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Driving Dialogue and Debate

Social cohesion is declining in most democracies and, with it, the capacity for reasoned discussion and debate and the ability to find common ground and consensus. There are different reasons for this, including the rise of social media, segmented media, an us-versus-them mentality and declining trust in institutions, including government. Polarization is a key sign of this trend.

Polarization and fragmentation among Canadians – citizens and appointed and elected officials – is a serious challenge to overcome. Where Canadians are polarized on issues of municipal, provincial and national significance, all three levels of government are challenged to find solutions that unite rather than divide Canadians. Often, we see appointed or elected officials promoting divisive narratives that allow them to gain just enough support for their ideas to win a seat or advance a bill. But at what cost? Divisive narratives typically provide short-term wins at the expense of social cohesion and the ability of governments to serve Canadians.

The IOG launched the Driving Dialogue and Debate series in March 2020 to examine the issue of polarization in public policy in Canada. This paper discusses the process undertaken in the project and describes the findings. Where polarization prevents or limits the ability of government to act, this paper proposes a method for resolving tensions in which people are challenged to examine the different narratives underlying their policy positions. The process offers a means to resolve certain policy tensions by getting people to listen to one another, identify things that connect their various stories, then work together to build a single, shared narrative out of those differing stories.

About the Authors

Don Lenihan, President and CEO of Middle Ground Policy Research and Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, policy development, and organizational change. He has over 25 years’ experience as a project leader, researcher, writer, speaker, senior government advisor, trainer, and facilitator. Throughout his career, Don has developed and led many research and consultation projects involving senior public servants, academics, elected officials, journalists, and members of the private and third sectors from across the country. He is the author of numerous articles, studies, and books (see the Access Publications pages) and co-writes a weekly column for National Newswatch, Canada’s preeminent political news aggregator. He earned his PhD in political theory from the University of Ottawa and is proficient in French.

Rhonda Moore, Practice Lead, Science and Innovation

Rhonda Moore joined the Institute of Governance in May 2018, bringing more than 15 years of experience in science and research communications, research and policy analysis and development.

Rhonda has worked for the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (now Universities Canada), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, holding a mix of positions that focused on science and research communications and research and policy analysis. From 2010 to 2012 Rhonda was the primary policy writer for Universities Canada developing AUCC’s pre-budget organizations and submissions to the Jenkin’s panel and the consultation on the digital economy.

In May 2015, Rhonda joined the Public Policy Forum. During her three years at the PPF Rhonda worked in more than a dozen different policy areas including energy regulation, stakeholder engagement, legitimacy, science diplomacy, incubation and entrepreneurship, and workplace literacy. Rhonda held the pen on more than 10 policy reports including R.E.S.P.E.C.T the Regulators and Canadian science abroad: a case for coordinated, international science engagement. Rhonda was the project lead behind Your Energy Future, a renewal of the Action Canada Fellowship.

In 2017, Rhonda co-chaired the annual conference of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada. In 2019 she joined the board of the SWCC and is chair of the 2020 annual conference.

Rhonda has a Bachelor of Public Relations from Mount Saint Vincent University and a Master’s degree in Science, Technology and Innovation studies from the University of Edinburgh, with distinction. Rhonda received the University of Edinburgh’s David Edge prize for her dissertation.

Brad Graham, Vice President, Toronto

Brad Graham is Vice President of the Institute on Governance (IOG), Toronto. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. An economist, Brad spent 25 years in the Ontario Public Service including as Assistant Deputy Minister in the Ministries of Public Infrastructure, Municipal Affairs and Housing, and Research and Innovation. He held other senior positions in the Ministries of Health and Finance. Brad Graham was awarded Ontario’s Amethyst Award for excellence in public service.