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The Canadian Experiment

CHAPTER 12 from The Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee

People are sick and tired of being pitted against each other when there’s already so much suffering and the Earth itself is under assault. They’re ready to reconnect and honor the life we share. That is the great adventure of our time. And it’s happening.


In June 1991 a dozen Canadians met in a resort near Toronto in search of a shared future for their deeply divided country, torn by the question of Quebec separatism among many other issues. These people were not politicians, academics or a revolutionary cabal. In fact, a more diverse group of Canadians would be hard to find: They had been scientifically selected for their differences, differences that reflected the very divisions in their nation. Within hours of meeting, they were immersed in arguments. And yet, two days later, they had all signed a detailed, visionary agreement charting a course to greater mutual understanding by all Canadians, and were hugging each other good-bye.

The gathering was sponsored and hosted by Maclean's, Canada’s leading weekly newsmagazine (the equivalent of Time or Newsweek). Maclean’s instructed their polling firm, Decima Research, to "identify scientifically the clusters of thinking in the country that, taken together, constitute a portrait of the main patterns of thought that dominate the nation. Then, by carefully selecting individuals whose views match …the characteristics of each cluster …create a panel that represent [s] the collective thought patterns of the nation. "After reviewing thousands of surveys and doing hundreds of additional calls, Decima and Maclean’s staff managed to select twelve extremely articulate citizens who, among them, balanced not only the various Canadian points of view, but also the age, gender, ethnic and regional differences of Canada. They included hard-liners and moderates on both sides of "the Quebec question," as well as peacemakers –and a Tlingit Indian filmmaker.

editors described the twelve Canadians they had brought together as "initially united only by the depth of their different convictions." The gulf was especially vast between the folks who advocated separatism for Quebec and those who advocated a strong federal government for all of Canada. The two hard line Quebec separatists in the group were lawyer Charles Dupuis and civil servant Marie LeBeau. Of the three advocates of federalism, one of the most outspoken was prosecutor Richard Miller. Reflecting the complexity of the situation, another participant was Carol Geddes, a Native Canadian, speaking on behalf of "First Nations’ sovereignty."

The Maclean’s organizers knew they had managed to obtain diversity, but how were these people going to find common ground? For that, Maclean’s turned to law professor Roger Fisher, a world-renowned negotiation and conflict resolution expert, co-author of the classic book Getting to Yes, and director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. With two other non-Canadian colleagues, Robert Ricigliano and Stuart Diamond, Fisher flew to Toronto, hoping to help the participants find their common interests and their way toward a common vision.

The path they took makes an instructive and heartful story. The account below rests heavily on the report provided in Maclean’s July 1,1991 issue, which devoted 39 pages to different aspects of what it called "The People ’s Verdict," including a lengthy account of the dialogue.

Day One: Discovering differences

The weekend began on a sunny Friday afternoon, June 7,1991,at Briars resort on Ontario ’s Lake Simcoe outside of Toronto. Negotiators and participants alike were nervous. In an interview, Fisher described the challenge of the coming weekend as "taking a dive off the high board without knowing if there was water in the pool yet." Miles away, on a bus heading to the retreat center, Quebec separatist Charles Dupuis felt like a Christian heading to the lions’ den. Rural nurse Karren Collings arrived at Briars figuring Canada was "heading for a breakup." In fact, there was a lot of anxiety in all quarters that day. The travel-weary participants had little idea of what to expect.

Friday’s opening session began with the negotiators introducing the process, framing it as "a discussion about mutual concerns and interests about the future of Canada." They appealed to the participants to try to understand how each one of them viewed their shared problems.

Participants paired up, interviewing each other and then introducing their partners to the rest of the group. The process failed to reveal much common ground. However, when they started discussing Canada’s problems, they found they all shared frustration about the existing state of affairs. As they called out the things they saw as problems, Ricigliano took notes on chart pads. As their list became long and wildly varied, several participants wondered if Canada was really a coherent country at all. Few of them knew much about the other regions, identifying more with their provinces or subcultures than with Canada as a whole.

