It's not often that someone can walk into an MLA's constituency office and get an immediate meeting with the politician. It's even rarer if that MLA is a member of cabinet.
But that's exactly what occurred on April 22 when three supporters of Nanaimo hunger striker Howard Breen made an unannounced visit to Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman.
It was Earth Day (April 22) and Breen had just stopped consuming fluids after going 22 days without eating solid food. Heyman gave the visitors 15 minutes of his time between other scheduled events.
The visitors to Heyman's office wanted him to publicly endorse the demand from Breen and another hunger striker, Brent Eichler, for Forests Minister Katrine Conroy to hold a public meeting to discuss old-growth forests.
‘I understand a lot of people would like me to do that but she’s the minister responsible," Heyman said in a tape recording of the meeting, which the Straight obtained. "I can’t speak for her.”
He added that he didn't want to put Conroy in a position where fellow members of cabinet were issuing public demands to her.
When another member of the group asked if he could just send out a tweet, the environment and climate change strategy minister wouldn't budge.
"I am not prepared to make that commitment today," Heyman replied.
He emphasized it wasn't out of a lack of concern for what was happening or for the health of the hunger strikers "that their decision is putting them under".
"I understand what’s at the root of their decision and what they’re demanding and their concerns about old growth," Heyman said. "I think, frankly, one of the problems is that people regularly take actions that are extreme—demanding that ministers meet with them—and they choose to do that.
"I’m not saying the issue isn’t serious or the threat to their health isn’t serious," the minister continued. "It is a door, I think, for others to regularly do something similar. That creates a very awkward situation, frankly, for members of the government."
Heyman noted that there are many processes in place in which members of the government meet with people and are accountable.
"I think the minister has spoken on the issue with regular updates about progressive measures that have been taken to protect old growth," he said.
One of the visitors to his office pointed out that it's extremely rare for people to go on a hunger strike. She also suggested that it would be bad political optics for the government if Breen died and became a martyr.
Heyman told them that his number one concern is not political optics.
"My concern is trying to be responsible to the people who elected me in this area as well as the people in the province," he stated.
Moments later, he added: "I can talk to my colleagues. I can encourage them to take meetings but I can't direct them to take meetings."
However, Heyman said that he would try to communicate with Conroy before 1 p.m. that day. On that very same afternoon, Conroy phoned the two hunger strikers but did not agree to their demand for a public meeting.
Heyman also acknowledged the anxiety and anguish that the visitors to his office were feeling about the climate crisis, noting that he often feels it himself.
“I spend every day on my job doing everything I can to take action on a number of fronts through government policies and legislation on climate," Heyman told them. "Many people believe—and that’s a fair belief—that we are not doing enough but we are doing quite a bit.
"Similarly, I spend a lot of time interacting with my colleagues who have primary responsibility for forest policy—as you know, it's not me—to push for us to have a much stronger response to the old growth strategic report and to put forward a plan to take action, which we are doing, and which isn't fast enough for, obviously, for many people—but which we are doing and which we are doing in collaboration with Indigenous people," the minister continued.
He added that his own assessment has been that the best way he can make a difference is to continue doing that by using his voice as strongly as he can with his colleagues in meeting rooms where these issues are discussed.
"But I know that if I was to take...my opinions outside the rooms and state them publicly, I would cease to be effective in the ways in which I believe I have been effective," Heyman said. "For me, that’s a choice I’ve made and I believe it’s the right one and I believe that that’s where I’m making the greatest difference.”
One of the activists at the meeting, Save Old Growth spokesperson Zain Haq, brought up recent comments by former U.K. chief scientist Sir David King.
King, founder and chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University, has said that what's done in the next two to three years will determine the future of humanity.
Haq then asked Heyman how confident he is that the premier and the forests minister were okay with Breen dying because the visitors needed to know for logistical reasons.
"That's a hypothetical question for me," Heyman replied. "I can't make a judgment how other people respond. I'll pass on the information you gave me."
This weekend, Breen was sent to hospital. Haq said that he has since been released and has resumed his hunger strike at home even though he seems to have suffered some kidney troubles.
Breen has also resumed consuming fluids, according to Haq.