Compassionate Designation Just Empty Words

By Jason Menard

I have one word for the decision taken by City council on Monday night to officially declare London as Canada’s first Compassionate City.

That word? “And?”

I’ve got nothing against the Canadians for Compassion movement, which is actually based in the Forest City. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with their principles. My only question is now that the city has affirmed itself as a Compassionate City, what happens next?

That’s why I’ve sat on this for a couple of days. I was originally going to write something in advance, but I thought I’d give this a chance to play out. After all, I don’t really want to criticize this effort – how can you be against compassion?

So I’ve spent the past few days asking, ‘Will we notice any changes? Will this help to guide policy? Or is it just a nice way to pat ourselves on the back, give us a reason to mount a new plaque, and do a whole lot of nothing?’

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any tangible results of this action, which leads me to my big problem with designations – too often, they’re just empty words.

In all honesty, there’s really no harm with the designation. It’s not like we’re on the hook to fund any organization. However, I fail to see how it’s going to help. Unless council is willing to filter all decisions through a prism of compassion – with set rules and guidelines – then really all we’ve done is waste a few minutes around the council chamber patting ourselves on the back.

If the city really means it, then we need to become compassionate in action, more than in name. Will the city be more forgiving? Will the parking enforcement officers tear up those tickets when they see someone running towards their expired meter, coins in hand? Not likely – after all, they just went to the expense of allowing you to pay your parking fines online. We’d hate for that to go to waste.

So practically, this designation means a whole lot of nothing. Like our outdated Forest City designation (we really need to plant a few more trees in light of all the cutting we’ve done to re-earn that title), they’re just words around an ideal – but unless we back those words up with actions, we run the risk of insulting the intent of those ideals.

I understand the value of getting ahead of the game and being at the vanguard of a movement, but this particular one seems a little light in the reality. For example, there is a financial component to this movement. You can buy virtual bricks on the  canadians4compassion.org Web site, to help “pave the way for compassion.” For just $25 you can buy a brick, upload a photo, and write a note or dedication. From what I can gather, the money goes to the organization to help fund its message delivery and promotion of the Charter for Compassion.

Unfortunately, the message isn’t really resonating in the way they probably hoped. Only nine bricks have been sold. That $225 may cover gas from London to Montreal and back, but that’s it.

So have we hitched our cart to the wrong horse? Sure, the organizer is a Londoner. And it’s great to be the first Canadian city. But where do we go from here? As an officially Compassionate City, will we be holding Compassionate Days? Will there be a City of London Compassionate Booth at festivals downtown? What about creating Compassion Centres for our homeless in the winter?

Will this prevent cuts of social programs in the future? After all, how can you consider yourself compassionate if you have to cut valuable programs in an attempt to stay true to the zero per cent tax increase the Mayor ran on? Will our Compassionate City designation trump fiscal prudence?

Or, more likely, will this designation fall by the wayside? In the end we’ll regard it as a nice gesture and a nice thought – albeit short-sighted – with nothing of substance to back it up from a community perspective.

Of course, it would be great for this organization to succeed. After all, how can you not support a group of people who believe in compassion? But if we can’t even identify what it means to be a Compassionate City, then how are we going to put Compassion into action?

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