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Nanaimo man hospitalized during hunger strike says old-growth protests escalating

Howard Breen says he plans to go without food until the end of the month before joining others in escalating action against the government.
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Howard Breen, of Nanaimo, shown in an undated handout image, says he won’t stop protesting against old-growth logging until B.C.’s forests minister agrees to a public meeting. SAVE OLD GROWTH VIA THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Nanaimo man says he was briefly hospitalized on the 24th day of a hunger strike to protest old-growth logging but plans to go without food until the end of the month before joining others in escalating action against the government.

Howard Breen, 68, said a "death-watch team" at his home noticed he was experiencing blurred vision, loss of balance due to low blood pressure and back pain around the kidneys before an ambulance was called early Sunday morning.

He said a doctor and his daughter, a cardiac nurse, determined late Saturday that he needed medical attention because he was at risk of suffering kidney or heart damage.

"We had a vote, and I abstained," he said Sunday. "All I said is, 'Just please let me go as far as I can take it.'"

Breen, a member of the group Save Old Growth, said his condition deteriorated after he stopped drinking liquids on Thursday, but he was back to drinking herbal teas after spending three hours in hospital.

His decision to get medical treatment was "based on science," he said, "something that the current government isn't acting on in respect to the climate and the forests."

Remaining hunger strikers including Brent Eichler, 57, in Vancouver, who has been 31 days without food, are continuing their fast, said Save Old Growth.

Thirty-three other activists with Save Old Growth planned to join the hunger strike until the end of April, Breen said.

Breen is trying to pressure the provincial government to cease old-growth logging and the export of raw logs. To end the fast he said he wants an online “equal airing” of views between the forests minister and her advisers and independent experts.

Forests Minister Katrine Conroy called Breen on Friday and the two spoke about the government’s deferral of 1.7 million hectares of old-growth forest and the creation of new parks — after which Breen hung up.

Conroy said she had “meaningful conversations” with Breen andEichler.

“I conveyed my distress for their well-being while listening directly to their concerns. I urged them to protect their health as we continue the important work to protect old-growth forests,” she said in an emailed statement from the Forests Ministry.

The province appointed an independent, two-person panel in 2019 to review old-growth policies and is also consulting with the public.

Conroy announced earlier this month that B.C. was working with First Nations to defer logging across more than a million hectares of old-growth forests at risk of permanent loss, an area greater than 4,100 Stanley Parks.

Conroy told Breen she would not be holding the meeting he was demanding and advised him to end the strike.

Instead, he said, the hunger strike — which started out as 25-day protest — is now “indefinite.”

Breen said action taken by Save Old Growth, including recent blockades of bridges and major roads, points to the seriousness of the “climate emergency” linked to logging. They want a stop to all old-growth logging in the province.

He denied some commuters were angry about the group’s tactics, saying there is widespread support. Two people were taken into custody on Wednesday after allegedly chaining themselves to a 227-kilogram barrel in the middle of the Trans-Canada Highway near Langford during the afternoon commute.

Members of Save Old Growth are among the more than 1,000 people who have been arrested in the Fairy Creek watershed near Port Renfrew for allegedly violating an injunction against blockades.

B.C. Supreme Court has heard about 400 of them were charged with criminal contempt.

Breen said the RCMP arrested him elsewhere for other protests and that he is currently facing 12 charges.

On April 7, he was taken into custody after he super-glued himself to the doors of Royal Bank of Canada doors in Nanaimo, an action related to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project in northern B.C. He spent about a week in jail and is now under house arrest and $30,000 in bail conditions.

He was also one of three individuals who stood at the end of the driveway of the premier’s home in 2020, intending to make a citizen’s arrest to keep Horgan from the budget announcement. Horgan wasn’t home at the time, and his wife was reportedly terrified. For the next few weeks, the premier denounced the demonstrators as crossing the line.

Breen’s three adult children have asked their father not to risk his life and have ensured he is watched day and night by “death-watch monitors.” His two daughters are nurses.

Some supporters on a call with Breen Thursday night asked him to stand down.

“It was probably the hardest moment of the last few weeks, to have people express their love for what Brent and I have been doing,” he said. “It was very heart-wrenching for me to listen to that.

“Frankly, the politicians aren’t going to rescue us and that’s why we are out in the streets, and why we’re doing things to wake up the public in the most direct way, which is stopping them on the highways.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com