The issue of mistreated minorities arose early and poignantly. Quebec lawyer Dupuis declared, "The main cause is …having two principle cultures –the Anglo-Saxon and the French-speaking." To which filmmaker Geddes replied: "There are more than two main cultures in Canada. The First Nations are a main culture." Dupuis apologized: "I’m sorry. I forgot about you. We are intruders." Then, with both Quebec and indigenous cultures carefully in mind, he concluded, "Minorities have a fear of being eaten."

Dinner started a little before 8 o’clock. Although the less formal mealtime conversations facilitated the formation of casual friendships, the gulf between viewpoints became even more obvious –especially on the issue of Quebec. At one table Miller, the federalist prosecutor, told facilitator Diamond that he, Miller, did not understand what the folks from Quebec wanted.

"I don ’t understand the problem. I don ’t understand the threat the Quebecers like Charles perceive, or at least I don’t understand how they see separation as being some solution to that problem."

At another table, Quebec separatist LeBeau told Fisher and others that she felt assaulted and insulted by the way English-speaking Canadians treated Quebec ’s dedication to the French language. She got irritated when non-Quebec participants complained they couldn’t read French signs, saying that she had to read signs in English when she went to other parts of Canada –and no one was objecting to French signs in France!

At a third table, Dupuis and non-separatist Quebecer Robert Lalande described to facilitator Ricigliano how protesters had stepped and spat on a Quebec flag, and how the television news had played those scenes repeatedly. Ricigliano commented, "There could be 90% agreement; the media wants to cover the 10% disagreement."

As they left dinner, Karren Collings, the nurse categorized by Decima, the polling firm, as a Peacemaker, told Lalande that she was already beginning to learn something from this process. Collings acknowledged to Lalande that what Dupuis had said earlier "about being afraid of being treated like a minority was all new to me. I was more aware of the Native problem. This is what I came to find out: the other side. And I learned it tonight. It ’s opening my eyes." Her opened eyes would play a significant role in the process as the weekend unfolded.

After dinner, Fisher told the group, "I am surprised at how emotional and sensitive the language question is, with so few clear identifications of what is wrong and what would be right." He described what he expected the group would do the next day, and then ended the session shortly after 10 p.m. Later, he and his colleagues expressed hope that the stage of outpouring grievances, which they had expected and encouraged, was now complete and that the group could turn toward solutions on Saturday. But it turned out the group was not yet ready for that.

Day Two: Passions rise

The Saturday session started right after breakfast, and it took a while for participants to loosen up. Nationalist Miller, tired of hearing about Canada’s problems, launched into a passionate defense of the nation: "We live in such a wonderful place at such a wonderful time …because of systems that were created some time ago that have worked incredibly well over the past hundred or so years …[We are] quibbling, and our problems are really minor problems. And we seem to want to view them as major problems. The danger in that is that we will wreck everything. We will destroy the systems that have given us what we’ve got, just for the sake of change."

Geddes flashed back, "Do you think it’s quibbling that aboriginal people have the highest infant death [rate ]and the shortest life-span, the highest poverty rates of all Canadians?" Miller said he was not suggesting Canada did not have problems, but that "we don’t need to toss out our whole system of nutrition just because we have a side ache. Maybe just a little Band-Aid will work." To which nurse and social worker Viola Cerezke-Schooler replied, "We need radical surgery." Lawyer Miller rejoined, "You don ’t have a lung transplant if you have a chest cold. "Peacemaker Collings, also a nurse, suggested, "No. But if you let a chest cold go, you get worse."

The previous night, Fisher and his crew had sorted the problems that participants had identified into three categories –the constitutional impasse, the threat of economic decline, and the lack of understanding and empathy among Canadians for one another. He created a group for each topic and put four participants in each group, according to their interest. He sent them off with instructions to brainstorm possible solutions to their respective problems.

