Brown-John: Some public ‘consultations’ don’t really want your input

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By: Lloyd Brown-John

In December 1990 I was asked by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada if I would be willing to serve as regional hearing officer for something called the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future (a.k.a. the Spicer Commission).

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It was created by then-prime minister Mulroney in response to the failure of the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord that year.

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Within days I attended an orientation meeting at Trent University in Peterborough and another meeting in Ohsweken on the Six Nations Reserve, and within a month I was a commissioned hearing officer for all of southwestern Ontario.

Over three months I convened over 106 public consultations in communities from Wiarton, Stratford and London to Listowel and Arthur, and Walpole Island, Harrow, Windsor, Leamington, Blenheim and more.

Travel — often late at night — and public consultations were squeezed into days that I was free from instructing classes at the University of Windsor.

Over almost four months I heard from well in excess of 8,000 rural and urban residents. Weekly I filed detailed reports on numbers in attendance and summaries of opinions and views on basic questions the Commission posed for Canadians.

Ironically, one handicap was my appointment under Mulroney’s government. As Keith Spicer noted in his final 1991 report, there was “a fury in the land” at that time against the Progressive Conservative leader who had been prime minister since 1984.

I had not been invited by Mulroney or any person associated with his Tory party. Nonetheless, I often received nasty comments such as me being “one of Mulroney’s flunkies” or worse.

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Fortunately, like writing a newspaper column, you become inured to nasty and ill-informed comments — goes with the right to speak freely, I suppose.

I had several recycled Pierre Trudeau jokes — they now became Mulroney jokes — which I often used to defuse tensions.

The Spicer Commission’s report was released in June 1991. Some of its contents and recommendations emerged within the subsequent 1992 Charlottetown Accord.

The Oct. 26, 1992, the Charlottetown Accord national referendum was defeated with 55 per cent of almost 14 million Canadians who voted rejecting it.

At about midnight on Oct. 26 — at a time when the Windsor Star still had a daily editorial — I sat at a typewriter in the Star editor’s office and wrote the next day’s editorial: “Yesterday, Canadians approached the brink of greatness then they faltered and retreated …”

Recently, I attended an ostensible public consultation hosted by Ruthven-based Union Water Supply System to review a municipal class environmental assessment study.

Union Water supplies drinking water to Kingsville, Leamington and parts of Essex and Lakeshore. It’s looking 20 years ahead with a proposed expansion to accommodate projected growth. Poster boards detailing the necessary work assured me that if I live long enough I will have drinking water.

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In practice, not a consultation.

Meanwhile, Windsor announced four city-owned properties would be used to address housing needs, with administration preparing all the necessary approvals.

The plan includes converting Roseland clubhouse and parking lot into a multi-unit residential development. On March 7, a public information session was held at Roseland with some 200 people in attendance.

Now, understand the difference between public consultation and information sessions.

Public consultation specifically involves soliciting views and opinions as decision inputs. An information session makes no pretence at soliciting your views or opinions.

City administration has already decided what will happen to the Roseland property, and the public session was designed simply to sell that decision. This is not public consultation, and city administrators and several members of council should hang their collective heads in shame.

It is a “done deal” and city officials simply want to make local residents feel good with a decision already made by administration.

Lloyd Brown-John is a University of Windsor professor emeritus of political science and director of Canterbury ElderCollege. He can be reached at [email protected].

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