Operation Red Nose season set to begin, but still absent in Vancouver and Toronto

Operation Red Nose volunteers are recognized during Volunteer Week in Quebec, April 2014. (Facebook)

With the holiday season fast approaching, calls for volunteers have gone out in towns and cities across the country for Operation Red Nose, the volunteer group that offers rides home for revelers too drunk to drive.

But while the 31-year-old service can be found in 100 communities across seven provinces, it remains absent from some of Canada’s largest cities.

It is not, for example, available to teetotalers in Vancouver or Toronto. A list of communities where Operation Red Nose exists also leaves Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax absent.

The Province reported on Thursday that Vancouver, again, will be without its own Operation Red Nose after a local volunteer group determined it wouldn’t be able to organize one for the 2014 holiday season. Nearby communities like Surrey, Coquitlam and Prince George, meantime, have had the service for years.

“It’s a big black hole,” Operation Red Nose B.C. organizer Chris Wilson told the newspaper.

Operation Red Nose runs in 100 communities between November 28 and December 31 each year, with a combined 56,000 volunteers driving holiday revelers, and their cars, home in exchange for donations - which go toward funding local youth sport. It raises approximately $1.5 million annually for amateur sport across the country.

Indeed, look across Canada and you’ll notice organizers getting ready in Regina, Prince George, Winnipeg and Sudbury, to name just a few.

But in some larger cities, the service has struggled to gain a foothold. It was once offered in Edmonton, though that appears to have folded a few years ago. Ottawa had its own service last year, but this year will piggyback onto the chapter in neighbouring Gatineau, Que.

Despite its popularity elsewhere, the group has never managed to establish itself in Vancouver or Toronto.

Operation Red Nose communications director David Latouche notes that larger cities tend to have more alternatives to driving already in place, though the major stumbling block has been finding local non-profit agencies ready and willing to take on the task.

“The program is offered by the community for the community, so we need a local non-profit to take over the program and decide to offer it to Vancouver,” Latouche told Yahoo Canada News.

“The day we launch in Vancouver, we’re going to need a strong non-profit that already has a big base of volunteers willing to help with the program. Because it is going to be huge.”

There is no cost associated with starting an Operation Red Nose branch, though it does require a legally constituted non-profit organization, preferably one with links to amateur sport, to step forward and put together a volunteer base large enough to operate the program.

For example, Regina’s service is offered through the Kinsmen Club. Winnipeg is partnered with the Manta Swim Club and Thunder Bay’s service is sponsored by St. John’s Ambulance.

Operation Red Nose’s national office then works with the group as they establish a local media partner, set themselves up with an accounting firm and secure police support, to run background checks on volunteers and drivers.

New chapters tend to start small but catch on quickly. It launched in Saskatchewan just six years ago, but today has hundreds of volunteers and runs in Prince Alberta, Regina, Saskatoon and the Battlefords.

Operation Red Nose’s largest presence is in Quebec City, where it was founded in 1984. That group receives as many as 6,000 volunteers and offered as many as 6,000 rides home each year.

But local branches run with far fewer volunteers and even a theoretical branch in Toronto or Vancouver wouldn’t need that many volunteers to get started.

“We haven’t put a number on how many volunteers would be needed (in Vancouver or Toronto). We have a starting kit that would be available for any organizations interested in hosting the program,” he said.

“Since it would be the first year of the service in Vancouver or Toronto, the service would not be widely known and it could do a slow start. The following year, though, would be huge.”

While it is too late to get programs sorted for this season, Latouche says he wouldn’t rule out a Vancouver service for next year. He says he doesn’t believe any Toronto groups have expressed interest, but they’d be interested in getting things sorted there as well.

“If a local non-profit decides to offer the program, we have everything they need and we’re ready to help them for next year. We’re willing to help them with everything we can, but it has to be a strong organization.”