Around the World with a Cause

Local activist David Tonner has set off on a journey that he hopes will see him instigate positive social change in every country on the planet, all on a dim budget!

by emil tiedemann

#yeg activist David Tonner
WHAT am I supposed to do with my life?!

It's a question that we've all asked ourselves at some point in our day-in & day-out grinds, pursuing some sort of particular purpose. Are we all meant to do something special? To find meaning in our daily being? To make a difference in the lives of others? Who knows!

But it's always been something that Montreal-born activist David Tonner has questioned, from his days of traveling country to country with his family to his more recent excursion in which he drove around Canada and the U.S. alone in a camper van.

It's never necessarily simply been for something to do, or for some extreme adventure, or to prove something to someone (other than himself, I guess). Nope, there's always been more meaningful purpose behind what Tonner, 35, has done or what ideas he has going forward.

"I guess what scares me the most is: what do I do if I don't complete this trip?" he asked himself over Vietnamese coffee in a Garneau cafĂ©. "If I do complete the trip and I still don't feel like I've made any sort of contribution, or like any of it was worthwhile; what do I do then?"

The trip Tonner's referring to is one he just recently commenced and which he has christened "Around the World with a Cause." In a nutshell, Tonner will leave Edmonton with his backpack and $3000 (which he mostly raised online through crowdfunding), and essentially set out as a necessitous nomad to make a positive change in some regard in every country in the world.

He wants to accomplish this daunting feat using as little cash as possible, and by working for his room & board, hitchhiking and trekking, camping and couchsurfing, relying on the sheer kindness of others, and when necessary, dumpster diving for his next meal. And all the while, working for positive social change where he feels it's needed, and then sharing his trials and tribulations online for the world to respond to.

"Contributing to that in both a physical manner and also filming it provides that awareness," he continued, "giving it a bit of a greater scope in terms of visibility around the world so that other people can then choose to either support it or be inspired in some way to help however they can."

His family, his friends, and even his girlfriend are supportive of Tonner's journey, because they know that this is something he has to do.

"There's so many things that frustrate me about what humans are doing to this planet, and I think that I've struggled to find something that really gives me purpose in life...I guess I'm looking for something that I can truly sink my teeth into and feel that I'm contributing to a bigger change."

"I have to go on this journey."

Tonner, who speaks seven languages and has lived in or visited about two dozen countries in the past, was dropped off in Spruce Grove by his girlfriend just last week (August 20), and from there he thumbed his way to Jasper and then B.C. He will then head down south to the States, Mexico, and eventually South America, and then the rest of the world awaits him.

It is a journey unlike any other I've heard of, and one that will surely inspire many others around the world to do better, to evoke change, to seek adventure, and to follow that inner calling that you've been ignoring or perhaps just misinterpreting all these years. Listen to it, and see where it takes you!

Now, let's get to know David a little more, shall we!

Tonner at the beginning of his journey, making his way from Edmonton to Jasper!

IEdmonton/ Tell me about this "Around the World with a Cause" journey you’re about to embark on!
david tonner/ 'Around the World with a Cause' is the idea of traveling through every country in the world and trying to visit as many different projects and communities and meeting people who are creating or contributing to positive social change.

That can take many aspects; it can be directly through social change, but it can also be an environmental project, an animal rights project…anything that is basically doing good in an environment that is perhaps oppressive or where the rights are lacking.

Contributing to that in both a physical manner and also filming it provides that awareness, giving it a bit of a greater scope in terms of visibility around the world so that other people can then choose to either support it or be inspired in some way to help however they can.

ie/ Are you at all scared to go to some of these countries?

dt/ There’s definitely places in the world that are scarier than others, some that are more unstable and where especially a white traveler is at greater risk of being kidnapped or assaulted, but that is not one of my bigger fears though.

