I was disturbed by the dearth of civility I witnessed at the public hearing hosted in September by Town of Sidney Mayor and Council to address the rezoning of the proposed Gateway site. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the behaviour of many in the crowd was not different than what one witnesses during Question Period in the House of Commons or on national TV shows or in the comment sections online.
We are a rude and disrespectful society labouring under warped ideas of what free speech actually means. It doesn’t mean that we avoid the consequences of our speech or that we tolerate all forms of discussion. Free speech means that we have the right to say what we like without the government imposing punishments. It is possible to disagree, even stridently, and not lose our sense of civility. As poet and writer Mary Wortley Montagu has said “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”
We have to hold ourselves and each other to higher standards. At the local level, we can do so by developing our capacity for constructive participation. If we tolerate disrespectful language and actions, we risk shutting citizens out from participating in the democratic process. It is important that we develop a framework for governing communities in participatory, deliberative, inclusive and collaborative ways.
The National League of Cities Center for Research & Innovation developed an action guide for city leaders entitled “Beyond Civility, From Public Engagement to Problem Solving”. In it, the authors identify seven principles for doing democratic governance right including 1) Model civility 2) Sharpen skills 3) Create opportunities for informed engagement 4) Support a culture of community involvement 5) Make the most of technology 6) Include everybody and 7) Make it last.
We are enthusiastically supportive of the problem-solving strategies offered by the NLC action guide. The Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce has organized a facilitated, participant-led discussion of the issues arising from the proposed Gateway project with our members and Omicron principals. We will continue to initiate constructive discussions on local issues and build the capacity in this community for active, effective, participation as an antidote to the troubling form of public “engagement” we saw at the September public hearing.