The End of Earth Week

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For most Winnipegers, if Earth Day means anything, it's a trip to the Forks. There, at the historic junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, they find a reno-ed railway yard houses a sterile mix of boutique shops, restaurants, a market and a food court with pretensions. An adjacent field is the site of many officially sanctioned concerts and events, including a handful of small-scale activities and displays every Earth Day.

Tim Brandt spent most of his waking hours in the 1990s at Heaven Art and Book Café, a small bookstore he owned until it closed in 1999. He was, he says, "increasingly desperate to be competitive and be open for business every day." So he didn't attend his first Earth Day event at the Forks until last year.

"Our family had agreed that Earth Day should be like Buy-Nothing Day," he explains. "We cycled to the Forks and made a point of not buying anything. We were completely amazed at how marginalized Earth Day had become as the Forks market seethed around."

A week or so later, Brandt decided that Earth Day needed something else. That it should become a real holiday - what he had in mind, however, was a holiday for the earth.

He drew up a petition that argued that the earth needs "one day per year as a breather and holiday from human activity and commerce." Since Manitoba allows businesses to remain open on all other holidays, he reasoned, the government should make Earth Day the exception.

On Earth Day, Brandt believes, all business should be forbidden, along with "all private and commercial motor vehicle transportation." Under this plan, only absolutely essential government and public services would be allowed.For the earth, Earth Day would become a day off - from us. For humans, it would be a real day of rest: a holiday without shopping or stress.

For the past year, Brandt has carried the petition around, presenting it to nearly everyone he meets. Needless to say, asking people to sign on in support of a law that would make driving their car illegal - if only for a day - can really get their attention.

"Some people scoff," he says. Some get angry. "But of the over 1,500 signatures we have collected, many are those of folks who are extremely enthusiastic." The list even includes several local celebrities, such as children's entertainers Fred Penner and Al Simmons.

The petition campaign is romantic, maybe even quixotic, but so was Brandt's previous big project - trying to keep a small literary bookstore alive in the 1990s.

Before being swamped by the rising tide of corporate bookstores, Heaven was one of those amazing places that was a very big deal to a very small group of people. Brandt did everything he could to nurture the local writing community, holding readings almost every night and sponsoring an award for local chapbooks. He even became a Marriage Commissioner and performed two weddings in the bookstore before it closed.

Heaven's clientele was extremely devoted, and so when Brandt started up his Earth Day petition, he wrote a letter explaining his new project and sent it to about eighty people who had been supportive of the business.

Out of that, a small group came together to help collect signatures. Several months ago, they sent a letter to Manitoba Premier Gary Doer asking for a meeting. This earned them a flurry of media attention, and, eventually, a meeting with Deputy Premier Jean Friesen. While he describes the meeting as "cordial," and says the Minister listened with interest, Brandt isn't relaxing just yet.

When I talked with him about this article, Brandt - who now works at the University of Manitoba bookstore (and still performs what must be the hippest wedding ceremonies in town) - said he would work on collecting signatures for at least another year. Then he had to run: he and his young son Daniel were riding their bikes to a Critical Mass event, and they didn't want to be late.

They were hooked after participating in their first Critical Mass ride last Sunday. Which just happened to be Earth Day.

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