Collaboration: The call of our time

Engage N.S. working to build connections, trust through public engagement

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump being elected. For many of us Canadians we remain as bewildered today as we did a year ago.

It’s common for we Canadians to mock our American cousins — or 50 per cent of them — for being duped by the “untruths” of their new president. We are indignant that so many of them want to destroy Obamacare that, in spirit, is so Canadian — eh. And why can’t they just give up their guns in the wake of so many tragic shootings?

I have American relatives who love Trump, hate Obamacare and own handguns. We barbecue, talk sports, love our children and enjoy each other’s company.

They are good-hearted people — some born in Atlantic Canada. We trust each other to be there for crises, anniversaries, funerals and weddings, but that’s where the trust ends. We have lost our ability to discuss politics, climate change and many of the most important challenges facing our world.

So what gives? Is this a U.S.-Canada thing? Partly yes, and mostly no. Let’s start with the concept of trust.

The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that, globally, trust is plummeting — in government, media, business and non-governmental organizations. Only 15 per cent of 33,000 people surveyed in 28 countries believe the system is working, while 52 per cent believe it is not — 32 per cent are uncertain. This continues a dramatic decline that started with the global financial crisis.

Closer to home, the 2017 Barometer, as well as Ekos Research, points to a Canada that can no longer count itself immune from the global trends of imploding trust and rising populism.

While we have important attitudinal differences from Americans, we mostly have similarities. Pollster Frank Graves tracks these trends and wonders whether the Canadian establishment — tone-deaf to the popularity of the likes of Rob Ford or Don Cherry — remains out of touch.

Well-educated opinion leaders are complaining about us entering a “post-truth” era, but should we be paying more attention to a “post-trust” era?

Trust is one of the secrets to societal happiness and well-being, according to renowned Canadian researcher John Helliwell. It is the glue for communication and collaboration, and the mortar for economic success and improved quality of life.

Much has been written in the last two years about why the world got fragmented and disoriented (e.g. economic inequality, polarizing social media, declining “social/moral fabric”), and what’s needed for a reset (e.g. a different economic framework, a new political paradigm, a public engagement renaissance).

The distortions and disruptions of many media and the internet in particular, have been massive. Our grandparents wouldn’t recognize the often-toxic echo-chambers of Facebook and Twitter. They couldn’t imagine surfing endless TV channels, blogs and websites from our lonely La-Z-Boy to find opinions that only reinforce our narrow perspectives.

The call of our time is to open our minds wider and discover what those least like us might have to teach us.

At its core, this gets personal. It requires us to accept each other — especially when we disagree — and connect in tough conversations.

Pick your wicked Nova Scotia problem: racism, clear cutting, economic dependence, size of government, inequality, youth outmigration, voter apathy or real estate development. None of them are quickly fixable. They can only be resolved at the speed of trust.

The Ivany Report said, “Overcoming the psychological barriers of division, distrust and discouragement may be just as important as raising capital, producing new products or finding new markets.”

Our organization, Engage Nova Scotia, has been working with Nova Scotia communities to build trust through better public engagement because we believe it’s harder to distrust someone “up close.” Attitudes are formed in families and communities, and global change starts there.

In the last two months for example we have collaborated on workshops with 16 municipalities to build understanding about the importance of public engagement. These municipalities and others are building capacity to host better public meetings and close the “trust gap” amongst sceptical citizens, ambitious community organizations and cautious local governments.

Imagine a Nova Scotia where citizens regularly came out to community meetings, felt heard, built understanding with opponents, and supported bold leadership to find new social, economic and environmental opportunities.

These are just a few of the things we are undertaking, in partnership with people and organizations from one end of the province to the other who believe in this place and are ready to build a Nova Scotia that is more unified, inclusive and adaptive to change.

The US presidential election and the miserable splintering our “cousins” are experiencing represent a wake-up call to improve our ability to the come together. Let’s not waste it.

I believe we are up to the challenge. If ever there was a candid and tolerant culture that can navigate these channels, Nova Scotia is it.

Danny Graham QC is the chief engagement officer for Engage Nova Scotia. The non-profit organization is currently working to measure and improve quality of life in our province; as well as encourage Nova Scotians to be more collaborative, inclusive and adaptive to change.

Originally published on November 7, 2017 in The Chronicle Herald.