CMU panel tackles polarization


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We are living in an increasingly polarized world, one that has seen differences emphasized making discussion difficult. That was the premise of a panel discussion at Canadian Mennonite University on Monday called “Polarization: Get over it! Stories that lead the way”.

Dr. Jodi Dueck-Read, director of practicum and assistant professor of conflict resolution studies, led the four-person panel including Steinbach PC MLA Kelvin Goertzen, provincial Liberal leader Dougald Lamont, St. Vital NDP MLA Jamie Moses and Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs policy analyst and CMU coach Jayme Menzies in an evening of storytelling as they explored polarization.

“It’s become trite to say, but the pandemic divided us,” she said. “Those physical separations, while temporary have led to a looser social bond; more things to disconnect us and less opportunities to connect.”

“Get over it, the subtitle of the event for tonight is a cheeky way of saying let’s change the conversation at least for a night and focus on the positive and what we can learn from community leaders and how they work at those difficult things,” she added.

The pandemic, trucker convoys and current political climate were all cited by panelists as they unwrapped the concept of polarization, offering their views on why people are becoming increasingly polarized and what must be done to address it.

Panelists were first asked to share a story on how they overcame polarization and managed to connect with people who think differently.

Goertzen said as house leader he is able to connect with those on the other side of the aisle, recognizing that they too are there with good intentions.

“It’s been my experience in the legislature that everybody essentially that I’ve worked with is there for the right reasons,” he said. “It’s really hard to dislike somebody when you get to know them as a person.”

Goertzen said language also matters and he commended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on recently saying he regretted the language he used when discussing the Freedom Convoy.

“I give him credit for that because we as politicians don’t often do that,” he said.

Lamont also referenced the convoy saying he reached out to those who often left angry messages, to try to establish dialogue. He added he also had to work hard within his own party.

“I ran against three sitting MLAs who did not vote for me,” he said of the Manitoba Liberal leadership process. “I won on Saturday night and I had to go to work with them on Monday.”

But Lamont said it’s important to recognize where polarization begins, and he says it’s driven by desperation.

“I think that’s part of what happened during the pandemic, is that people had felt they had no control over their own lives, and often they didn’t,” he said.

Moses told a story of working with the Canadian Wheat board in his 20s when he tried to connect with white farmers in their 50s to 70s. After a farmer wanted nothing to do with him at a meeting, he tried to establish a connection, which he said is a framework to build on.

“When we see those divisions in the media we’re discouraged, but the more we talk, the more we can share our common goals, our common interests, our common values, it builds frameworks within polarized and divided communities.”

Menzies said it’s important to acknowledge differences, give space to different voices and recognize that polarization doesn’t necessarily mean two extreme sides, but a dominant perspective and other perspectives.

Asked to tell a story about working with people on the opposite side of an issue, Menzies said it’s important to keep lines of communication open.

“We just have to do some self-reflection and recognize our own privilege and power or cases when our own voices should be heard,” she said.

Moses shared the story of Nelson Mandela, pointing out he forgave those who put him in prison for 26 years.

“That is the story the really nurtures my willingness to go out and have new connection and make those leaps of faith with people who I might not have commonalities with because at the end of the day we hope to bridge our divide,” he said.

Lamont said it’s important to work together, and said it happens at the legislature more times than the public is aware of.

“You have a fundamental obligation to deal with everybody fairly even when they don’t agree with you,” he said.

Goertzen cited an American study that said 32 percent of Americans not only didn’t trust the institutions of government but believed that those institutions were actually trying to hurt them.

“That is a challenge and a problem for us and we as leaders need to take special responsibility for that,” he said.

As one of the first three black MLAs elected to the Manitoba Legislature in 2019, Moses said he had to ask whether he was really welcome there.

“I hope people, wherever they are can also be proud of their identities too, and not feel like they have to hold back, not feel like they have to change themselves for whatever space that they’re in,” he said.

Goertzen followed up on that later in the evening, asking Moses if he encountered hostility or other things that made him feel less welcome.

Moses responded by referring to the process of entering the legislative building. Security must ask for identification from all those who are not MLAs. Elected MLAs are to be recognized by security and allowed in.

“It wasn’t until my third year as an MLA that they recognized me and let me in,” he said. “For me this was a sign that the people who are running this building, who are set to control this area and this space were not prepared for someone like me to work here as an MLA.”

Visibly shaken, Goertzen responded. “I had no idea,” he said. “I think that might be the most impactful thing I’ll take away tonight.”

Goertzen also warned against the current climate of judging people by the company they keep, pointing out that Jesus met with many people of ill repute.

He said politicians who meet with people with different views are often victims of “value transferring” as a result, stifling their ability to reach out.

Goertzen also challenged others to think about the motivations of those who may be on the other side of an issue.

“When you try to understand why a person feels a certain way, it may not cause you to believe their position but I think it softens your views towards that person because you can usually find some commonality in that,” he said.

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