I don’t spend too much time thinking about that at all. I think more about whether or not I will find food to eat, because I’m going with minimal funds, which is partly intentional, to try to rely as little as possible on money. At this moment, with not having too much experience with taking food without having to pay for it, that is one my biggest concerns…finding food. 
Tonner will be camping out whenever he needs to, though this is nothing new to him.

ie/ So why was there so much traveling going on when you were growing up?

dt/ It was my mother! She just liked traveling, and she always had a passion for Asia and always wanted to go live there; and then at some point, because of the work she was involved in, she ended up moving from country to country chasing after opportunities, and brought her entire family with her. So we ended up going from one country to the next for about five years. 

ie/ What do you get out of traveling? What is it that you love about it?

dt/ That’s a question I actually don’t think I’m able to answer. I spent most of my life traveling, but not truly as a traveler, but more as an ex-pat living in different countries. For the longest time that was the only life that I knew, so I didn’t really think of it as traveling, and I didn’t do anything that was sort of touristy. You know, it was like, ‘this is now home, this is where you live,’ and you adapt to it. I’ve done very little traveling for the sake of traveling.

So pinpointing what I get out of traveling is hard. I feel like there’s a lot to see in the world, there’s a lot of experiences to have, and I don’t want to spend my life being in one place and doing the same things when there’s so much I still haven’t seen or experienced.

ie/ What do you get out of volunteering, and helping others in need?

dt/ That’s one of the things I’m most passionate about, trying to bring out positive change. I’ve been involved in activism for the past three or four years, and there’s so many different causes that I would like to see change in the world; everything from poverty to oppression of women in various societies, to the way animals are treated, and environmental degradation.

There’s so many things that frustrate me about what humans are doing to this planet, and I think that I’ve struggled to find something that really gives me purpose in life.

I want to be able to bring about something positive that can have a greater impact than, you know, just helping a friend here and there. I mean, that’s a great thing to do, but I personally haven’t found that satisfying in a bigger sense. I guess I’m looking for something that I can truly sink my teeth into and feel that I’m contributing to a bigger change.
Tonner and his partner Renee!

ie/ Where did this activism come from...where did it start?

dt/ I’m not too sure! It’s been a long process. I definitely saw poverty where I lived – Thailand, the Philipines, Hong Kong – but if I had to pinpoint it to where it all began for me, I think I would have to say it was the fact that I never really got a full academic education…I never finished school.

I quit school when I was fifteen, not by choice, but because there was no option for me to continue; and from that point on, I sort of became self-educated and developed – or perhaps always had – a desire to learn more and to discover things, how things work, what’s going on, you know!

That would probably be where it all began for me, is wanting to know what was going on; and once I found out what was happening all around me,  for some reason, I decided that I wanted to do something about it.

Actually, there was a specific catalyst for me that brought me into activism. It was seeing the documentary The Cove (see trailer below), about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. After watching that film I thought, ‘these [activists] who are putting their lives at risk in order to do something that they’re passionate about, to stop this abuse.’

I wanted to be one of these people, I wanted to be someone who is devoting his life to making that change.

ie/ Do you find it ironic that you'll be the one asking for support at times on this journey?

dt/ Definitely, I think that I will be relying on people’s support along the way, and I think that part of the motivation for me wanting to travel was the idea of living and traveling without money; and what makes that possible, in my mind, is the fact that I consider people to be extremely generous and helpful of each other.

I think that’s something that we often overlook in our society, because we have this idea of independence in North America and the Western world, of what it means to be successful in life, and basically that is being self-made and being successful in economic terms, and having gotten there through our own labours and efforts.

I think what often gets overlooked is that what makes humanity so rich is the fact that we have this kindness towards each other, we have desire and ability to help each other…basically, empathy! We don’t realize that in our part of the world, because it’s almost been supressed, I think, because we don’t need to rely on it. I think that we find it difficult, a lot of the time, to turn to someone for help, to ask for help; and for those who tend to ask for help on a regular basis, they tend to be shunned.

A definite aspect of my journey is discovery, and showcasing the kindness and generosity of people from all parts of the world. It’s my impression that the less people have the more willing they are to share that; and on the other side of that spectrum, the more that people have the less giving they are.

I don’t want to become a burden on those who already have very little, that’s not my intention, but I’d like to be able to rely on people’s support while I travel.

