From My Perspective – Environmental Activism Takes a Hit

I was deeply saddened last night to hear on the news that Tooker Gomberg had died. It was just a brief announcement, stating that he had died at 48. Later more information came out. It appears that he is missing and presumed dead, after his bicycle and helmet were found on the Angus L. Macdonald bridge in Halifax. His wife confirmed that he left a suicide note. She also confirmed that he had struggled for a long time with a terrible disease. Somewhere in the early hours Friday, March 5, Tooker Gomberg succumbed to that disease and took his own life. A disease called depression.

Who is Tooker Gomberg? People in Edmonton remember him as a controversial individual, a rather odd character, whose stint as city councillor from 1992-1995 was marked by many wild & crazy ideas and dramatic anti-establishment-type acts in favour of his environmental causes. He irritated and provoked many, and was often in conflict with other politicians, including a confrontation in 1989 over the Al Pac pulp mill in Athabasca with then-Environment Minister Ralph Klein.

He began his term as an Edmonton city councillor by refusing to wear a jacket and tie to his swearing in, later feeding ties to the composting worms he kept in a box in his office. He rode his bicycle to City Hall every day and was always advocating for better bus systems and fewer vehicles on the street, even tearing up his driver’s license publicly. For many Edmontonians, his ideas and behaviour were just too far out there, and they could not take him seriously as a government representative. One winter he suggested that Edmonton’s city streets should all be flooded, creating a massive, city-wide skating rink – so that people would be able to skate to work!

After losing his city council seat in 1995, he attempted to become involved in politics elsewhere, running unsuccessfully for the federal NDP in Montreal in 1997, mayor in Edmonton in 1998 and mayor in Toronto in 2000. Throughout, he continued his activism across Canada, and the list of Gomberg’s dramatic protests is a long one. He chained himself to a vault in Ralph Klein’s Calgary office to protest government opposition to the Kyoto Accord. He was dragged out of Toronto’s Empire Club for shouting down Premier Ralph Klein during a speech. He was arrested at a rally against the war in Iraq. He chained himself to equipment heading for the Suncor plant in Fort McMurray.

The last time I saw Tooker Gomberg, I was climbing the steps of the Legislative Building in Edmonton, heading for a seat in the gallery to support CAUS in the Bill 43 protests. Tooker was sitting on a corner at the base of the steps, and at first I thought he was a homeless man, surrounded by bits and pieces of meagre life possessions. He soon disabused me of that notion, when in a booming voice, he exhorted all passersby to come over and get information on attending a pro-Kyoto rally. Like everyone else that day, I just ignored him, feeling a vague sense of disquiet, somewhat embarrassed on his behalf, ducking my head as I rushed up the stairs to conduct my business at the legislature.

In recounting the story to my eldest daughter later that evening, we mused about how difficult and lonely it must be to take the stand of the political activist, fighting for the environment when so many won’t listen. Because of Gomberg’s dramatic protests that sometimes irritated people, he appeared to have lost credibility with the more conservative segment of society. While on Edmonton City Council, many discounted his contribution. According to long-time city counsellor Terry Cavanagh, Gomberg never swayed others because his mind was made up and “he was not interested in opposing views.” Yet by other reports, he was effective in getting city council to implement several important initiatives to promote conservation and public transit – including a composting plant and a 24-hour bus link information line; and he made Edmonton city council far more cognizant of environmental issues in general. It seemed sad to me, though, seeing him on the steps of the Legislature that day. Even though he was fighting for a worthy cause – the preservation of the environment and the Kyoto accord – it seemed like he had become completely isolated, a solitary voice, a caricature of the whole eco-movement that no one really had much respect for or wanted to listen to.

Some people called him a dangerous radical. Some called him a visionary. Many disagreed with him. But many Edmontonians, including those who worked with him, respected him for one very important reason – he “walked the talk” and really tried to set an example for others. It is individuals such as Tooker Gomberg who earn our admiration and make us stop and take notice – not only with their dramatic approach to trying to effect change, but with their dedication and a personal lifestyle that practices what they preach. Gomberg devoted all his time and energy into following and promoting his beliefs – trying to make the world a better place for us all.

I can’t help but wonder what role the attitude of the world towards Tooker’s environmental activism efforts played in his depression. To be working hard for a cause, perhaps feeling like your work is futility much of the time, is a discouraging experience. An individual who is so completely dedicated to a particular way of thinking, who resorts to such over-the-top theatrical methods to have their cause noticed, may have difficulty maintaining the necessary balance in life that ensures a healthy state of mind. Yet it is these individuals who devote their lives to a cause who are often the ones that eventually make a difference. Sadly, mental illness claims many such individuals.

According to the media reports, Tooker was heavily medicated for depression, but still had difficulty maintaining a state of good mental health. Depression is an insidious disease that claims far too many victims each year. This is particularly true for men, who are often less likely to seek help. Depression is a treatable disease and suicide is preventable. Yet millions continue to suffer from depression and suicide continues to be a leading cause of death among Canadians.

The world of environmental activism has lost a voice. But hopefully Tooker’s passing will have an impact in two important ways. First – to remind us that we should have a greater respect for environmental issues and take the time to listen to the voice of those who make it their cause, not discounting them because they may seem a bit “different” or “out there” or because they resort to theatrics to make a point. Second – to promote greater insight into the toll depression takes, and to remind us that many high-profile individuals suffer from the disease. Just because someone appears to be actively involved with the community and have a worthwhile cause to keep them occupied, just because they seem OK on the surface, does not mean they are that way inside.

Environmental activist Gomberg missing and presumed dead: Bicycle, helmet found on Halifax bridge. Mike Sadava, Edmonton Journal, March 6, 2004.

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