Vancouver housing activist Am Johal is 28 hours into what could become the hippest event in town. It’s a hunger strike to shame the federal government into reinstituting a national housing program.
From now until after 2010, Canadians from coast to coast to coast can participate by spending a week on a liquid-only diet, Johal said.
Johal is the first to go hungry.
“I started yesterday at noon,” he told the Straight today (December 30) from his office in Burnaby. “It’s not like one of those old-school ’70s hunger strikes where you sit around in a loin cloth. Everyone’s too busy for that.”
Brent Granby, the president of the West End Residents Association, has agreed to go food-free for a week. So has UBC professor Michael Byers. Johal is convinced that Carnegie Community Action Project coordinator Wendy Pedersen and Michael Shapcott of Toronto’s Wellesley Institute have been roped in, too.
“Hunger strikes can be seen as pretty radical,” Johal said. “So we wanted to make it accessible. In seven days, you can make your point, but not do your body harm.”
Though Johal has worked in and around the Downtown Eastside for years, as an assistant to NDP MLA Jenny Kwan and MP Libby Davies among other work, he was recently struck again by the cruelty of Canada’s dearth of a housing program. Starting Christmas Eve at midnight, he volunteered eight hours at First United Church, which has become a temporary 24-hour homeless shelter. Over 200 people came through that night, some with trench foot and other cold-and-wet-related illnesses.
“It’s still visceral,” he said. “To me, it’s such an embarrassment that we as a country have let it get to this stage.”
Johal knows that a hunger strike or any other action on homelessness can be seen as problematic, as an outsider intervening in other people’s lives. However, he said something he learned when setting up UBC’s Humanities 101 courses in the DTES in 1998 was, “If we had listened to everyone, we wouldn’t have done anything.” If the choice is between doing something problematic or doing nothing at all, he said, he chooses to do something. Thus, the hunger strike.
Over the next year and a bit, the strike aims to take us through a B.C. election, the April report on Canada of the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, perhaps a federal election or two, and the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic games.
Despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s choice to not appoint a stand-alone minister of housing, not to mention the Brian Mulroney-Jean Chrétien bankrupting of federal housing programs, Johal is convinced the tide can be turned.
“We’re trying to put this back on the radar,” he said. “If we can create enough buzz on the issue and show that this is something Canadians care about, governments have to act whether they’re left or right. In large measure, Canadians want this. We just need to do the leg work.”
Johal thinks it would be great if Gregor Robertson would take on a week. Will other local stars?
For a personal branding exercise, it sure beats carrying around a Coach bag.
To volunteer, contact Am Johal at firstname.lastname@example.org.