Eye Editorial: What Tooker Taught Us

We voted for him once, but we didn’t know Tooker Gomberg personally.

Yet we felt a deep sadness upon hearing of his presumed death over the weekend. At the age of 48, the firebrand political activist and one-time Toronto mayoral candidate was missing, his bicycle and helmet left on a bridge in Halifax the only signs of him. Police believe he was overcome by the depression that plagued him over the past three years, and that he jumped from the Angus L. MacDonald bridge to his death on the night of March 5.

It’s a moving symbol for us, the bicycle and helmet, partly because some of our most vivid memories of Gomberg are of him travelling the city by bicycle during the 2000 mayoral campaign with a “Tooker for mayor” flag attached to his seatpost, while his opponent toured the city in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac.

If for nothing else, Gomberg deserves to be memorialized and thanked for that campaign, in which he stood up to (and jumped around and threw things at) Mel Lastman, trying to hold him accountable when no one else would. Years before Lastman’s name became a punchline, Gomberg was willing to make it one, following His Melness around dressed as Robin Hood, daring him to debate issues such as homelessness and the environment by throwing hockey gloves at his feet. (Mel never did debate him, but he did hire extra bodyguards.) Of course, the newspapers pilloried him for his tactics, but some of us voted for him anyway. He managed 51,063 votes in all, a distant second to Lastman, but a champion anyway for turning the moribund race into a public conversation.He had a peculiar genius for that: donning costumes and using props to grab headlines for the things he believed in. He once burned his passport at The Hague to protest the Canadian embassy’s refusal to champion his cause. Another time, he buried a car in east Toronto to memorialize Henry Bliss, the first pedestrian killed by an automobile. In fact, he spent election night in 2000 chained to a toilet in the Princess Margaret Hospital, which was slotted to be converted into a shelter, to highlight the plight of the homeless. There’s much we have learned, and can learn, from the life of Tooker Gomberg. As Dave Meslin of the Toronto Public Space Committee (himself a frequent practitioner of street-theatre activism) says, “he was kind of like a magnet. People were drawn to him — he created activists. There are a lot of activists in this city right now who wouldn’t be doing it right now if it weren’t for him. He sort of ran the Tooker Gomberg activist school.”Meslin notes that Tooker was possessed of (or by) a brand of “positive idealism and hope that you’re supposed to lose in your twenties … he believed that a totally different kind of world was possible and inevitable. And he was constantly working for that.”He combined this idealism with a sense of playfulness and humour that was contagious, but as Meslin says (and those of us who saw him at protests, surrounded by police, can attest), he was “also very comfortable getting angry … he was capable of being passionate in a fun way or a militant way. When things seemed wrong, he would instantly become very bold and very confrontational.” Gomberg was arrested countless times at protests, in Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto, The Hague and points in between.

Most astonishing of all, he managed to get things done. He founded one of North America’s first curbside-recycling programs in his hometown of Montreal. He served as a city councillor in Edmonton, bringing large-scale composting to that city’s waste-management process . In Toronto, he lobbied hard to help kill the Adams Mine proposal and worked on composting programs for the city. NDP leader Jack Layton told the Toronto Star that Gomberg was the “spiritual father of the green-box program” in Toronto. And he helped demonstrate that Emperor Mel had no clothes, and gave those of us disgusted with the mayor someone to vote for.

At 48, Tooker Gomberg died too soon. It’s impossible for us to know what was going through his mind when, gripped by depression, he decided he’d come to the end. Meslin suggests that Gomberg “cared so much about the world he couldn’t take care of himself. He cared himself to death.” One more thing we can learn from Gomberg: the importance of looking after ourselves.

The world could use a few more people like Tooker Gomberg. Thanks to his life’s work, there are more activists around to take up his cause. Friends and admirers are invited to meet at the Church of the Holy Trinity (10 Trinity Square) on March 21 at 7pm to memorialize his life, to say goodbye and thanks. An online discussion forum also exists at www.planetfriendly.net.

This editorial appeared originally in eye weekly issue 03.11.04 and is © 1991-2004 eye