After coal: profile of activist Angela Bischoff

Activist Angela Bischoff of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance sees many more dragons to slay now that Ontario’s coal plants have all shut down


They had the party in February, and on April 8 came the big day – Ontario’s last active coal plant, the Thunder Bay Generating Station, burned its final lump of coal. Founded in 1997, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, the non-profit group behind Ontario's coal phase-out, could claim victory as the province became the first jurisdiction in North America to end the use of coal as a source of electricity.

Among the celebrants at the Good-Bye King Coal party in February was Angela Bischoff, 52, outreach director for the Toronto-based OCAA and a lifetime activist who has been on the front line organizing her fellow citizens in causes ranging from bicycle use and nuclear power to mental health and elections in four different Canadian cities. In 2013, the Edmonton native was named “Best Activist” in NOW magazine’s readers poll. Her energy for progessive causes has continued unabated even in the wake of the death by suicide of her partner and fellow activist Tooker Gomberg in 2004, a loss that prompted her to conduct research and raise awareness of the dangers of antidepressant drugs.

What is next for the OCAA and Angela Bischoff now that there are no more coal-burning plants in Ontario? Bischoff responded to questions from FYI.

• How do you feel now that the original goal of the OCAA has been accomplished? Where will the OCAA's future efforts be addressed?

It’s been a thrill and an honour to work with OCAA, watching each of Ontario’s five coal plants shut down one by one. But the coal phase-out campaign was essentially won before I arrived. I was hired in December 2008 to help build our next campaign, the phase-out of Ontario’s three nuclear stations. That might take a while, so yes, I’m here for the long haul.

• Describe the feeling of comradeship that comes with a long journey that reaches success.

It’s been one huge community-building exercise. At our Good-bye King Coal party in February, we honoured 80 people on our Wall of Fame who played a role, from politicians to activists. The room was abuzz with celebration. Changing the world is a blast. And doing it with colleagues who I deeply respect makes coming to work something I look forward to every day.

• What would have happened with coal plants in Ontario without the involvement of the OCAA?

The plants would still be running, spewing mercury, lead and arsenic into our air, causing deaths, asthma and climate destabilization. The coal phase-out is the best local environmental success story I know of, the largest climate initiative in North America, equivalent to taking seven-million cars off the road. And it was won by smart, community-based organizing.

• Describe how you developed into an activist.

I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree at the U of Alberta, moving in the direction of international development, when I met a feisty environmentalist named Tooker Gomberg who melted my heart. I got swept into the world of bicycle activism, urban ecology and politics. We formed our own NGO called EcoCity Society and campaigned for bike facilities, compost programs, energy conservation and more. Tooker was elected to City Hall. Dozens of campaigns and several cities later, I landed in the offices of OCAA working for a 100-per-cent renewable electricity system.

• Now that you are over 50, how do you keep the drive inside you alive? Do you suffer burnout?

I choose to look at the cup half full. It’s my strategy. I honour my spiritual foundation, maintain good health and am comfortable surviving with little income. While I’ve taken on many battles that we have yet to win, over the course of my activist career I’ve seen much change, and that gives me hope. Besides, I’m much more effective as an organizer if I’m enthusiastic; indeed that’s the secret to my success.

• Who have you met on your journey who has inspired you?

Having been the spouse of a politician, I know what it takes to stick your neck out as an elected official, so I’m especially inspired by progressive women who devote themselves to political life. Elizabeth May. Olivia Chow. Hillary Clinton. Aung San Suu Kyi.

• What is it like to take a mentorship role in grooming new recruits?

I speak to groups regularly, and have interns throughout the year, usually young women. It’s an important part of my work on this planet, training young women to think outside of the corporate, patriarchal framework. One of my goals is to stop nukes in Ontario; my other goals include creating community, and engaging civil society to manifest social and environmental justice.

• Where do you see grassroots activism going in the next few years in Ontario's and Canada's current political climate?

It’s a battle, for sure. But just as the corporate elite gains ground (i.e. Big Oil, Big Media, Big Pharma), the masses have never been more empowered, more educated, or more armed. Social media, cell-phone cameras, girls’ education, Idle No More, Arab Spring, Occupy, Femen, Pussy Riot, climate-change awareness, anti-pipelines activism; people all around the world are rising up and saying no more. I celebrate and support that mass awakening. I’m part of it.

• How did your spouse’s death change you as a person? I know you got involved in outreach on antidepressants, addressing the pharmaceutical industry, as an activist.

His death humbled me. I no longer take life or relationships for granted, and I take each day as it comes. I’m gentler, and much more sensitive to people and emotions. I cry lots, with sorrow and with joy. I take immaculate care of myself because that’s what got me through the tragedy. I give thanks for everything.

• Describe your personal style. Does sustainability drive almost every personal decision you make?

Yes, concern for all living things drives all my decisions. But one of the principles of sustainable activism is “balance.” So while my activism is my passion (to the point of workaholism,) I make time for friends and go to the gym regularly. I play the piano, practise yoga, dance and travel. I’m a bicycle commuter, a vegetarian, and I juice every morning. My work is flexible and meaningful. And best of all, I have a loving, generous partner. Counting my blessings…

• What skills and wisdom can older Canadians bring to activist movements?

I know that I’m much more effective an activist in my 50s than I was in my 20s or 30s because my skills are so much broader. There is room for every mature person out there to get engaged in working for change. We owe it to the next generation that isn’t getting a job but is left with our generation’s nuclear waste and weapons, climate destabilization, mass extinction. I see it as our responsibility to contribute our skills, time and money, especially now that we have so much more of it than they do. It’s a gargantuan task to alter the trajectory of this beautiful spinning planet, but one we all must contribute to, young and old.

• Is 52 a good time for you, or is it nearing the end of your productive years, do you feel?

I’m healthier and more productive than ever – thank Goddess. And now as I enter menopause, I welcome and embrace the shift in my mind and body. I don’t love the hot flashes, but I do love the confidence and wisdom that comes with experience, and the transformation that comes with the post-child-bearing age.

• What new goal or idea are you most passionate about these days?

My work mission is to move Ontario to a 100-per-cent renewable electricity system, but the broader context is to leave the world a better place than when I came into it. I envision a world where hundreds of millions of bicycles flow like water through city streets and where electric transport moves those who can’t cycle; where food is plentiful, organic, and grown in every neighbourhood; where every home is efficient and hosts its own solar panels; where community councils engage citizens in decisions that affect them; where nations live side by side in peace; and where all living species – flora and fauna – thrive.