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Stephen Quinn
Stephen Quinn

City Limits

Ask not what your city can do for you Add to ...

Week after week, finding something to mock, ridicule or parody in this city is pretty much as hard as finding a drunk guy with a faux-hawk on the Granville Mall at three o’clock on a Saturday morning – you don’t have to look very hard. In fact, they tend to come to you.

So an announcement by the mayor this week that the city was about to unleash its long-awaited corps of T-shirted super-citizen volunteers I figured wasn’t just the premise of a yet-to-be-aired episode of Portlandia, but also low-hanging column-fruit.

The idea is this: Sign up and train 1,000 to 1,500 citizen volunteers who are willing to take charge in some small way during a major civic event or a crisis – a major earthquake, for instance. They would be doing everything from, in the case of a civic event, directing people to the nearest public toilet – or, in the case of a catastrophic quake, assessing building damage and reporting it to the fire department.

I immediately picture myself in black and white, wearing a Brodie helmet and an armband, with a squealing and crackling bullhorn under my arm as I go door to door trying to rouse the neighbours. Also, for credibility, I have a British accent.

But try as I might to make a joke of the whole thing, it’s a pretty good idea that also happens to be cost-effective.

“It’s this group that in the event of a major disaster that we will call upon to be our eyes and ears out there,” Vancouver Deputy Fire Chief Mark Engler said this week at the news conference formally announcing the corps. “It’s the major disasters that max us out.”

The motivation for the creation of the corps comes from three things: the success of the 25,000 blue-jacketed volunteers during the 2010 Winter Games; the role volunteers played in the aftermath of last year’s Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake; and the city’s internal review of the most recent Stanley Cup riot.

It’s true that VANOC volunteers in their immediately identifiable jackets pretty much embodied the spirit of the 2010 Games. Harnessing that sort of energy without the cachet of an event as big as the Olympics may prove a little more challenging, but the goal of 1,500 volunteers should be easily achieved.

Following the earthquake in Christchurch, volunteers were able to help search-and-rescue teams determine priorities, they assisted in assessing the safety of buildings, and they helped set up reception centres for people displaced by the quake.

Would the presence of a volunteer corps have made any difference when it came to last year’s Stanley Cup riot?

Mayor Gregor Robertson says it’s all speculation at this point. “Certainly the very presence of more citizens who are watching out for one another makes a difference.”

Based on the police chief’s assessment, it wouldn’t have mattered how many police and front-line workers were there, given the conditions specifically on June 15.

We saw what happened to some of the citizens who tried to do the right thing during the riot. It’s unlikely that even the most official-looking T-shirts would have saved them.

Still, a volunteer corps was among the recommendations to come out of the city’s post-riot report.

The citizen cleanup that happened the morning following the riot didn’t need to be organized by anyone. It was a spontaneous and cathartic display by people who were motivated by the need to do something to erase the literal and figurative stain.

We see other spontaneous displays every day: neighbours shovelling the walk or mowing the lawn well beyond their own property line; parents picking up litter in the playground; people who clear the leaves out of storm drain basins.

Then there are the more formal efforts like neighbourhood and shoreline clean-up events.

What’s clear is that there is already a lot of goodwill out there.

Creating a formal volunteer corps harnesses that goodwill and directs it to where it is most needed. It unites citizens in a common purpose.

As hard as I have tried, even I can’t find anything wrong with that.

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