Creating space for transformative conversations

Dialogue Spotlight: Tony Penikett

February 08, 2018

DIALOGUE SPOTLIGHT is an ongoing interview series featuring SFU's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue staff, fellows and associates.

Tony Penikett is a mediator, negotiator and former politician. He served as Premier of the Yukon from 1985–1992, part of a total of 25 years spent in public life. In 2006, Douglas & McIntyre published his book, Reconciliation: First Nations Treaty Making. Tony is a senior associate with SFU's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.


What was your first involvement at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue?

I was appointed a senior fellow at the Centre for Dialogue (2001–2005) by founding member Ann Cowan. During that time, I led a series of dialogues at the Morris J. Wosk Centre, about the struggling British Columbia First Nation treaty process. These dialogues involved federal ministers and provincial deputy ministers, First Nations chiefs, regional chiefs and negotiators. Reports of these the dialogues were published on the SFU Centre for Dialogue website. I turned much of that material into a book called First Nations Treaty Making in British Columbia, a book that is still used in a number of university coursess.


What was your first experience in dialogue?

As a brand new premier of the Yukon Territory in 1989, I saw that our cabinet faced two immediate crises; one economic and the other social.

In the months leading up to the provincial election, world commodity prices had collapsed and all of our working mines had closed. For a territory with a mining economy going back to the Klondike Gold Rush this was a serious situation. We presented a Keynesian budget to the legislature which pumped up infrastructure building and invested in private-sector job creation. But to address the deeper causes of our malaise our cabinet decided to launch a bottom-up economic planning process by bringing everybody to the table. By that I mean we invited miners, mining companies, miners’ unions, mining organizations, local merchants, preachers, teachers, seniors and youth to share their ideas about what might be done to address this economic crisis and how we could work our way through it.

We called the two-year process “Yukon 2000”. We focused not on the thorny issues, about which citizens had strong opinions, but rather we asked what were the values, principles, policies and programs for which our community might move forward towards a consensus economic strategy. Where there were fierce disagreements, we banished those debates back to the legislature. Yukon 2000 was different. Rather than being consumed by our differences it became a space where Yukoners could simply sit and talk about what we had in common and what our shared values were. People found that very refreshing and quite an invigorating and healthy alternative to the usual petty partisan political bickering.

This process was my first discovery of dialogue.


You touched on why dialogue and engagement matter. Where do you think it’s needed?

I think almost all of the big issues can benefit from dialogue. Facilitators and participants all have to be willing to suspend their prejudices and approach a dialogic way of thinking; rather than immediately rebutting what the previous speaker said or negating their input, they might tell themselves to listen and learn.

Many First Nations dialogic traditions foster productive group discussion and mutual understanding. Discussions don’t happen like that of a debate between two sides, but rather as a circle of continuing discussion. On the West Coast that tradition employs a talking stick and you only talk when you have the stick in your hand. When you finish talking you pass the stick to someone else. Only one person talks at a time, everybody else listens.

In my youth, I observed circles in the Far North in which the speakers’ aim is to try and add to what someone else has said—not to detract from it, not to subtract from it, not to mitigate it, but to contribute. Their tradition is that each person sums up what was said before and then adds something. Those discussions end when the last person speaks to sum up or articulate a community decision.


Is there any simple way we can implement that sort of system of a talking circle or of adding to each other to the local community?

Yes, there are, but you almost have to build a culture of dialogue. You need to have dialogues all the time with people and that’s hard because you also have to train people to do that. Sometimes people are naturals, but you usually have to work at building those skills. We need a professional kind of practice seminar where people can ask questions about dialogue and learn how to practice it to start building a community of practitioners and leaders; it can only have value for the community if it works well.


How can that culture of dialogue be taught?

In the Western world we have a binary culture of political division: government and opposition, prosecution and defense, along with a mass media rule that says, “no conflict, no story.” We would have to build a culture of dialogue in the shadow of polarized discourse. To do that we need to host dialogues all the time with all sorts of people on all kinds of issues.

A few years ago I taught a course that included dialogic practices. One of my students wanted to know what dialogues techniques were. I told her it doesn’t start with techniques, but she insisted on getting acquainted with the tools so I showed her one tool that worked in a particular situation. For the rest of the course she kept trying to use that one tool on every issue until I sat her down and told her if she wanted to build a house she couldn’t just use a screwdriver. Part of the skill set of being a dialogue facilitator, or any mediator, is being able to identify the right tool for the right problem. You need to discuss, listen, and learn what tools will work for a particular situation.


Alright, this is my last question for you. Where would we find you on the weekend?

You would find me at my house working. The most productive days of the week for me are Saturday and Sunday because the phone doesn’t ring, the emails stop and traffic noise outside dies down. Saturday is intense for me. I get up really early to watch a premier league soccer game, do my laundry for the week, shop for groceries (which takes less than an hour because I hate shopping) and then I put on the “Goldberg Variations” to take me away from the day. If the music works and I get into the zone, then I may write for four, five hours without interruption. The music stops at some point but I don’t notice. On Sunday morning I get up and do the same thing again.