Missing in Action: Losing Tooker Gomberg

By Stephen Salaff: This feature article appeared in Briarpatch magazine, November 2005.

Tooker Gomberg was a modest, gentle, easygoing but determined man. Without personal pretension or apparent aspirations for prominence or authority, Gomberg managed to inspire and unite large numbers of conscientious folk across a broad political spectrum. He proved that masses of North Americans can be reached and mobilized for progressive social change, working both within and against the establishment by pursuing a radical and principled social justice platform.

Tragically, Tooker Gomberg disappeared at the apex of his creative powers, leaving behind a rich legacy of political activism, and a lot of unanswered questions.

Gomberg, it seems, committed suicide. The story of his multi-stage dark depression and the events surrounding his disappearance during a March 2004 nervous collapse remains largely unreported.

Tooker Gomberg was a pillar of creative activism in Canada. His life-long campaign to build broad environmental and social justice coalitions in Montreal, Edmonton, Toronto, and Halifax made him a model and mentor for many activists. According to environmental lawyer and Sierra Club of Canada Executive Director Elizabeth May, “Tooker took his philosophy from US outdoorsman, conservationist and High Sierra explorer John Muir in the 1890s and his campaign tactics from the 1960s Yippies. He was one of the most able and energetic activists ever in Canada, with equal measures of fun and uncompromising commitment.” Environmentalist author Guy Dauncey also emphasized Gomberg’s charismatic charm: “Tooker had a bright, witty, sharp edge, alongside his commitment and knowledge. He made people believe that working for a beautiful, safe, healthy planet could be fun, wild and passionate, as well as effective.”

Gomberg was elected to Edmonton City Council in 1992. He listed his chief council initiatives in a leaflet for his Edmonton mayoralty run in 1998: adoption of water conservation; establishment of advisory boards for water conservation, public transit and the environment; establishment of an automated transit information system, and a pilot project of bicycle racks on city buses.

Gomberg and his partner Angela Bischoff, a writer and social justice advocate, left Edmonton for Toronto in May 1999, where he contested the Toronto November 2000 mayoralty election on a progressive environmental platform. After a hard-fought race, Gomberg placed second to incumbent mayor Mel Lastman, garnering over 51,000 votes. His campaign planks of municipal waste minimization and beneficial use within the City of Toronto were adopted officially by the city only months after the election, and rolled out in the September 2004 Green Bin Organics Program.

Gomberg and Bischoff relocated in September 2003 to Halifax, where Bischoff began work as a car-free transportation campaigner with the Ecology Action Centre. Some time before that, Gomberg was stricken for unknown reasons with a dark depressive mood disorder which is not uncommon among previously vigorous males entering emotionally and physiologically vulnerable middle age. This intractable illness cast a pall of despair over his outlook and disrupted his sleep pattern, from then on. Anguish and insomnia fatally clouded his judgment.

Gomberg’s bicycle was found March 3, 2004, on the Macdonald Bridge. Two days later, CBC news reported, “Police say it appears Gomberg may have jumped off a bridge linking Halifax to Dartmouth.”

Police services, according to Bischoff, generally hesitate to share with the media such particulars of suspected suicides. “I understand that when there is a suicide, no details are given to the media, both out of respect for the family and to prevent copycat actions,” she said.

Bischoff suspects several police officers of repeating information on Gomberg’s disappearance to the media. They told her that since there was no evidence of a jump, no video recording, and no witnesses, they would transfer their file to the missing persons branch, which routinely releases details to the media.

“On behalf of Halifax Regional Police,” Chief of Police Frank Beazley therefore wrote to Bischoff on May 7, “I apologize for any extra burden you suffered during this difficult time as a result of our dealings with the media regarding this incident.”

Indignant and aggrieved at perceived psychiatric neglect in the face of Gomberg’s shattering end-of-life symptoms, Bischoff recently launched twin actions in Halifax. “Tooker’s anxiety and agitation spun out of control in the weeks preceding his death,” she recalls. “He had insomnia and loss of appetite. He had tried a host of therapies during his previous depression, but none seemed to improve his condition, so this time he felt he had no choice but to go with Remeron, a psychotropic pharmaceutical prescribed by his psychiatrist. The drug unmistakably agitated him, and the synergy of such restless distress with his overhanging mood disorder is a lethal mix.”

“He began popping the pills, but felt worse. Under his doctor’s supervision, he doubled the dosage. He was crawling under his skin with anxiety and agitation. He could not concentrate or focus. He ruminated on what he perceived to be his failures. His memories of the past and thoughts of the future took on a negative spin. He lost hope, not in the world, but in himself.”

“Again he upped the dosage, this time to the maximum recommended, and two days later he jumped. Just five weeks into the drug regimen, he was dead.”

In May 2005, Bischoff complained to the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons about the failure of Gomberg’s psychiatrist to identify the deepening of Gomberg’s mood disorder shortly after he prescribed Remeron, and his decision to prescribe Remeron to a severely depressed patient without conducting a structured suicide assessment. The psychiatrist neglected to speak with Gomberg about the risk of self-destruction or self-harm during their talks, which Gomberg recounted, with increasing desperation, to Bischoff. Gomberg visited the therapist, for the ninth time, on the day of his disappearance, at which time the psychiatrist prescribed a tranquilizer. The College may later name the psychiatrist publicly.

In June, Bischoff petitioned Chief Medical Examiner Matthew Bowes of Nova Scotia for a “fatality inquiry” into what she claims are numerous failures in the care provided by the medical profession treating Gomberg and other grievously ill patients. The profession, she argues, freely prescribes anti-depressant medications while ignoring or downplaying their adverse reactions.

Bischoff is now preparing to embark on a Canada-wide campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of anti-depressant medications, including a national speaking tour combined with publication of a tabloid newspaper dedicated to the casualties of anti-depressant drugs.

Toronto lawyer Peter Rosenthal, who represented Gomberg in a successful assault suit against a City of Toronto security guard, said “Tooker was a very dedicated and creative progressive activist, and his early death is a tragedy for the community as well as for those close to him.”

Gomberg’s comrades and supporters can only speculate on the political path he might have taken had he not been felled by a seriously misunderstood mood disorder at such a critical juncture in the evolution of his philosophy and practice of inclusive, imaginative, coalition-based politics.

Stephen Salaff is a Toronto-based freelance energy and environment writer, who is thankful for his very fortuitous recovery, during early middle age, from six years of dysphoric depression, a state of constant sadness.