Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, May 31. CNS photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters

Comment: Learning to listen is key to building bridges

By  John Milloy
  • October 28, 2017
A shooting at a Boston area abortion clinic brought six women together for a talk. Three were pro-life movement leaders and three were high-profile pro-choice activists.

The dialogue, which began in 1994, spanned more than five years and was sponsored by the Public Conversations Project. This United States based organization, founded in 1989, attempts to foster discussion between opposing sides in controversial debates.

The dialogue was not meant for each side to convince the other of the rightness or wrongness of their beliefs. Instead, as the six women explained in an article they jointly wrote for the Boston Globe in 2001: “The goals of our conversations would be to communicate openly with our opponents, away from the polarizing spotlight of media coverage; to build relationships of mutual respect and understanding; to deescalate the rhetoric of the abortion controversy; and, of course, to reduce the risk of future shootings.”

The talks were not easy. Both sides admitted to their fear and frustration in sitting down with those holding polar opposite views. Despite some rough spots at the beginning, participants began to communicate, exploring “many aspects of the abortion controversy, such as when life begins, the rights of women, the rights of the unborn, why women get abortions, and the aftermath of abortion.”

Neither side changed their position on the issue. But participants did report some surprisingly positive outcomes and a willingness to continue the dialogue. They used their article to explain why:

“First, because when we face our opponent, we see her dignity and goodness… We continue because we are stretched intellectually, as well. This has been a rare opportunity to engage in sustained, candid conversations about serious moral disagreements. It has made our thinking sharper and our language more precise. We hope, too, that we have become wiser and more effective leaders. We are more knowledgeable about our political opponents. We have learned to avoid being overreactive and disparaging to the other side and to focus on affirming our respective causes.”

As the six concluded: “We hope this account of our experience will encourage people everywhere to consider engaging in dialogues about abortion and other protracted disputes. In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.”

Here in Canada the Liberal government has taken a different approach. Discussion, debate or engagement on the abortion issue has been ruled a no-go area.

And it’s gotten personal.

As leader of the party, Justin Trudeau banned any new candidates who would not endorse a woman’s right to choose an abortion under any circumstances. This zero-tolerance policy has continued with the government going so far as to announce plans to prevent any pro-life organization from receiving funding through the government’s summer jobs program.

And then there was the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women. This committee, one of the few chaired by the official Opposition, met several weeks ago to select a chair. The Conservatives nominated Alberta MP Rachael Harder to take the role. A relative newcomer to politics, Harder is by all accounts the type of engaged, activist young woman that we want to see more of in public life.

She has also expressed pro-life sentiments. This was too much for the Liberals. Ignoring the convention that government MPs usually accept whomever the Opposition nominates, they used a series of procedural manoeuvres to first block her election and then to force one of her colleagues to take the role.

It should be stressed that the Liberals didn’t oppose her election to prevent a policy change on abortion. Not only have the Conservatives made it clear that they have no interest in raising the issue, but as chair of the committee, Harder would have had very little opportunity to place it on the agenda and the Liberals could have used their majority to block such a move. No, for the Liberals, it was a case of rejecting anyone other than an ardent pro-choice supporter for such a high-profile role.

Canadians need to consider both approaches to the abortion debate.  In doing so, they might reflect on the words of former U.S. President Barack Obama who recently told a crowd in Toronto that progressives need “to train ourselves to listen to those with whom we disagree, to ultimately work to build bridges.” 

Or they might listen to Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conversations Project: “What we don’t understand as a culture or what we seem to have lost is that we are more than our opinions on a single issue.”

(Milloy is co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics and Assistant Professor of Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. Originally published on

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