The Human Touch

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Neighborhood Bridges founder Nicola Fairbrother with Jon Headley (and one of his two pet snakes).

Against the backdrop of a brightly painted wall and colourful bouquet, Nicola Fairbrother doesn’t appear to fit in in her own office. Dressed in all black—from her shoes to her horn-rimmed glasses—it’s easier to see in her the former punk-rock road manager than the current founder of a social services agency. But its her non-conformism that makes Neighborhood Bridges a radical and pioneering agency for intellectually disabled people.

“I wanted to scorch the earth and do something big,” says Fairbrother, a central Edmonton resident who founded the organization in 2007, which is now in an office behind Oliver Square. She’s doing it by ignoring the narrative that people with disabilities are a societal burden, along with a glossary of terms she believes has bred institutional inequality. Within these walls, “support workers” are “human rights workers,” and the organization is a “community.”

Together—Fairbrother, co-founder Joanna Brown, 100 advocators and advocatees, their innumerable roommates, friends and families—are all “community members.” Once equality is established in language, she says, it’s established in the homes where these people with intellectual disabilities live.

But this “community” is more than semantics. Its office and nearly all 18 homes it manages are within Oliver, Queen Mary Park and Westmount.

A decade ago, Fairbrother teamed with Brown to find geographic areas for their organization, based on a series of “human indicators” necessary for community development: housing costs, vacancies, employment opportunities, transit routes, parks, community leagues. Together, all of these support people with intellectual disabilities to be fully accepted as citizens, live autonomously and develop relationships that could alleviate some of the symptoms of oppression that they endure.

These three core neighbourhoods had what’s necessary to help mitigate poverty and social isolation, according to Brown. The amenities were proximal and landlords more than willing to rent to people with disabilities. A priest openly embraced and supported their vision and many businesses showed diverse hiring practices, including the Oliver Community League Hall, which for years hired a custodian from its community. “Many people in these three central neighbourhoods were really excited to team up with us and help make this community a healthy one,” says Brown.

By integrating its offices and members into our neighbourhood, the organization wants everyone to reflect on what it means to celebrate all human variation, to embrace and accept the characteristics of disability, limitations included, instead of treating these characteristics as “a medical problem to solve or a moral problem to manage,” says Fairbrother, who recently directed a documentary on controlled breeding called Surviving Eugenics.

Though we no longer genetically engineer disabilities out of our communities, Fairbrother sees social isolation, lack of personal will and mistreatment as another form of eugenics.

Growing up with her father in South Africa during the Apartheid era, her earliest notions of the world was an unjust place. “At a young age, I saw countless human rights violations and a general disregard for the human form,” she says, grimacing. She turns to a wall covered sporadically with portrait photography. “And here I was living the life of the white privileged; we had servants and all that.”

She was a teenager by the time they moved to Edmonton in 1986. Fairbrother best describes those years as “unbridled chaos and nihilism,” which was channeled into road managing punk bands and spreading angry anthems of Generation X across Canada. “If your next question is, did my general sense of mid-1980s’ nuclear apocalypse disenfranchisement affect the work I do?” she asks. “Then yes, it certainly did.” Her smile widens. “I’m a pissed off kid of the nuclear age.”

When she realized her anger could be better placed, she turned to human services, varying from social to advocacy work. Often times, she grew frustrated with colleagues and consultants, whom she says recognized the need for significant changes to their practises but didn’t act on it. They were ethical, fair-minded, well-intentioned people, she says, but unless their practises were more radical the lives of the people for whom they advocated wouldn’t be greatly improved. More disheartening was the idea that she shouldn’t have personal relationships with clients, and that she—the social worker—was in control of their life choices.

She started researching philosophers and critical thinkers like James C. Scott, who studied oppressed populations in Southeast Asia, and looked to early disability activists who fought for human rights. She came away realizing that disability wasn’t the problem. It was poverty.

Most people living independently with intellectual disabilities make well below $27,300, Canada’s “unofficial poverty line” for single people. Unemployment sits around 70 per cent. That’s not because they can’t work, says Fairbrother, but because of a cultural narrative that “these people are to be taken care of, and so they’re surrounded with paid support instead of authentic relationships.”

Eight years later, the agency is housing people that medical professionals never imagined would be living out in the community. People deemed too sick or too unstable even for group homes now live autonomous lives, gaining employment at community leagues, local businesses like Studio Bloom on 124 St. and meaningful volunteerism like helping build Westmount’s community garden.“The notion that people with disabilities are a burden is a huge problem for us.”

