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What Dialogue in a Public Square Looks Like

June 01, 2013

An important component of the relative social stability in Canada is our culture of democracy and the freedom of citizens to share, discuss, and support varied and divergent viewpoints on all issues.  Although there will always be disagreement on issues that pertain to society at large, successful democratic institutions allow these disagreements to be vetted, explored, and discussed in the pursuit of solutions.

There is an increasing need for citizens to share and discuss issues of common interest. Technology has enabled the widespread dissemination of public information, but this has not been accompanied by an increase in opportunities to engage in public discourse. There is a growing gap between the information that is available to citizens, and the capacity of our institutions to accommodate public discussion between an inclusive and wide array of stakeholders in a way that informs policy and decision makers.  

In a recent City Conversation presented by SFU Public Square, the topic of discussion was the removal of the Dunmsuir/Georgia street viaducts.  Jerry Drobovoloy and Brian Jackson, from the City of Vancouver’s department of transportation and planning respectively, were in attendance, as well as Pete Fry, the Chair of the Strathcona Residents Association.  There is some concern from the local resident associations over the possibility of removing the viaducts.  Participants in the conversation (anyone who attends a City Conversation is a participant) expressed a range of views; there were some supporting the removal and others expressing opposition to the proposal without a clear indication of the development that would subsequently take place.  

Nonetheless, it was my impression that both those who were in favour and opposed to the proposal had the chance to hear different, alternative, perspectives.  At one point during the conversation, a participant indicated her surprise upon hearing that the Strathcona Residents Association is not opposed to removing the viaducts per se, rather that they are concerned with the traffic and safety implications of removing the infrastructure.  It was clear that this more moderate position did not come through to her in the public media.  Shortly thereafter, in response to an expression of vehement opposition to the plans from one participant, Brian and Pete, together, made a gesture of “almost” shaking hands, to show that they are both working to mend the mistrust that has developed over time.  

To me, that gesture epitomized the potential of SFU Public Square.  We can all access limitless amounts of information on any issue.  Unfortunately, we usually read about very polarized positions that can’t be reconciled.  What we can’t always do is sit down with one another, in a safe, mutually respectful atmosphere and begin building the foundations of trust and dialogue to move forward with solutions.  Those who attend City Conversations don’t always agree, but hopefully they can at least start trusting and listening to one another.  

That’s the power of a public square.

Author Mark Friesen is the Community Outreach Coordinator at SFU Public Square

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