Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi found himself being bashed, nationally, a few days ago, for his effort to reduce conflict among members of his city council.
At the root of the bashing was a somewhat contentious decision the mayor had taken, to have a psychologist/facilitator meet with council members.
Nenshi was a surprise winner in the city’s 2010 mayoralty race. He was known, among other things, as a teacher in non-profit management (not an oxymoron) at Mount Royal University.
The first Moslem to head a major Canadian city’s municipal government, Nenshi promised to bring a new, more collegial, tenor to council deliberations. Under his predecessor, David Bronconnier, the body had been known for dysfunctional partisanship, according to Calgary Herald columnist Jason Markusoff.
Council members maintain that collegiality has improved and ideological tiffs had been considerably reduced.
However, Markusoff reported that a recent closed-door session was “toxic” and marked by outbursts and tempers. The meltdown apparently led to requests for Nenshi to try to resolve the tensions. His solution was to bring in a facilitator – who happened to be a psychologist, Ivan Zendel.
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I first learned about the session through watching a Sun News segment whose host is Charles Adler. He is a well-known and growly conservative Winnipeg talk show host who is part of the evening lineup at Sun.
Adler attacked the facilitator idea as being a bit like the methods of despots who declare opponents to be insane, then ship them off to a gulag for brainwashing.
It was a pretty dramatic comparison but struck me as being a tad overstated.
In this scribe’s continuing interest in conflict management, a quick look at the Calgary council seemed a legitimate endeavour.
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The idea of a facilitator in the world of management has become increasingly common in recent years. Nenshi, as a management teacher, would know a fair amount about it.
Indeed, around Ottawa, mediation services, the practice of mediation law and the engaging of conflict-reducing third-party neutral negotiators has become commonplace. This is true in both government public service and in the high-tech industries that populate the capital’s suburbs.
The conflict studies department and the Canadian Centre for Conflict Resolution at St. Paul University, an Ottawa-based Catholic institution, are both known to have some influence around the capital in this field.
Without betraying confidences, it is safe to note that, in some offices in both the public service and ministries, mediation and conflict management practices are used to defuse tension.
For example, some staffers who disagree with same-sex unions might have strong feelings against others who are part of such unions. The idea of a mediation process would be to encourage staffers, despite their disagreements on certain values, to get along in achieving the overall objectives of the ministry in question.
And it has been fascinating to note the current federal government’s success, so far, in keeping their public service unions onside. It has been with more than passing interest that I have been noticing that Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has, on one hand, regularly promoted the many mediation services available for dispute resolution, and, on the other, congratulated both sides in the quiet settlements of various public service contracts.
And, in Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford and the leaders of the outside workers unions have recently touted a tentative settlement. The jury is still out, because it has to be ratified by a union vote. But Ford, for all his reputation as a right-wing curmudgeon, seems, so far, to have succeeded where his more leftist predecessor, Dan Miller, failed. (Remember the last Toronto garbage strike.)
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In these various cases, the rhetoric does not disappear. From the right, the Adlers of the nation will warn of left-leaning attempts to assign insanity to their opponents. And leftist union leaders will speak of their being intimidated by right-wing union-busting techniques.
From this particular perch, it would seem that mediation has a lot going for it – in part because so much has been accomplished in the social sciences in recent years to make such things work, even on the political level. And all this with the adversarial system still pretty much in place.
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And is there a faith perspective on the foregoing?
Again, without pointing out blame in a particular direction (because I would then be point four fingers back to myself), permit me to present a certain scenario.
Have you ever heard a religious leader calling for Christian unity, based on Jesus’ prayer, that “they all may be one”? (John 17:21)
Then have you noted the leader’s prescription for that unity?
Invariably, the prescription has involved the adopting of doctrines or practices, on the part of other streams of Christianity, so that they might be more like the practices of the proponent of unity.
The question is “On whose grounds?’
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Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006), More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders Doing Politics Christianly (BayRidge Books, 2005) and Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997). Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.