Helen Walsh has an answer to political polarization and crisis: genuine conversation
“I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything,” I remember Don Cherry saying during his address at Rob Ford’s swearing-in as mayor of Toronto in 2010, in which Cherry summed up his thoughts on the recent election. “Put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks.”
Recent years have not been kind to those of us who believe in the importance of a lively, robust public square that is also constructive and respectful. It’s not just the famously abrasive Cherry. Watching question periods on Parliament Hill or debates at Toronto City Hall has left me shaking my head, wondering if Canada risks becoming steeped in the same kind of mutual distrust and partisan rhetoric that makes constructive policy dialogue impossible south of the border. One need only listen to the comments made by supporters of the proposed Charter of Quebec Values to worry about the impact that divisive dialogue is having on Canadians.
Is this the kind of society in which we want to live?
This worry about the country’s direction moved me to the point of action in 2011, and motivated me to build a new cross-Canada initiative called Spur.
At a time when public interest in municipal issues had been rising, evidenced by the popularity of media such as Spacing, blogTO, Torontoist and urbantoronto.ca, the City of Toronto invited residents to make presentations to city council about their priorities for Toronto. A remarkable number of people took time to attend and put forward thoughtful comments – including a 14-year-old student from Scarborough who waited until 2 a.m. to speak. Many were mocked and ridiculed as “the usual suspects” by elected politicians who held different views.
If the City of Toronto spending review was the negative impetus for me to create Spur, the positive catalyst was Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. Rather than attacking his election opponents, he first ran, in 2010, on a platform of ideas for a better Calgary. The campaign strategy was to inspire Calgarians with a positive message and motivate the large numbers of voters who normally boycott the ballot box. His team believed, as I do, that conversation leads to engagement and ultimately to solutions. Action is where solutions are found, but that action is impossible without dialogue that counters polarization and inspires people to change.
Spur festivals include debates and conversations, lectures and readings, literary cabarets and artist-led walking tours. They feature commentators from across the political spectrum, including strategists, artists, architects, environmentalists, academics, aboriginal leaders and students. Research and writing fellowships and initiatives anchor the festival in robust, year-round programming.
Spur 2013 editions took place in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto. One wouldn’t expect conservative strategist Jaime Watt (who worked on the campaigns of Alison Redford and Mike Harris) and liberal strategist David Herle (Paul Martin, John Turner campaigns) to find common ground, but their debate turned into a fascinating conversation for two reasons: their refusal to let the audience off the hook during a Q&A about the public’s complicity in making negative advertising effective, and their insightful shared commentary on the need to believe in your candidate.
There were many moments that challenged conventional thinking, and as we build toward Spur 2014 festivals in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa, I’m getting excited about the fruitful dialogue to take place.
I believe strongly that Canadians across the country, across ages, backgrounds and political ideologies, want a better and more effective dialogue. As a society, we must be deliberate about creating opportunity for all of us to feel our contributions are important, and that we’re heard. Change can bring great opportunity – if it is harnessed positively.
Helen Walsh (BA 1990 UC) is the president of the Literary Review of Canada Charitable Organization and the founder of Spur. To join the conversation, visit spurfestival.ca.