Content warning: This story discusses death and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or with grief, you can find help and resources through the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Death comes for us all. We all know this. We have even seen it in our own family. And we know that death is a natural process of life. But when it comes for a member of the activist community and is sudden, the notion itself is enough to temporarily stop our own hearts with grief, anger and confusion.
When it’s a death by suicide, it’s all the more harder to cope, harder to understand the “why.” When it’s an activist that dies in this manner, it’s all the more important that we as a community take time to unpack why it happened and how we can move forward after such a tragic event.
The first major death that affected me as an activist was the death of Tooker Gomberg
Tooker Gomberg was a political dynamo. There was a joy that danced behind his eyes, especially when he was thinking about political mischief. He wasn’t someone who wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with major authority figures.
In the latter half of his life, but still young in 2004, Gomberg died after jumping off a bridge in Halifax. His bike and helmet were found nearby. His wife, Angela Bischoff, found a suicide note that stated he had simply “lost his chutzpah.”
Toronto activists advocated the establishment of a major east-west bike lane, referred to as “Take the Tooker” on Bloor Street, to honour his life.
In a blog post about his life on the environmental activism website Greenspiration – a project he and Bischoff started together – it’s written:
“The last words go to Tooker, as a gift to those still working in the trenches and a prophylaxis against depression: ‘Take care of ourselves and each other, spend time with loved ones, take breaks when necessary, and enjoy each moment on this lovely green and blue planet.’”
The death of Dave Vasey
January 27 will always be a difficult day for activists across Canada. On this day in 2019, Dave Vasey ended his life by suicide, and was found by people who were concerned for him after he went into a meditative seclusion for days.
Vasey had been on the front lines of so many projects for so many years that you could almost take his presence for granted. He was a good friend, who opted for less talk and more action.
There had been some concern in the community around his mental health but nothing was seriously acted upon as Vasey was sort of left to his own devices to get his shit together, like he promised he would.
Clashes with fascists seemed to be taking up a lot of his time towards the end of his short life and there were fears as to what such toxic exposure could do to his mental health, as Vasey had a lifelong struggle with depression.
When news broke of his death, it was at first even doubted by some. How could a man with the pulse of the revolution running through him leave the world in such a way?
The death of Derek Soberal
I began running into Derek Soberal at the G20 summit demonstrations in Toronto in 2010. He was a sturdy guy who was known to carry around a microphone and small speaker system around and liked to make his presence known – both to fellow activists and to the police.
His passion and fast-paced speech pattern imprinted on all of us. He was definitely all in, though I saw him less and less as his family grew in size. But he was still active online – especially in the online Occupy Canada community.
Soberal’s death was shocking. He died by suicide at the height of the COVID-19 crisis during a livestream to that same Occupy Canada Facebook group, lighting himself on fire at a gas station before stabbing himself in a nearby deli. Police responded to reports of a man on fire. After he left the deli, Soberal was tased by officers trying to subdue him.
The activist community was incensed that a taser was used on Soberal when he was already in a tragically fragile state. The SIU later ruled that the cause of death had been multiple stab wounds to the chest and the police were cleared.
“When you spend the lion’s share of your thoughts and energy on objectives and seeking information that no one wants to hear about, it wears on you in ways few could understand,” good friend David Clow wrote in a eulogy for Soberal.
Here was another suicide of a prominent activist in Toronto, who died in a most gruesome way. We wondered for months what the death-by-fire was supposed to mean.
Due to the pandemic, there was no sense of closure for Toronto’s activist community.
The death of Graeme Bacque
Recently, the Toronto activist community has been struggling with the death of Graeme Bacque, who was a fixture at demonstrations in Toronto.
When Graeme Bacque died, because of his extensive involvement resisting punitive psychiatric services due to his own personal experience, a lot of us assumed he too had died by suicide.
In the past, he had taken mental health breaks from his activist work both online and in the Toronto community, so when he first went missing, it was assumed that he was doing the same. That quickly changed to a feeling of fear for him as an APB (ALL Points Bulletin) was issued, leading to a wellness check. His body was found by police in his apartment.
At first, some of us speculated suicide; others, an overdose, even though Bacque was staunchly anti-drug. We’ll never know what happened in the days leading up to his death, but the coroner later released a statement that he had died from hypertensive heart disease, likely a consequence of years of high blood pressure.
One of the saddest things I know is that Bacque feared dying alone and he did. I found myself wishing that he had died during a demonstration so he would have been surrounded by his friends.
How can we build resilience in the activist community?
I must admit, sometimes it was hard being friends with Bacque when he was going through one of his black moods, and every few months he would tell people that he was going to “go away soon” because he “hated the world” so much. We all knew of his mental health struggles, but his fear of mental health services made it difficult for any interventions by professionals. Our best attempts at supporting Bacque were mutual aid and community support.
