A vegan golden retriever kind of guy Toronto Star
Save the Rouge activist likes compromise
Former black sheep swept Scarborough ward
By Catherine Porter
November 17, 2003 – Glenn De Baeremaeker has been back in his office every morning since he won a seat on city council in last Monday’s election.
He calls the triangle of green signs propped up like cards around his legs at the barren corner of Markham Rd. and Brimorton Dr. in his Scarborough Centre ward his “corporate headquarters.”
And he’s doing what he did every morning throughout his seven-week campaign – waving at cars.
“It’s just my way of letting people know who are going to work at 7 o’clock in the morning that so am I,” he said Friday morning as tears beaded from his olive eyes. A bitter wind blew snow into his face….
Last week, his green signs read: “Voteglenn.” “Now they say: Thank You!”
Passing cars roaring up toward Highway 401 honked. Some slowed down to flash him a thumbs-up. Kids waved back from a packed school bus.
Some people carrying steaming cups of coffee from the small corner store behind him walked over to say congratulations.
“This is the reason I voted for you,” one middle-aged man said, shaking his hand. “Anyone who stands out on the street in the cold deserves my vote.”
De Baeremaeker (pronounced bear-maker) is convinced the two hours he spent every morning on different corners around the ward waving at cars – even when it was pouring rain – over his seven-week campaign is what won him the election. He could never have knocked on as many doors as the number of cars whizzing by.
“This is like drive-through voting,” said De Baeremaeker, 41.
People did vote for him in droves. He swept the ward with 47 per cent of the popular vote, 3,500 more votes than his biggest challenger, Brad Duguid’s former political assistant Virginia Jones. (Duguid stepped down as councillor to win the riding as a Liberal MPP.)
De Baeremaeker’s environmental fame as the man who helped saved much of Scarborough’s Rouge Valley also helped.
For the past five years, he’s been the president of Save the Rouge, now fighting to keep encroaching development off the Oak Ridges Moraine.
He bikes. He composts. He is not only vegetarian, but vegan (which makes him a difficult dinner guest, not eating milk or egg products as well as meat).
But if there is something deliciously ironic about an environmentalist inhaling exhaust fumes on the edge of a large commuter thoroughfare to thank voters, De Baeremaeker doesn’t see it.
He’s never been one of those hardline, holier-than-thou activists. “I like to see the best in people,” he said. “I believe in compromise and negotiating. I’m not big on confrontation. I don’t mind fighting when you have to fight. But I don’t want to be confrontational for the sake of it. That’s bad karma. Life is too short and wonderful.”
He has a car, albeit a rusty 1989 Honda with a broken door.
He’s worked on campaigns for people of all political stripes. “The environment is one of those issues that has crossed party lines. (Former Tory Scarborough Centre MP) Pauline Browes helped get $10 million under Brian Mulroney for the Rouge and (current Liberal Scarborough-Rouge River MP) Derek Lee under Chrétien delivered the cheque. A Liberal, David Peterson, announced the park and the NDP actually created it,” he said.
De Baeremaeker is a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. Or, as he would say, a golden retriever.
“People are like dogs. Some are grumpy pitbulls. And some are happy gold labs,” he said. “I put myself in the lab spectrum. I’m an innately happy, positive person.”
His zest for life started early.
The “black sheep” middle child of a working-class Scarborough family, he spent most of his teenage years partying.
His Grade 12 average was 50.3 per cent. His parents were so concerned, they sat him down and lovingly urged him to drop out and get a job.
It was one trip too many to a bar that opened his eyes.
“I looked around at all these older guys and said I didn’t want to be like them: unemployed, in financial trouble with alcohol problems and two divorces by 40,” he said.
He graduated the next year with A’s and went right into two university degrees: a bachelor’s in co-op administration and a master’s in international development. He wanted to save the world, which sent him to Ethiopia for a six-month development program in the middle of the famine.
But while there he realized the world he should be saving is in his own backyard.
“I looked at Ethiopia and I looked at myself. I don’t know the language, the religion, the community, the history, the geography and culture, and I’m supposed to tell people how to change their lives?” said De Baeremaeker, who lives nearby in a small Scarborough home with his partner, Ramona.
The day after he came back, he walked into the Save the Rouge office and, 16 years later, he hasn’t left.
In that time, the group has saved 5,000 acres of the valley from development through actions and media stunts, but mostly through lobbying.
Over the years, he’s spent thousands of hours in committee and council meetings arguing to save what they could.
That’s what taught him where real power lies and what convinced him to run for council. “I’ve been elected to power. You can either use it for good or bad,” he said. “I plan to use it for public good.”