Barry W. Bussey
The ongoing dispute in Ottawa and around the country over the COVID-19 mandates got me thinking about a book in my library by Dudley Weeks: The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution. I thought maybe, just maybe, there would be something there that would be of assistance to the Ottawa experts and politicians who are tasked with maintaining peace, order, and good government in Canada.
As the title implies, Dr. Weeks suggests that there are eight essential steps to resolve conflict in a productive way. Let’s consider them and ask ourselves how well our political elites have fared in terms of handling the protests.
First, create an effective atmosphere.
Weeks explains, “The atmosphere is the frame around the canvas on which we paint how we will agree, disagree, and build an improved relationship.” It involves personal preparation, timing, location and initial opening statements that express a willingness to reach a resolution. In this case, we could imagine a leader reassuring protestors that, despite their differing views, he would do his best to listen, understand and work with them for the sake of all Canadians. Refusing to even contemplate a conversation – not to mention vanishing for “security reasons” – immediately creates an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion that makes it much more difficult to achieve a peaceful resolution.
Second, clarify perceptions.
“Perceptions,” says Weeks, “are the lenses through which we see ourselves, others, our relationships, and the situations we encounter. As such, perceptions wield enormous influence over our behaviour. If we perceive something to be a certain way, even if we are incorrect, in our minds it is that way, and we often base our behavior on that perception.”
Like many other world leaders who have used the unvaccinated as scapegoats, the Prime Minister has labelled unvaccinated Canadians as racist, misogynist, and anti-science; he accused the truckers and their supporters of being a “fringe minority holding unacceptable views.” Such negative perceptions make it virtually impossible to reach out and dialogue with the truckers he has dehumanized.
Third, focus on individual and shared needs.
Thus far, the Prime Minister seems unwilling to consider the needs of those who are unvaccinated (or even those who are vaccinated but still oppose ongoing public health restrictions). Although the government has framed vaccine mandates as necessary in order to protect the vulnerable, little consideration has been given to those who are vulnerable to harms other than COVID-19 itself: poverty, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and more caused or exacerbated by lockdowns, school closures, and job losses.
Indeed, Trudeau has shown himself sympathetic to complaints against the convoy, while condemning the truckers for blockading the economy and daily lives of people in Ottawa. The irony is almost laughable, given the fact that, for nearly two years, Trudeau himself has endorsed shutting down the nation’s economy and preventing Canadians from going about their daily lives.
Fourth, build shared positive power.
Here, Weeks suggests that both parties have the means to use their respective power to work together. In the present situation, there is a clear imbalance of power. While the truckers have significant influence and leverage, the state retains the ability to impose its will through force. If we are to avoid violence, both sides must be committed to using their power cooperatively and not coercively.
Fifth, look to the future, then learn from the past.
Weeks points out that we need to focus on what we can do now and tomorrow, no matter what has occurred in the past. At the same time, we need to understand how the past created the current conflict. From the past, we can learn how to deal with our differences and improve our relationship in the future.
Sixth, generate options.
Options must meet one or more needs not incompatible with the other party’s needs; they have the potential to improve the future relationship; and they can be supported by all parties.
Seventh, develop “doables” – stepping-stones to action.
These “are specific acts that stand a good chance of success.” The parties work on smaller steps to prove to themselves that they can work with each other. They build trust, momentum, and confidence in cooperating together.
Eighth, make mutual-benefit agreements.
Importantly, Weekly notes that “these must be realistic and effective enough to survive.”
The “essential steps” listed above start with the assumption that both parties are deserving of respect and dignity – and that compromise is a better path forward than squelching opposition through force or manipulation.
If the goal of conflict resolution is to alienate and antagonize the “other” while refusing to make any concessions, then our government has shown considerable expertise in its handling of the trucker’s convoy.
If, however, effective resolution means working together towards a positive, peaceful outcome, then our Prime Minister has shown himself to be either inept or unwilling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the pattern being followed today seems consistent with the tactics Trudeau has used in previous conflicts while in office. It brings to mind a comment by Jane Philpott after she and Jody Wilson-Raybould were ejected from the Liberal Party in 2019. Philpott observed, “Rather than acknowledge the obvious … and apologize for what occurred, a decision was made to attempt to deny the obvious – to attack Jody Wilson-Raybould’s credibility and attempt to blame her.” The same strategy of denial, accusations, and blame-shifting seems to be on display in the current crisis.
What is different, perhaps, is the scale of the conflict and the fact that even his fellow Liberals are beginning to voice their criticism of the Prime Minister’s approach.
For all that, the Prime Minister is still in a position to resolve this situation in a way that will demonstrate respect and concern for all Canadians. I urge Prime Minister Trudeau to show the courage and character required to step up and meet with the truckers, to consider their needs, to generate options, and to come to a mutually beneficial agreement.
 Dudley Weeks, The Eight Essential Steps To Conflict Resolution: Preserving Relationships at Work, at Home, and in the Community (New York: Penguin, 1992).
 See Bardosh, et al, “The Unintended Consequences of Vaccine Mandates: Why Mandates, Passports, and Segregated Lockdowns May Cause more Harm than Good” (2022) at 8–9, online at <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4022798&s=09>.