Article: Tooker Gomberg and the Politics of Garbage

Halifax Sunday Herald, Silver Donald Cameron, Nov. 1, 2000.

I’m driving south on Highway 400 from Barrie, closing in on Toronto. The glass towers glow in the setting sun of an October afternoon. There’s a thick haze in the air. Call it what it is: smog.

Highway 400 is eight lanes wide, plugged solid, moving slowly. I’m watching for exit signs for 401 East. This is not a three-light wait at the Willow Tree, friends. This is real traffic. I’m listening to Avril Benoit — the George Jordan of Southern Ontario — hosting the CBC’s local rolling-home show. She’s talking about one Tooker Gomberg, who’s running for Mayor of Toronto. She invites listeners to call with their opinions on Gomberg’s “in- your-face campaign.”

The November 13 municipal election sounds very peculiar, even for this peculiar city. The incumbent mayor, Mel Lastman, has a million-dollar war chest, an 84% approval rating, and 25 opponents described by the Toronto Star as “mostly nondescript.” They include a busker, a communist meat packer, a comedian, a street artist, several students and a leggy drag queen who says that “a supercity needs a supermodel.”

Tooker Gomberg has emerged from the pack with an aggressive and entertaining campaign stressing “justice, ecology and democracy.” A 45-year-old Greenpeace member and former Edmonton city councillor who works part- time as a worm composter, Gomberg teaches a free course at the University of Toronto on activist electioneering. He promised to “electrify this municipal election with chutzpah, creativity, passion, and intelligent cogent insights on what Toronto could be.”

Gomberg promotes public transit by renting streetcars and inviting citizens to talk with him while they ride free. He rides a bicycle, and talks about a city where “our kids don’t have to use inhalers to breathe.” He publicly burns a $200 personal rebate cheque from the Harris government to make the point that public money should be invested in public services like transit and housing. He bakes bread in an outdoor oven to mark World Food Day. He supports renewable energy and urban agriculture. He has slept on the streets with the homeless.

Gomberg tracks and heckles Lastman, throwing a hockey glove before him. a literal gauntlet, and challenging him to debate the other candidates. Lastman resolutely refuses. Gomberg plunked down a composter at Lastman’s house and spread compost on his yard. Lastman said he didn’t need to compost. He has no grass.

Avril Benoit seems to expect that callers will disapprove of Tooker Gomberg’s campaign, but they don’t. As I merge onto 401, caller after caller speaks up for Gomberg. How is an underfinanced, little-known candidate to attract media attention *except* by dramatic action? Why *won’t* Lastman talk about the increase of homelessness and hunger in this unequally prosperous city? Why is Lastman focussing on splashy waterfront developments and a bid for the 2008 Olympic Games when the city can’t even take care of its garbage?

Garbage is what really animates Gomberg’s campaign, specifically Toronto’s failed attempt to ship its trash north by the trainload and dump it in an abandoned mine. Now the city plans to send fleets of garbage-laden tractor- trailers to northern Michigan instead. I allow myself a smug grin.

While Toronto searches desperately for new dump sites, Nova Scotia has closed 80% of its landfills, and has created 2200 jobs by doing intelligent things with its garbage. On October 17, I attended a luncheon in Halifax sponsored by the Resource Recovery Fund Board. We were celebrating Nova Scotia’s success as the first jurisdiction in North America to achieve a 50% reduction in solid waste by the year 2000.

I am creeping along the 401 in a glacial flow of vehicles. Avril Benoit introduces the arts report. The phenomenal young pianist Michael Kaeshammer is performing tonight. So are Natalie MacMaster and The Chieftains. That’s just for starters.

Toronto remains a dynamic and vital city, but it has apparently lost its soul. Under David Crombie and John Sewell, Torontonians were proud of Toronto’s superb public transit, its extensive public housing, its early blue-box recycling program, its enviable parks, its commitment to the arts. They considered their city the model of a progressive urban community.

Mel Lastman’s Toronto looks glitzy, but its air is foul, its roads are clogged, soup kitchens abound and some of its people live in cardboard boxes. Its elites lust for international grandeur, but the garbage fiasco has left Torontonians perceptibly embarrassed. Garbage symbolizes the city’s broken dreams.

I park my rented car, carefully emptying it. My host’s car has been burgled four times recently. I am tempted to be condescending about Toronto, but instead I am saddened. People love this city, and hate what has happened to it. I think that my host, an astute and urbane man, would like to be proud of his city again, as I am proud of my province. He is supporting Tooker Gomberg. Why am I not surprised?