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Toronto Taxi drivers stage hunger strike to force action on Uber

A Toronto police officer speaks to hunger striking taxi driver Sukhvir Thethi as the tent he's in is being dismantled by police on Dec. 1 2015. 

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A trio of Toronto cab drivers have begun a hunger strike at city hall, in a last-ditch bid to force action against Uber.

The men vowed to exist on nothing but water for as long as it takes. But their task quickly became even more difficult, with police swooping in within hours to dismantle their tent, leaving the protesters shivering on mats in Nathan Phillips Square.

"They're not letting us set up a tent, so we would have to just stay here with the blankets over ourselves overnight," said protester Danny Ryan, who contrasted their treatment with what he characterized as lax handling of Uber.

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"They are supporting an illegal enterprise operating within Canada and … they're taking the tent down to diminish our sustainability to stay here and continue our hunger strike."

Like other communities, Toronto has been grappling with how to handle the appearance of Uber. A few cities have acted to ban the ride-hailing service but most have tried to find ways to incorporate it into their transportation system.

Toronto officials are going over city regulations in an effort to bring Uber under the law, while also making it easier for cabbies to operate. The taxi industry has pushed for a crackdown on Uber in the interim, but Toronto Mayor John Tory has suggested it has become too big to make that practical.

On Tuesday the mayor urged the hunger strikers to rethink their protest.

"I'm assured that the officials are working on [the reforms] as quickly as they possibly can," he said during a midday press conference.

"They are getting lots of encouragement from me to do it as quickly as possible, and I would just hope that maybe these drivers will reconsider the hunger strike, cause it's not going to allow us to speed up the process of developing regulations."

But the mood outside Tuesday morning was anything but conciliatory. Protesters branded Uber an outlaw that would drive them out of business. And when asked whether their fight rose to the seriousness of other causes that had employed hunger strikes – a tactic used by Mohandas Gandhi, anti-apartheid protesters and Irish republicans – one protester took direct aim at the mayor.

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"John Tory is treating us as slaves," said cabbie Krishna Pillai, who was supporting the protest but not himself fasting. "The mayor is supporting an illegal actor in this country."

The men vowed to remain until their message has been heeded.

"We have tried other avenues, we have protested … so what is left for us?" said hunger striker Behrouz Khamseh. "You want to kill my industry? Kill me first. Let me starve over here."

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