Fairbrother glances at her pinging cellphone and smiles. Jon Headley, someone she advocates for, has texted to say he’s on his way to the office. About an hour later, she hears a loud bang outside. “Oh, Jon must be here,” she says, laughing.

Headley enters smiling and apologetic. He’s still getting used to his new motorized wheelchair, but it’s maybe one of the smaller changes to his life since  being referred to Neighborhood Bridges in 2012. “I get to make my own choices,” he says, “and I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m able to control my life now.”

Past organizations assisting Headley frowned upon the client-worker relationships, but that’s key to the premise of Neighborhood Bridges. Most agencies will house several disabled people in a group home with one or two support staff; Bridges’ community members each have personally dedicated advocates and live with non-intellectually disabled roommates contracted by the agency to provide additional support as needed. Headley feels especially lucky because one of his roommates isn’t just a close friend, but a chef. Tonight, he’s more than comfortable inviting Fairbrother over for dinner because they also think of each other as friends.

Headley was drawn by the organization’s rejection of traditional values, like group housing, and how it encourages people to truly become active members of the broader community. For Headley, it’s playing on an organized wheelchair soccer team in Boyle McCauley and becoming a member of the Self Advocacy Federation for disability pride. “They treat me like a person,” he says about Neighborhood Bridges, “not just a client.”

Over time, the founders hope that other communities will see their own versions of Neighborhood Bridges, and that they’ll be a part of helping them take root. “My only hope is they don’t look exactly like us,” says Fairbrother. “We are the redheaded step-child and in many ways the first of our kind. Social change starts with the agitators and I hope we’ve created a foundation for other organizations to adopt and evolve.”

Are you a property owner willing to offer long-term leases to Neighborhood Bridges members? Does your business have diverse hiring practises and an interest in mitigating poverty in the disability community? The organization embraces local partnerships. Get in touch at 780-758-2815 or

The Tao of Tooker

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This article ran in the Summer 2015 issue, alongside Cycles of Change.

Angela Bischoff smiles fondly as she recalls how the late Tooker Gomberg, former City Councillor and her longtime partner, triggered the original pilot for bike racks on Edmonton transit buses.

“Administration came back saying they thought it was a great idea but they didn’t have any budget for it,” Bischoff recalls. “So right in City Council, when they were having this public conversation, Tooker said, ‘Well, what would it cost?’ And the head of transportation said, ‘Not very much, maybe $5,000.’ And Tooker said, ‘So if I paid for it, you would do it?’ And he said yeah. So Tooker said okay, I’m happy to pay for it. From then on, on the transportation budget there was a line item for Tooker’s bike pilot project.”

The story epitomizes how Gomberg would sacrifice himself to a cause. He was restless and rarely looked back. “Tooker was always pushing his agenda,” says Bischoff. His methods could be controversial—he famously refused to wear a tie at council meetings, and he once locked himself in a vault in Ralph Klein’s office and faxed out media releases on Klein’s own letterhead.

But he was a dedicated activist who sought creative ways to push for causes he believed in. On Edmonton City Council, he advocated for environmental improvements beyond the Bicycle Transportation Plan and into waste management and recycling initiatives. Gomberg eventually moved to Toronto and continued his activism.

However, his restless advocacy took its toll and he was overcome with severe depression. After his anti-depressants stopped working, his doctor increased his dosages—despite side-effect warnings—but his demons continued haunting him.

Gomberg’s bicycle, helmet and a suicide note were discovered on the MacDonald Bridge in Halifax in 2004. His body was never found. He was 48.

Bischoff continues to work in the environmental movement in Ontario.

Go West, Young Man

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Late last fall, filmmaker Trevor Anderson met with his sound guy to record narration of his new film The Little Deputy.

They spent the entire afternoon on the first take, before deciding to throw it all out and do it again. And again. And again. Nothing was working. The one voice that was clear to him was that of Werner Herzog, one of the world’s most acclaimed documentary filmmakers, telling Anderson that his previous voice-over work was flawed.

The two had met at a film school run by the Oscar-winning German director, which Anderson describes as a “a three-day master class that happens in whatever city in the world [Herzog] happens to be in, whenever he feels like it.” Anderson attended the 2012 class in L.A. Orientation was held at a pub, and that’s where Herzog, pointing to his heart and looking Anderson straight in the eyes, told him that his last film, High Level Bridge, was “very accomplished filmmaking.”