At Occupy Toronto, Bacque was the most vocal about using alternatives to the status quo when it came to members of the public suffering from mental illness. He challenged us all to think with compassion and to resist having a knee-jerk reaction to someone’s mental illness; to resist removing the problem from the community by way of the police.
I feel that will be the greatest legacy that Bacque will leave us with; to empathize, not ostracize, the mentally ill. There are ways we can accomplish that within our activist community. Pushing for more mutual aid and less involvement of police when someone is in crisis is one example.
Tooker left us with the idea that no idea was ever too bold, whether it was locking himself in a safe to protest a lack of action on climate change or running for mayor of Canada’s largest city.
Maracle left us with the understanding that we had the innate courage to use our voice to bring about social change.
Soberal left us with the notion that you could connect with a huge base of untapped activists online, so you never had to think that your voice was small again.
Vasey left us with the understanding that it is important to smile and laugh. To use that energy against a capitalist system that is all about death and destruction. To never give up. He often said, “We have to live the culture we seek.”
In First Nations culture, there are healing circles where communities come together and express their concerns and hopes and connect with one another. There have been several informal attempts to replicate this practice after particularly stressful and/or violent demonstrations. This took place most notably after the 2001 FTAA demonstration in Quebec City, where the city was actually on fire at one point and cases of police brutality were high, including the infamous ‘snatch-wagons’ driven by the police that kidnapped activists right off the street..
Activists came together in this way again after the 2010 G20 demonstrations in Toronto, where police conducted kettling and detainment which caused a lot of psychological issues among the activist community. But, there has never been anything permanent.
Along with healing circles, two other tactics that are no longer employed but could be useful are debriefing sessions and affinity groups.
In the late 1990s and the 2000s, these debriefing groups allowed activists a place to express their trauma in a safe space, because often time other family members or friends not in the activist scene have a hard time understanding why we might be, for example, afraid of the police when society generally teaches us that the police are always the good guys. It provided a sense of community and united us.
Another very important tactic that our culture has lost and might want to seriously consider re-starting was the use of Affinity Groups.
Simply put, these were small groups or clusters of people who chose to join forces at demonstrations to have each other’s backs. One person would be assigned the role of a medic, another as a legal liaison. Affinity groups often were made up of friends or people who became friends through activism, so each one of us had a few people looking out for our mutual wellbeing. Someone you could go demonstrate with but also grab a coffee/beer or attend a concert together. Being there for each other in the middle of a tense demonstration was often a trial-by-fire which created strong bonds between activists.
Gomberg once said:
“Be sensitive to your comrades. Have fun. As much as possible, surround yourself with others (both at work and at play) who share your vision so you can build camaraderie, solidarity and support. Enjoy yourself, and nourish your sense of humour. Remember: you are not alone.”
Another way to help us cope with the death of a fellow activist is through remembrance circles. After Gomberg died, his partner, Angela Bischoff began to hold these to honour Gomberg and included anyone else who was grieving someone.
Bischoff said the ritual aspect to honouring someone who has died greatly helped people process their grief in a safe, structured way.
When I first approached Angela Bischoff, I prefaced the conversation with an apology for “bringing up such a sad situation.” She wisely told me:
“I think the most important thing is to all be alert to death and the dying process and not bury it and not feel badly if someone cries or if it brings up emotions in people – it’s important to bring all of that front and center … and talking about it and creating forums, through writing about our loved ones and offering condolences, and not just having one memorial service and never talking about Dave or Graeme again. We need to work to regularly keep their memories alive.”
There are deaths here that I don’t mention but are no less important. Every death matters, no matter who they were.
Bischoff said that we can create resilience when we support each other in our ups and downs, and offer our support to others when we are strong. Like solar energy, when there is a surplus, we can use that energy to help others, and build that into our cultural movement.
Bischoff also notes that we need to create space to not only show our anger, like in demonstrations, but also show our happiness and our weaknesses. As activists especially, we’re all going to be discouraged at some point, and it takes the shame away from asking for help.
The ritual of the memorial really helped the community in grieving Gomberg and Vasey. While a small memorial was hosted for Bacque, a larger event is also being planned. Even the planning process of the memorial was good for my soul. Bringing people together for the purpose of honouring someone’s life was healing, and the ritual itself guided people who may not have known how to express their grief.
I’m sure the community will come up with some way to memorialize Bacque’s life, as they did with the “Take the Tooker” bike lane, the annual memorials for Gomberg, and Vasey’s part in the memorial garden at St. Stephens of the Fields, which acts as a home base for remembering his life and is tended to lovingly by his friends.
Hopefully we can look to the past to inform how we can move forward in our grief in a useful way, to look to the future to empower communities not to be afraid to talk about death. Because every death, as with every life, has a purpose. We just need to be willing to look.