In the "mutual understanding" group, participant John Prall noted that, although he was a teacher, he had hardly visited other provinces. Furthermore, until this weekend, he had had no idea that Native Canadians’ problems were so great. This evoked ideas from the other group members about Canadians vacationing in their own country and about the need for a more well-rounded history of Canada as well as other balanced curricula. They imagined the federal government forming problem-solving groups like themselves, made up of people from different parts of Canada.

In the economy group, participants shared fears that economic prospects were not good, with too much government and taxes. They wondered whether social programs should remain as universal as they were. The solutions they brainstormed included regional joint boards for economic development (which would include private citizens), more co-operation among industries, and independent audits of government operations.

Meanwhile, in the constitution group, the conversation was a bit more edgy.

"Let’s call a cat a cat. Quebec needs all the powers to determine its own future," asserted Dupuis. To which Geddes retorted, "Before we talk of distribution of powers, some people are not even let in the door of the forum. We don ’t want to be covered by the term minorities or multiculturalism. Our identity is as a First Nation. We don’t want to hear we are a minority." Ricigliano, facilitating, suggested that the group come up with some new ways to address the interests of both Natives and Quebecers. Prosecutor Miller, trying to be cooperative despite his strong Federalist stance, conceded that language and culture could be considered the responsibility of provinces. Following his lead, the group agreed that all citizens should be able to fulfill basic needs like education, but that program content should be determined locally. So far, so good.

The participants went to lunch. When they all reconvened together afterward, Fisher shared with them what he saw as the four dominant options being discussed by Canadians:

  • an independent Quebec,
  • a strong federal government,
  • stronger provinces, and
  • self-government for First Nations.

He invited the group to critique these proposals, which they did with gusto. Soon it became clear that none of these options would be able to achieve majority support. Fisher then pointed out the obvious conclusion: Advocating these options more strongly would not help the group –or the rest of Canada –make any headway on the problem. Instead, it would only generate more noise. He then asked the group, "Can we create a new option that looks as though it has a realistic chance?"

Some of the participants were not comfortable with this way of framing the issues. During a break, Geddes noted that no one ever listened to Quebecers and Natives unless they shouted and screamed for their positions.

For the late afternoon session, participants returned to working in small groups. Although consensus grew readily in the groups dealing with the economy and mutual understanding, the constitutional committee was coming apart at the seams.

Dupuis and LeBeau did not want to talk about the design of the federal government, only about the design of a government for Quebec. LeBeau told Ricigliano, "I have already left Canada." Miller called them naive to think they could leave Canada without producing bad relations between the two areas. But Dupuis considered separation inevitable, and challenged Miller: "If Quebec says a clear ‘no’ to Canada, would Canada impose its views?" Miller rejoined, "You mean, would we send in the tanks?"

The situation was at an impasse. Fisher, who had been working with one of the other groups, adjourned his group’s discussion and came over to the constitutional group. He advised LeBeau and Dupuis to stick with the exploration of what a united Canada would look like, without necessarily abandoning ideas of independence. It was a nice try at compromise, but it did not work. The level of alienation felt by the Quebecers was not being fully understood.

described the scene: "Miller and Geddes sit angrily stone-faced. Dupuis, his right leg jiggling nervously, rubs his eyes repeatedly. And LeBeau, frustrated and angry, launches into a painful, and poignant, description of how hurt Quebecers have been by what they perceive as a rejection by the rest of the country."

"The only thing I can say is that I am fed up with hurting the way I am hurting now. It is incredible. I don ’t have the words to say how I am hurt right now. I don ’t say it is right or wrong. Why have I left Canada? I don’t want to hurt anymore. What lies beyond, I don ’t even want to know. I want to be …not here. And I think, through the people that I meet every day, I am not alone. Friends told me: ‘Go tell them. Lots of people hurt.’"

