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Former Newmarket resident on hunger strike to protect B.C. forests

'All the causes he has fought for are causes that need a voice and as many voices as possible,' says Newmarket sister who fears for health of activist Howard Breen, on day 22 without food
2022 04 22 - Howard Breen - JQ
Former Newmarket resident Howard Breen is on the 22nd day of a hunger strike trying to get a meeting with the British Columbia government over old-growth forests.

On the 22nd day of his hunger striker, former Newmarket resident Howard Breen said he is ready to be hospitalized for his protest to protect old-growth forests in British Columbia.

The 68-year-old activist is part of a campaign against logging in the province’s old-growth forests, seeking to protect the carbon sink. He is seeking a meeting with the provincial government to address the issue.

For Earth Day April 22, he is escalating the strike to stop drinking fluids as well.

“I do feel for the fear I have for my children and grandchildren, and the children of this current and future generation,” he said. “A hunger strike just seems like the next level up to bring some ... urgency.”  

Breen and fellow striker Brent Eichler have made headlines with their efforts to get a meeting with British Columbia Minister of Forests Katrine Conroy to ensure the protection of the remaining old-growth forests in the province, according to a campaign website. 

Breen is no stranger to taking action to fight for the environment. He is aligned with Extinction Rebellion, an environmental protest group that uses civil disobedience tactics. He said he has been arrested and imprisoned several times and is currently out on bail under house arrest, while he engages with his strike.

He said significant action is necessary, comparing the need to stand up against climate change to standing up to fascism.

“We would not be standing in front of (Nazi concentration camp) Buchenwal getting people to sign a petition to close a death camp,” he said. 

Breen grew up in the Newmarket area, attending Newmarket High School and living in town before departing in his 30s. His sister, Bernadette Breen, a Newmarket resident, said she worries for her brother despite supporting his actions.

“Howard’s always fought for social justice and Indigenous rights and the old-growth forest,” she said. “We understand that he is willing to give up his life … It’s hard to see him suffering like this. I know this is what he wants to do, so our family wants to support him. All the causes he has fought for are causes that need a voice and as many voices as possible.” 

The protesting Breen said he would remain off fluids until he inevitably has to be taken to hospital, from passing out or otherwise. He said he has two daughters who are nurses carefully monitoring his health through this.

“If they revive me, I’m sure they won’t let me go back on dehydration because I’m in a hospital,” he said. “But I will continue the hunger strike from there. If it takes 60 days to do it, I’ll be there.”

“We’re terribly worried that Howard may not survive this, and it’s pretty frightening,” his sister said. “We just pray the minister will at least just meet with him.”

Howard Breen said he has spent years with different advocacy groups, such as the BC Environmental Network. But he said as the climate worsens, he feels the gains to which he has contributed have been for naught.

He said environmental activists in Ontario and elsewhere have to act urgently. 

“They can’t just think out of the box. They have to act out of the box and stop worrying about their charitable status,” he said, adding that everyone needs to take action against climate change. “It begs us all to think what we do every day from this point on, and ask 'are our daily actions an appropriate response to the global, existential emergency that we are now all in?'”