I think that what will give me an advantage is that I will have my camera, I will have the ability to provide a greater awareness through that medium of the way people are in different parts of the world, and that generosity that does exist. I think, ultimately, it is going to be a documentary about what it truly means to be human. 

ie/ How is this journey going to affect your current relationship?

dt/ The relationship was something that wasn’t expected. When I came back to Edmonton in December, I started saving money for my trip and I met someone - one thing led to another, and we ended up in a relationship; and it’s a very strong relationship, even though we’ve only been seeing each other for four months.

We feel that it’s something that we both want to try to hold onto, even while traveling. My partner is staying in Edmonton while I’ll be on the road, but hopefully she can come and visit me at least a couple times.

Tonner has lived in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Laos, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and, of course, Canada!

ie/ Was there ever a point where, because of your new relationship, you thought you should put this journey off?

dt/ I think that I might have had that thought, but it’s only been fleeting, because I think all along I’ve known that I have to do this. I have to go on this journey. This is what is currently driving my life, and as much as I would like to build on this relationship that I have, I know that if I were to do that and put off this journey, I think that I would be unhappy.

I would constantly be thinking about the direction I wanted to be going in, and what staying here in Edmonton would force me to do is to look for work and to be sort of settled with no definite end in sight, with no definite goal; whereas this journey is almost like a goal for me in itself, so I think that from the very beginning – and I made this clear to my partner – this journey that I’m on is my primary drive for the moment and it has to come before anything else.

She was always okay with that. I’m hoping that the relationship will stand the test of time!
"I think, ultimately, it is going to be a documentary about what it truly means to be human"

ie/ How has your family and friends been handling this concept?

dt/ My family’s been mostly supportive of this. The ones that are somewhat involved in my life have been supportive of this project to various degrees. My friends, the people I’m close with, are supportive of me, because they know me, what I’m passionate about and what I can do.

But I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people, some of my Facebook friends or some of the people who have reached out through my crowd-funding campaign, who have tried to dissuade me from doing this trip.

Not so much for my own safety, not so much because they think the idea’s crazy, but a lot of people seem to think that the goal of the trip is unrealistic. I’ve gotten some feedback saying that it’s been compared to voluntourism, for example, and voluntourism is getting a back rap.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people suggesting that the only reason that I can do something like this is because of my ‘white privilege,’ basically pointing out that it’s a perpetuation of Colonialism and ‘white privilege’ in me trying to go out there and help underprivileged people from the Southern Hemisphere.
Tonner's Jasper campsite before heading to British Columbia.

ie/ Do you worry that you won’t be able to complete this goal, and if you don’t, are you going to look at it as a failure?

dt/ I think that knowing myself, I most likely would look at it as a failure if I didn’t complete it. When I came back from my last [camper van] trip in December, I had intended to travel around Canada and the U.S. visiting all the states and provinces, and I didn’t accomplish that; and I did feel somewhat like a failure.

There’s times when I wondered if I would be able to go through it…what will happen, what are some of the obstacles I will have to face, and will I be able to face up to them?

I guess what scares me the most is: what do I do if I don’t complete this trip? What do I do with my life? If I do complete the trip and I still don’t feel like I’ve made any sort of contribution, or like any of it was worthwhile, what do I do then?!

I think that’s my biggest worry, is what will that mean for the rest of my life? Will I have to settle for a mediocre life, you know, with a nine to five job, being settled in one place, which really isn’t what I want. That’s what scares me the most. 

ie/ What would you tell somebody who wants to travel or do something similar to this, but has nothing but excuses? What would you tell someone to motivate them?

dt/ You can tell people how things are or your experience with things, but is that truly motivating? First of all, I would tell people that – unlike what we all believe – traveling does not have to cost a lot of money. Traveling can be extremely cheap and I know countless people who travel the world with zero money on principle, so it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

Traveling is not a scary experience. I would tell them that the world is not a scary place; we live in a world that’s better and safer and kinder than it’s ever been in the history of humanity!

The fear of the dangers and the obstacles is something that is always going to be there, but the more you try to put something off and make excuses for yourself, the less likely you are to do it.

So, if you’re truly passionate about traveling, you’ve got to forget about all of the things that you believe are standing in your way and just do it! You don’t need much, you just need the willingness to go ahead, challenge yourself and push your own boundaries.


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