residents are primarily working class people, raising questions of discrimination that have not often been aired in Canada.

On May 18; Federal Health Minister Allan Rock okayed a $7 million assessment program that would lead to permanent relocation for neighborhoods that have a health risk. Declaring victory, May called off her strike.


One woman?s 15 years of activist work to fight against steel factory pollution came to a peak with a public hunger strike. Good media coverage and, likely, her established reputation as an activist helped to get the Canadian government to look seriously at the problems caused by the steel factories. A dedicated person or groups of people could use the same tactic in other situations. It would be important to have support in place, a clear goal, and good media coverage.
Location: Nova Scotia
Action: Direct
Setting: Developed World
Extent of Action: Local
Issues: Environment, Human Rights
Year(s): 2001
Outcome successful
Source: Sierra, September/October, 2001, p.81


Prepared By: sl 1/02
Rating: 1
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