National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

If populism has made a comeback in Europe and North America, it’s because so many people feel they have no meaningful voice in government or any control over what it does.

Globalization, income inequality, and terrorism are well-known causes of this sense of powerlessness, but public debate and consultation should be added to the list. In a democracy, they are supposed to inform citizens and give them a meaningful voice on issues they care about.

Increasingly, however, they fall short. Debate is often polarized and formulaic. As for consultation, while good processes exist, too many of them get hijacked by interest groups, “managed” by government officials, or arrive at conclusions that baffle ordinary people.

Canada 2020 has just completed a cross-country dialogue on how to make engagement more meaningful. The roots of civic participation, we were told, lie in storytelling. For millennia, people gathered around fires, in town squares, and in church basements to exchange stories that helped define their shared interests and clarify the tasks they needed to perform together for the common good.

Today, communities are much larger, more diverse, and organizationally more complex. People are less able to gather face-to-face for this kind of dialogue. New media have arisen to fill the gap — first radio, then television, and now the internet, especially social media.

Rather than strengthening collective ties, however, social media often divide citizens. As like-minded people gather in the “echo-chambers,” public debate tends to polarize and the capacity for meaningful discussion disappears.

This is fertile ground for populists, who fuel public fears and grievances with half-truths about jobs, immigration, politics, and government. We’ve seen their narrative at work in Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump’s election in the US, Ford Nation in the City of Toronto, and elsewhere. The good news is that narrative-building can also be highly constructive. Nova Scotia’s dialogue on Edward Cornwallis provides a timely example.

While Cornwallis is celebrated as a founder of the City of Halifax, Indigenous people remember him as the man who placed a bounty on local Mi’kmaq scalps. This has been a long-standing tension in how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people view the city’s history. A dialogue between the two communities is now underway to rework these divergent narratives and retell the city’s history in a way that will resonate with both sides.

Dialogues like this are exercises in constructive narrative-building. They help refute populism by challenging participants to view debate less as a winner-take-all contest and more as a shared effort to find a coherent and inclusive story about a situation. But Open Dialogue also has anther form, as a second Nova Scotia example shows.

Between 2010–2012, the province’s aquaculture industry was plunged into crisis. Suspicions had been growing that aquaculture was linked to a disappearance of wild Atlantic salmon in the Bay of Fundy. Some 40 organizations banded together to demand a moratorium on fish farming. The government needed a way to calm emotions and restore reason to the debate, so it invited the aquaculture industry and coastal communities to work with a government-appointed panel of experts to design a new regulatory framework.

This kind of deliberative dialogue is very different from narrative-building. It requires high levels of objectivity, systematic analysis, and lots of evidence and goodwill — most of which was in short supply in the aquaculture crisis. Trust between the two sides had collapsed. Rebuilding it called for a sterling process that both sides could trust to treat them fairly – and that the government could trust to deliver sound recommendations. This was achieved by basing the process on three mutually supporting principles:

  • Meaningful Engagement: The government promised that the new regime would be based on the panel’s report. Participants were thus assured the process would give them a real say in the new regulations.
  • Evidence-Based Decision-Making: The panel was made up of recognized experts in the field who were non-aligned and mandated to act independently of government. This assured stakeholders that decision-making would be impartial and follow the evidence. It also assured the government that the process would lead to sound policy.
  • Transparency: This guaranteed the integrity of the process. Where practical, the sessions were conducted in public; relevant documents were released; and the panel members provided regular updates on the process.

Discussion proved to be orderly, respectful, mindful of the evidence and facts, and highly productive. The final recommendations were well received and the government has since acted on them.

Comparing the two examples is enlightening. Many people see storytelling as inferior to policy analysis, especially where evidence-based decision-making is concerned. They believe knowledge is based on facts and that narrative is “tainted” by emotion and values.

Our discussions suggest otherwise. For one thing, narratives contain facts and information, though usually in ways that reflect how people have experienced these facts in daily life. Narratives integrate facts, values, emotions, and priorities within a single story in ways that reflect a person’s or community’s experience – what is often called “lived experience.”

Data and facts, on the other hand, need to be contextualized or interpreted. The whole point of “information” is that it strives to separate facts from the evaluative aspects of lived experience, such as values and emotion. As a result, findings based on facts usually need to be reconnected with lived experience to arrive at a final decision or solution to an issue; and for this, we draw on our human capacity for storytelling.

Thus, in the aquaculture case, one task was to assess the state of the fishery. For this, the participants had to deliberate over the facts. When considering how to respond to the findings, however, panel members needed to step back to ask how different options might affect communities in the region. This kind of scenario-building draws heavily on lived experience — narrative.

The lesson here is that facts play a role in (re)building narratives and storytelling plays a role in interpreting facts. Either one alone provides insight that is incomplete at best, and possibly misleading — or just plain wrong. The two kinds of dialogue may look hierarchical but, in this view, they are better understood as complementary.

Our study (click here for document) describes how these two kinds of dialogue can be combined within a single process to make narrative-building more evidence-based and align policy-analysis more closely with lived experience. This, in turn, produces a narrative that is consistent with the facts and a policy that is supported by a powerful narrative. But will it work?

If populist leaders have shown anything, they have shown that narratives can be constructed; and that a well-constructed narrative, used effectively, can exert a powerful influence on citizens. Our approach simply takes this a step further by using a more principled, disciplined, and effective approach to Open Dialogue to ground storytelling in the rigor of facts and analysis, rather than fear and half-truths.

Surely, this is worth a try.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. Most recently, he served as the Government of Ontario’s principal advisor on its Open Dialogue initiative. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

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