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Canadian Adversaries Take A Break to Dream: The Maclean's 1991 Experiment

 

Note: This Canadian experiment was one form of citizen consensus council.

 

One weekend in June, 1991, a dozen Canadians met at a resort north of Toronto, under the auspices of Maclean's, Canada's leading newsweekly. They'd been scientifically chosen so that, together, they represented all the major sectors of public opinion in their deeply divided country. But despite their firmly held beliefs, each of them was interested in dialogue with people whose views differed from theirs. That dialogue was facilitated by "the guru of conflict resolution," Harvard University law professor Roger Fisher -- co-author of the classic Getting to Yes -- and two colleagues.

Amazingly, these ordinary citizens succeeded in their mission -- despite the fact that they'd never really listened to the viewpoints and experiences of others so unlike themselves... and despitethe tremendous time pressure (they had two and a half days to develop a consensus vision for Canada)... and despite being continuously watched by a camera crew from Canadian TV who recorded the event for a special edition of their W5 public affairs program entitled The People's Accord. Their vision was published in four pages of fine print -- part of the 40 pages Maclean's devoted to describing their efforts in the July 1, 1991 issue headlined "The People's Verdict").

Maclean's editors suggested that "the process that led to the writing of the draft could be extended to address other issues." Assistant Managing Editor Robert Marshall noted that a parliamentary committee, a governmental consultative initiative, and a $27 million Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future had all failed to create real dialogue among citizens about constructive solutions -- even though those efforts involved 400,000 Canadians in focus groups, phone calls and mail-in reporting. He concluded that "The experience of the Maclean's forum indicates that if a national dialogue ever does take place, it would be an extremely productive process."

In fact "The People's Verdict" issue of Maclean's did stir up months of intense dialogue across Canada. Most notable were broadcast "town halls" where elected officials responded to questions from both in-studio audiences and listening audience call-ins. These conversations were ultimately squelched by politicians not comfortable with their direction and tone. Apparently politics-as-usual slowly returned to Canada, albeit with a populist tone that was articulated by the People's Verdict participants as part of a larger trend.

The Maclean's experiment is a type of citizen consensus council. Were something like this to be institutionalized as an official, highly publicized annual national event, it would approximate Jim Rough's vision of a national Wisdom Council (although Wisdom Councils tend to be freer and more creative in their explorations). Perhaps the most striking shortcoming of the remarkable Maclean's initiative was that Maclean's didn't do it again the following year - and the next year - and the next... Had they done so, there is a good chance that the response of politicians would have been taken up by that ongoing national conversation, empowering the forces for positive change.

Maclean's editors apparently did not realize that they had created more than a glorified focus group led by experienced mediators. They had created the seed of an unprecedented democratic innovation. Had they realized that and acted on it, Canada would likely be a far better country today with wiser, more participatory democracy.

With the benefit of both hindsight and two more decades of developments in the fields of dialogue, deliberation, creative conversation, public engagement, conflict transformation, and online forums and networks, we have the opportunity to take what Maclean's did and lift it to an entirely new level of wise, participatory democratic power.

Aside from being a remarkable example of high quality citizen deliberation, this initiative is also an almost unequaled example of a novel and powerful role journalism could play in a deliberative democracy. The most significant elements in that regard involve

  • combining both print and broadcast coverage (which could be augmented nowadays with online engagement) and
  • combining mini-biographies of the participants with a blow-by-blow account of their dramatic interactions -- a combination which drew the entire citizenry of Canada vicariously into this transformational small-group conversation among their peers.

In this model of journalism, as the reader reads the descriptions of the participants, they align themselves with people who are like them or whose views they share, while frowning on participants whose views or demographics they don't like. Then, having established their own place in the group, they read (or watch) their friends and enemies engage with each other. If the conversation is handled well, the participants shift in various ways, and the citizens in the audience find themselves shifting a bit, too, or at least seeing their adversaries differently. When these erstwhile adversaries are shown signing a shared agreement and hugging each other as friends, the readers and viewers realize this means a totally different kind of political conversation is possible -- and, with it, the possibility of creating their shared lives and policies together instead of battling against each other.

There's nothing in this model that violates high journalistic standards, objectivity, etc., but the impact of this design on the viewing/reading audience can be profound indeed. It is very significant that in Canada it triggered months of spontaneous conversation across the country. When we ask "How do we scale up high quality dialogue and deliberation to cities and countries with millions of people?", we would be wise to study what Maclean's did and develop versions of it that we can apply to our own communities and public struggles. The opportunities for journalistic innovation are numerous and obvious.

In June 1999, the Co-Intelligence Institute hired investigative reporter Larry Shook to interview some key players in Maclean's "People's Verdict" initiative. We are posting those interviews here (in both mp3 and pdf form) for the information of those who wish to investigate this effort more deeply. The interviews provide considerable insight into the workings of the process and its impact on participants, observers, and Canadian society at large.

Exploring and reflecting on the materials below (and the interviews linked above) will serve us all in making a bigger and better difference in our societies and our world.

For a larger blow-up of the Maclean's cover and a photo of the group involved, click here (750K)

For the event in story form (Ch 12 of Tom Atlee'sThe Tao of Democracy), click here.

For the entire set of special issue articles in one printable pdf, click here (6.2 MB).

For pieces of the full story -- pdfs of the eleven articles Maclean's issued on this subject in 1991 -- click below. We particularly recommend "The 12 Who Shared" and "A Weekend of Candor".

For 1999 conversations about the People's Verdict experiment with three of Maclean's editors and also the event's lead facilitator, negotiation expert Roger Fisher, go here. The interviews are available in both mp3 and pdf form.


 

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