Fisher quietly pointed out that being hurt does not necessarily mean you know how to proceed, and reiterated his call for LeBeau and Dupuis to continue seeking "directions that hold some promise." The participants tried to be agreeable as they broke for dinner, but considerable tension was still bubbling away right beneath the surface.


At dinner, Collings suggested they combine their tables so they could eat together. But the three Quebecers sat separately, conversing in French. Undeterred, Collings slowly moved towards them until she became part of the conversation. LeBeau continued to express her upset and alienated feeling.

As they ended dinner, Fisher went to another room to figure out how to recover the shattered process. Ricigliano joined the Quebecers who were still at their table. With half the group gathered around, listening intently, he asked LeBeau to speak about the intense feelings she was experiencing. "We are children crying out for love," she said. Pointing at Collings, she said to Ricigliano: "I love her. I do. And if I told her that I don ’t want her to decide what happens in my daughter ’s school – you know what??– maybe she is not offended by the idea. But someone said she should be …Such different people for so long and we ’re still together. And I bet that 200 years from now, we still will be."

Collings responded with heart: "And I want you to be with us, the way it should be. Not the way it is. The way it should be." LeBeau went on: "If kids are suffering in Nova Scotia, it hurts me. And if Native women suffer in the Yukon, it hurts me. And I think we all have to shut up for some time and listen. We might not like what we hear. But we have got to listen …It is a question of survival to me. I don ’t want to lose Canada."

Collings, looking directly at LeBeau, said forcefully, "And I don ’t want to lose you."

LeBeau heard her, and felt moved. "We are on to something here. And maybe someone should become aware that we might be losing it. Do you want to lose it?" she asked Collings. "No." "Neither do I," said LeBeau. "That ’s why I ’m here," said Collings.

LeBeau shook her head and looked down. "God. And if you tell me the only way you can survive is this way [hearing each other ],then I think I am ready to listen to you and say,‘ Well, it’s never been done this way before. But maybe it can work.’" She whispered, "Maybe we can try it."

"Tonight," she said, "I was asked to give answers. My only answer is that I am ready to try. And I would say, ‘Let ’s get the politicians out of it.’ This country is all about love and emotions, and it is the only subject we won’t touch."

There was a silence. Then Ricigliano said, "Until tomorrow." The negotiators stayed up late, finally deciding to set aside the constitutional debate and to take the time to address the group’s personal conflicts. But their time was running out, so they also went over the endless sheets of chart pad notes, extracting ideas that they wove into a first draft of a possible agreement.

Day Three: Discovering common ground

Shortly after the meeting started on Sunday morning, LeBeau, her attention freed by her catharsis the night before, turned to Geddes, the First Nations member. LeBeau asked Geddes to share her own hurt, saying, "I am at last ready to listen to you. Three days ago, I might not have listened. What do you want me to recognize? Please tell me now. Talk loudly."

Geddes talked for almost fifteen minutes about how, against tremendous obstacles, Native elders had sustained their cultures and how Native people wanted to be partners in Canada. Rather than looking to get something from Canada, the elders wanted to share the treasures of their culture with others. When Dupuis, trying to be helpful and respectful, suggested that rough times can make people stronger, Geddes replied that the strength of Native peoples came from their culture, and that adversity had killed a lot of her people. While these were difficult communications, the embattled energy of the previous day seemed to have lifted.

Fisher recognized that a breakthrough had happened on the level of relationships –something that his negotiation method specifically seeks to support – and that this breakthrough had probably opened the way for agreement. Collings and Ricigliano, really hearing LeBeau after Saturday’s crisis, had in turn allowed LeBeau to listen deeply to Geddes on Sunday morning. The resulting mood of mutual understanding spread to others, generating a climate of fellowship in which an agreement could at last be considered.

Fisher shared copies of the draft agreement he and his team had prepared from the input they had gathered, and asked for participants ’responses. During the discussion that followed, many participants reached out to one another with healing comments.

