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Making Our Voices Heard: Talking about Health, Talking about Work

A. Introduction
B. The Issues: Work and Health
C. The Public Dialogue Kit
D. What happens in a dialogue group?
E. Contact information
F. References

By Miriam Wyman

Miriam Wyman coordinates "The Society We Want", which is a project of the Family Network of Canadian Policy Research Networks.

As we approach the new millennium, both citizens and governments are looking for new ways of relating to one another. Citizens are demanding an increased voice in decisions that affect their lives. Canadians in particular want to be included in decisions about social policy and planning, especially in such areas as education, health and employment. (1) Governments, for their part, seem interested in learning how to provide more meaningful avenues for public input, and there is a "growing recognition on the part of public sector officials that they are going to need new deliberative techniques in order to sustain their legitimacy with a public that wants in to the public policy process." (2)

In 1996, Suzanne Peters, Director of the Family Network of Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN), suggested modelling a process that fostered deliberation. She felt that if governments could see that the "waters were safe." and that meaningful engagement could lead to meaningful outcomes - both in terms of good policy decisions and increased trust - that governments would see value in the process.

The Society We Want (TSWW) public dialogue project is the product of this vision. TSWW brings Canadians together to talk on their own terms about the future of their country. It provides a rare opportunity for individuals to engage in dialogue around topics that are important to them. Using a structured dialogue process developed and refined over a 3 year period, small groups of 8-10 people talk and reflect on issues important to their lives, their families and their communities.


TSWW currently has 2 issue guides, each responding to issues that are high on Canadians' priority lists - health and work. The guides highlight the reasons for current concerns and frame discussion around a number of perspectives that highlight some of the tensions and contradictions that characterize policy discussions in these areas.

Adapting to the Changing World of Paid Work

The world of paid work is changing - rapidly and profoundly. New technologies, the increasing number of part-time jobs, the growing group of self-employed people, for example - leave people in Canada with a lot to think about. What needs to be done to ensure that people can adapt to the changing world of work? As a society, what would be most helpful in terms of supporting those in the labour force? Some people are adapting quite well to the changing work environment, while others are facing significant hardships.

The Health Care System

The health care system has changed a lot in the past few years. The federal government has reduced the amount of money it gives to provinces for health care. And many provincial governments have reduced the number of hospitals and the types of services they offer. The cost of health care is going up all the time and there never seems to be enough money to go around. Can we find a better balance between what we can afford, improved access and increased coverage?

Canadians want to discuss these issues - to say what is on their minds and be heard. The Society We Want public dialogue project was created to help Canadians accomplish that. The project was set up by the Canadian Policy Research Networks, a charitable non-profit, public policy research group. And The Society We Want invites you to participate in a dialogue group on the changing world of paid work or on the health care system.

You do not need all the answers. We know that people want changes in the ways governments run social programs like Employment Insurance of the health care system; people want to be involved in making those changes; and, they feel unable to make the changes they want. The desire for change, the thirst to be involved, the feelings of alienation and frustration - these are some of the things that led CPRN to launch TSWW in Canada. (3) While we know that people are busy with day-to-day life, and often feel they don't have enough information or time to think through big issues, TSWW recognizes that people are "experts" with respect to the kind of society they want, and they are able to share their vision and perspectives in a way that contributes to shaping that society.

What happens to the information? The Canadian Policy Research Networks uses the results of these discussions in their research and reports to leaders in government, business and community organizations. Messages from the dialogue groups are added to the information that people in government and elsewhere have about the kind of society that Canadians really want. And, participants can get information about what others are thinking by asking for project newsletters which report on activities and findings on a regular basis.

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There is a Public Dialogue Kit that will help: If a group of people - let's say a community group, religious congregation, union, volunteer or work group - wants to organize a public dialogue group, The Society We Want Public Dialogue Kit will guide them through the process. A typical public dialogue group involves 8 to 10 people who get together for two to three hours to discuss issues. More than 400 groups have been held across Canada so far. "Here's the exciting part about the public dialogue experience," begins Audrey Salahub. "People come in with straight and narrow ideas. By the end of a two-hour session, their thinking has broadened dramatically. They've talked and listened to one another - and they've learned." Salahub, who has worked with The Society We Want, helped to organize over 40 public dialogue groups in British Columbia. She's even moderated some sessions.

The Public Dialogue Kit, provided free of charge by The Society We Want, contains everything needed for both the participants and the volunteer moderators, including an Issue Guide with information on the issues to be discussed and feedback forms which, when completed, provide research information for the Canadian Policy Research Networks.

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The moderator begins the process by explaining how the dialogue process works. You are invited to introduce yourself and talk about your personal experience with the issue. Then, the participants share their values and views, discussing each of the viewpoints.

Let's say you're talking about achieving a balanced life. Your group might discuss the "struggle to juggle." Unexpected events can occur that make it difficult to even get to our jobs - children or elderly parents become sick, the car breaks down or we have an accident. The moderator might also refer to the fact sheets included in the kit. Did you know, for example, that half of married parents in the 25 to 44 age group feel they do not spend enough time with family and friends? You'll be asked what you think it takes to have a healthy and balanced life. What needs to be done - and who should be responsible - to ensure that work environments are supportive of employees' attempts to achieve that balance? What would be your dream job for the life you want?

At the end of the dialogue session, the discussion is summarized. Participants list the things that their group wants to see happening five years from now and identify some next steps they might pursue to show that Canada is making progress toward the society they want.

They're fun: People tell us that they like these dialogue groups. They find the discussions challenging and stimulating. Audrey Salahub joined a group from her church as a participant in one of the public dialogues. "I heard a lot of stories from people I knew - some difficult, some joyful. I discovered that my own experience was limited. That group brought together people of different ages. It was important to hear the experiences of the older members. It made me realize that I have a lot to learn."

In fact, dialogue groups have been called a new form of democracy. That's because they give ordinary people a way of letting governments know what they think. As one participant put it "We have a responsibility as human beings in this country to take care of ourselves, to be educated, to be aware, and to contribute."

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For more information or to obtain a free Public Dialogue Kit, contact:

The Society We Want
Canadian Policy Research Networks
250 Albert Street, Suite 600
Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 6M1
Telephone: (613) 567-7500
Fax: (613) 567-7640
E mail:
Visit us at our web site:


1) Wyman, Miriam, David Shulman and Laurie Ham. Learning to Engage: Experiences with Civic Engagement in Canada, a Report prepared for Civil Society in the New Millennium, a project of the Commonwealth Foundation, May 1999.

2) Maxwell, Judith. President, Canadian Policy Research Networks, Personal Communication, 1999.

3) Suzanne Peters. Exploring Canadian Values, A Synthesis Report. Ottawa: CPRN, 1995