Posted by: VPSN | April 15, 2011

A parable about a table and a box

A story about one possible outcome of the City of Vancouver’s proposal to regulate political expression.

Like many people in Vancouver you’re interested in the various goings on that take place around town.  Community issues are important to you.  You vote.  Unlike you’re colleague at work, you’re aware that there are actually a few elections going on this year.  You manage to volunteer a few hours here and there (different organizations) and do your piece to be as engaged as you can.  You try to find time.  You lament the decline in civic participation that you keep hearing about.

You’ve got issues you really care about too.  Perhaps you’re passionate about resolving homelessness, or keen on promoting sustainability.  Maybe you’re eager for action and want to do more to make your community ‘the Greenest Neighbourhood in Vancouver.’  Maybe women’s issues are a concern.  Or perhaps it’s salmon farming, or community gardens, or the HST, or human rights, or advocacy for a living wage, or for protection and services for the mentally ill. There are, after all, no shortage of things to be passionate about.

And say – just to carry the story on – you’re sitting at home this time next week and you happen to flip through your local paper and see a story about your issue.  It’s a compelling story, catching your eye in an instant.  Something big is going down.  It’s unexpected.  You wonder: is this for real?  People need to know about this.  Pronto.

After you jet off the requisite emails to your friends and fellow-supporters, you drum your fingers on the kitchen table and take a deep breath.  You realize that what you really need is connect with everyone else – not through more time on-line, but by getting out and talking with your fellow citizens.

And so you decide to do something really brave.  You pull out that dusty card table from the closet and gather up an old wooden crate to use as a seat.  Loading them into your cargo bike you ride along the new separated bike lane the crosses downtown, and head for Robson Street and the good ol’ Art Gallery.  It’s a warmish afternoon, and you’ve decided you’re going to spend a couple of hours gathering petitions… because City Council needs to know that people are interested in this issue.

You’ve never done this sort of thing before, and at first you find approaching people harder than you had imagined.  So many people seem to keep on walking, barely noticing you.  (Barely noticing anything, you think to yourself).  People with faces pressed in their phones, oblivious to the world around them.  People laughing and talking with their friends.

But you persevere and get a few folks stopping.  And then a few more.  They hear you out and jot their names down and thank you for your efforts.  Gradually you find yourself heartened at being able to engage with so many people.  And after an hour or so, you find you’re better at it too.  You’ve found your voice.  The discussions that you have are good ones, and even some of those phone-using folks have stuck around to chat.

And then, as so often happens, time flies by.  It’s later than you thought and you’re about to pack up and head home for supper when out of the blue, a group of walking tour participants happen upon your table.  They saw you earlier and decided to return to ask you en masse about the issue.  There are quite a few of them – all eager!

You envision another sheet of signatures to show the Mayor… wishing that you still some water in your refillable bottle.  You pause for a second, throat feeling a little parched.  But then – what the heck – this is what it’s all about!  You smile… and in a flash of inspiration you pull out the old crate and stand on it to project a little better.  It’s probably the first time in recent memory that someone actually has stood on an old soap box to get their message out.  But this is Vancouver, you think.  We’re good that way.

Well we are, aren’t we?

When the bylaw officer approached you, just after you finished with the walking tour (15 more signatures!), he had a ticket pad drawn.  You were puzzled.

By the time he was finished, you found yourself with over $1,000 in fines – and a warning that it could have been a lot worse (“up to $5,000,” said the officer in a be-thankful-I’m-a-nice-guy voice).  You found out that both your table and crate counted as “structures” under the City’s system of bylaws and that, unbeknownst to you, the City required a permit for their use (“probably for both” said the officer, though he wasn’t sure).  Strike one.  And to think, the table was barely big enough to eat dinner off of.

To make matters worse, as the Bylaw Officer was writing your ticket up he tapped on his watch and noted that you were also using your crate and table after 8pm.  This too was a problem (“no,” he sighed, “it doesn’t matter if it’s still light out.”).  You realized that there were grounds for more fines if you didn’t shut up.  Strike Two.

And then the kicker.  You found out that if you were to follow the rules for your petition table, that you would have had to fill out a formal application form, submit dimensioned construction drawings, and then have the whole thing approved by City staff in advance. All for a one-person political project using a card table and crate.  So much for spontaneity.  The ball goes whizzing past.  There’s not point in even swinging the bat. You pack up and head home.  You’re out.

You’ve got your packet of signatures but it cost you $1,000, a hefty loss of morale.  And to what greater good, you wonder, does that calculus lead.

A very good question indeed.

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