That part made the blurb on Anderson’s website, explains the 42-year-old Edmonton artist, sitting on a bench in Constable Ezio Faraone Park, surveying the river valley on a recent afternoon. The part that didn’t?

“The narration should be deadpan.” Herzog argued.

Anderson’s face goes blank as he imitates his own confusion: he thought the narration was deadpan. Apparently not enough for Herzog, whose own bone-dry voiceovers are so infamous that parodies are widespread, including in Dreamworks’ Penguins of Madagascar. So Anderson was determined to heed Herzog’s advice on The Little Deputy, a take on the Western with Fort Edmonton — which originally sat in the downtown perch currently occupied by the Alberta Legislature, not far from his Grandin home — filling in for the O.K. Corral.

Like his previous films, it’s a personal documentary about life in Edmonton, with a dash of big-budget Hollywood genres. His 2012 short The Man that Got Away, which won a short film prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, was a musical about his chorus-dancing great-uncle, while The Island, from 2009, used fantasy elements and tropical-themed animation to respond to homophobic “fan mail” Anderson received—all the way from the U .S. of A.

The Little Deputy begins in West Edmonton Mall’s old-timey photo studio, with flashbacks shot on an old RCA camcorder, and over the ensuing seven minutes travels back to 1880s Edmonton, as Anderson tries to recreate a real childhood photo as an adult. This, at least, is Anderson’s spoiler-free summary. There are at least two big reveals in the film that he doesn’t want ruined for audiences ahead of time. Anderson, who also serves as director of programming for the filmmaking non-profit FAVA, began his creative life in theatre.

“[Don Iveson] rode his bicycle down to Fort Edmonton Park, like the super-mayor he is and we put a big fake moustache on both him and his wife.”

After moving to Edmonton from Red Deer in 1992 to study at the University of Alberta, he produced Fringe Festival shows and directed five seasons of the improvised soap opera Die-Nasty. He’s also been an ongoing presence in the city’s indie-rock scene, drumming for the Wet Secrets, whose music videos he also directs. (For 2014’s “Nightlife,” Anderson even coaxed Joe Flaherty into reprising his cult SCTV character Count Floyd for a lovingly made-in-Edmonton clip.)

Yet it’s Anderson’s short films that have brought him the most widespread attention and honours, not despite their specificity—he describes the films as “pretty local, pretty gay” — but because of it. The High Level Bridge, for example, is a sharp and provocative short about suicide. It screened at the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest, and generated positive reviews from the likes of the late Roger Ebert and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Like the rest of his filmography, it drew from personal experiences. That is, lost friends. But, most notably, it threw open the door for a much-needed discussion about the bridge’s dark side. Soon after The High Level Bridge premiered, the veil of taboo started to slip, leading to in-depth media coverage, public engagement and a recent decision to install a $3 million barrier.

The Little Deputy marked his return to Park City, Utah, for another run at Sundance this past January. It played to four full houses, plus 100 high-school students through the Sundance Institute’s Filmmakers in the Classroom program. “It was very well received,” he says.

The movie came together quickly. He cobbled his crew together in September, shot everything over three days, and less than a month later, it was finished. A staple of the Edmonton arts and culture scene, Anderson, says that ramshackle, can-do spirit is one of the things he loves most about the city. “It’s that right size of a city,” he says, “big enough that there’s stuff happening, but small enough that you either know the person you have to get to, or you know the person who knows the person you have to get to.”

That sense of community spirit also helps explain how Anderson convinced Mayor Don Iveson and his wife, writer and teacher Sarah Chan, to play extras in the Fort Edmonton section of the new film. “[Iveson] rode his bicycle down to Fort Edmonton Park, like the super-mayor he is,” recalls Anderson, “and we put a big fake moustache on both him and his wife.” Chan’s whiskers, he adds, were all her idea.

Another familiar name in the credits is, of course, Werner Herzog. But it’s not for the voice-over lessons. Because after countless takes at the narration, trying everything and sounding like everyone from Snagglepuss to HAL from 2001 in the process, Anderson finally thought, What would Herzog do?

“He would say to put everyone and everything out of your mind, and to follow your instincts. So I went in and did the voiceover as authentically and truly as I could.”


“And it sounds just like the f—–‘ High Level Bridge,” he says, laughing. “It’s the exact same goddamn voiceover that he criticized in the first place.”