Article: Environmental Warrior Returns to Soapbox

The Globe and Mail, May 13, 1997, page A2

Environmental warrior returns to soapbox, Karen Unland

Few events seem to attract as much cynicism as an election. It spans the ideological spectrum, from tired conservatives who say politicians are just in it for the money to disillusioned centrists who say all the parties are the same to radical leftists who say elections are a sham designed to hide the absence of true democracy.

But some reject all brands of cynicism and say that elections are a glorious opportunity for the exchange of useful and exciting ideas. One such person is Tooker Gomberg.

Readers from Edmonton will remember Mr. Gomberg as the bicycle-loving environmental activist who became a city councillor in 1992. He probably got the most attention for a long and silly battle with fellow alderman Ron Hayter over whether Mr. Gomberg ought to wear a tie in council chambers. But Mr. Gomberg said he also accomplished a lot during his term to reduce waste and involve citizens more in municipal politics.

“As an activist, it was the best use of my time,” he said in a recent conversation at one of his favourite cafés in Montreal.

He was deeply disappointed when he lost the 1995 municipal election, but “in the end, you have to go with what happens,” he said. The defeat led to a return to his native Montreal, with a Gombergian detour.

He and his long-time partner, Angela Bischoff, put their stuff in storage, jumped on their bicycles and headed off on a tour they call the Greenspiration Odyssey. From Edmonton to the Rockies to Minneapolis to Chicago to Cuba, they have sought out successful ecological projects, which they hope to share with the world through videos, articles and the Internet.

In August of 1996, they ended p in Montreal for what was to be a brief stay. They got a three-month contract to set up an urban ecology centre and were planning to return to the road this month. But conventional politics called him again.

Mr. Gomberg is now the New Democratic Party candidate in the riding of Outremont. His family goes back five generations in the city of Outremont, the reasonably well-off, largely francophone community of the north side of Mount Royal that makes up most of the riding.

“This is a neighbourhood that was built before the dominance of the car, and it works extremely well,” he said.

In most Edmonton neighbourhoods, the houses are in one place, the stores are in another place and it’s hard to travel to and fro without a car. In Outremont, the houses and stores are intermingled. He likes the ecological soundness of the place, although he still misses watching the beavers play in the water near his old place in Edmonton’s Riverdale.

But just because you like a place doesn’t mean you have to run to represent it in the House of Commons. Why seek office again, especially when the NDP barely registers in Quebec and he is up against Martin Cauchon, a federal cabinet minister?

“I think it’s crucial to make the effort,” he said. “My sense of elections is that they’re a time to hope, a time to dream.”

His environmentalism has not left him with a profound sense that the planet is doomed. He is astonishingly optimistic that people will come to their senses and quit squandering resources.

He recalls that when he left Montreal in the early 1980s he had been running a curbside recycling project at a time when it was pretty much unheard of to separate wet garbage from dry garbage and cans from paper. Now, blue boxes grace many a front lawn.

An election campaign is the perfect opportunity to introduce ideas that are ahead of their time, “and maybe in 10 years, they’ll start to sprout up,” he said.

He’s having fun, too. Every Sunday night, he hosts an Election Cabaret at a local bar, offering live music, cheap beer and an open mike for people to express themselves about anything they choose.

He’s got some ideas he hopes will take root during this election. For example, he said it would make a lot more sense for the federal government to stop sinking billions of dollars into energy megaprojects such as Hibernia and spend the money instead to make every residence in Canada more energy-efficient. Such a project would create a thousand jobs in each riding, he said, and the planet would be better for it.

Getting people to even pay attention to an idea like that, especially when the election campaign in Quebec is dominated by the debate between separatism and federalism, is no small feat. But Mr. Gomberg said his has about 200 volunteers, who, like him, have renounced cynicism and are going to try anyway.

If he doesn’t win, then he and Ms. Bischoff will probably grab their bikes and continue the Greenspiration tour in Europe. “Serendipity has sort of been leading me around for the past several years,” said Mr. Gomberg, 41, and it seems that it will continue to lead him around for many more.