During lunch, as Ricigliano incorporated all their comments into a second draft, Miller and Geddes clashed over Native self-government. Miller called the idea "absurd "and Geddes replied that if all Canadians had that view, that would drive the First Nations into "the same position as Quebec." The disagreement flared but did not catch fire. The group was no longer combustible.

When they convened again after lunch, the group seemed ready and determined to reach an agreement. Individually, in small groups and then together, they worked over the document. As consensus seemed near, Ricigliano tried to depart unceremoniously for an assignment in Greece. But the group stopped to cheer for him, acknowledging the crucial role he had played the night before. Ricigliano choked up, saying he felt attached to the group members. As he reached for his bags, Marie LeBeau rushed over and hugged him. The rest of the group immediately crowded around for hugs and good-byes. Many had tears in their eyes.

After Ricigliano’s departure and a break for a swim, during which the final draft was typed up, all of the participants reviewed and signed their hard-won agreement. At five minutes before 7:00 p.m. Sunday night, Fisher called for "a bottle of something" to celebrate.

The next morning Fisher left early for Boston, leaving Diamond to wrap up. Erstwhile adversaries Dupuis and Miller went together to visit the grave of the famous Canadian writer and humorist Stephen Leacock. Quebecer Dupuis, who had never heard of him, wondered if Miller, who was from British Columbia, had heard of the famous Quebec singer and poet Félix Leclerc. Miller had not. The two lawyers had generated more than their share of conflict during the weekend, all too often against each other. Now, they suddenly realized that they had become friends, and that they shared the problem of their mutual ignorance, the ignorance that was tearing their country apart.

In the final session with Diamond, most of the participants acknowledged significant shifts in their feelings, if not always in their ideas. LeBeau said that while she had arrived certain about her Separatist stance, she now felt she did not know enough to have her mind made up. Miller said he had moved from trying to convince everyone of his ideas to searching for an agreement that would satisfy everyone. Dupuis was impressed with people’s willingness to listen. And Geddes told Dupuis and LeBeau that, although she really understood their pain and their desire to leave Canada, she hoped that they would not.


In interviews with a reporter nine years later, journalists from Maclean’s and from the Canadian Broadcasting film crew who covered the event still remembered it as a life-changing experience for everyone.

The final agreement reached by these dozen diverse Canadians took up four pages of small print in Maclean’s .It contained dozens of policy recommendations and suggested changes in the behavior of Canadians individually, as well as businesses, governments, schools and other segments of Canadian society.

Perhaps most importantly, the document stressed what these people learned during just two and a half days together: that when the human dimension is addressed well, when people really hear each other and learn about each other’s histories, lives, concerns and needs, all the other questions "will be far easier to resolve." It is this attention to the wholeness of human experience that allows us to engage deeply with diversity and reach creative consensus without compromise.

The organizers of this gathering came to the same conclusion that Rep. Edward Markey did after the Boston citizens panel on telecommunications. Maclean’s editors pointed out in their commentary on The People ’s Verdict 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 earlier efforts, which had included 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 diverse citizens about constructive solutions, even though those efforts involved 400,000 Canadians in focus groups, phone calls and mail-in reporting. In stark contrast, this weekend had been a spectacular success ."The experience of the Maclean’s forum indicates that if a national dialogue ever does take place, it would be an extremely productive process."

One might well wonder, if this process is so remarkable, why it is it not being done regularly, and why is it not part of official policy. It seems that it would be very useful for any democratic country to convene this kind of council every year. It could help both government and the public at large to learn more about what the people are thinking and feeling, if they like where the country is headed, and what they want to do together.

In this day and age, we also confront countless complex, highly technical social and environmental issues –global warming, biotechnology, resource depletion, terrorism, arcane financial catastrophes like the collapses of Enron and WorldCom. Can ordinary citizens ever hope to generate real wisdom together when the issues they face are so complex, confusing and riddled with competing experts and interest groups? The next chapter explores some of the successful experiments that have been carried out along these lines.

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Last update: 1/25/2004; 7:17:03 AM.