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Whistler to host summit on citizen engagement

A citizen engagement brain trust will gather in Whistler next weekend to discuss how to get more people involved in the democratic process and in the community.

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"All the data shows that people are more isolated, more disengaged, less likely to join political parties, less likely to be involved in their community and all of this is of concern," said William Roberts, executive director of the Whistler Forum, which is hosting the three-day conference on citizen engagement.

Roberts and the eminent panel of speakers the Forum has assembled from across North America will discuss the subject then plan to produce a document at the end of the workshops which will offer suggestions on how to improve people’s democratic and social lives. The document will be available to the public in January.

During the discussions three main questions will be posed: what have we learned from recent citizen engagement processes, what are the key challenges and barriers to moving forward, and what skills and characteristics are required for leadership that engages people.

There are many reasons people have become jaded about the democratic process and involvement with other organizations, which have traditionally contributed to community life. Some people are just too busy, but others are mistrustful of leadership, which has been telling them for some time to leave it to the experts.

And years of scandals in government, at every level, from B.C.’s fast ferry fiasco to the federal sponsorship sensation, have also pushed people away from the democratic process.

That is one reason why the Forum has also invited political leaders, including MPs John Reynolds and Carolyn Bennett, to participate in the workshops.

"It is very important to have not just people in the public but people who are in leadership positions attend," said Roberts, who hopes to host a similar summit annually. "(They) really need to have more of a grasp and understanding of what is involved in terms of leadership for engaging people, not leadership that disengages people."

Other organizations will also be under the spotlight, including big business and sport.

"We are also trying to look at it in terms of how (people) mistrust the leaders of business," said Roberts. "It would be interesting to know what their trust level is of Intrawest."

One of the participants at the summit will be Paddy Brown, a consultant in citizenship participation, who will also be offering some unique insight into the issue. As the former head of Volunteer Canada she saw the number of volunteers drop significantly up to 2000, when the last research was completed.

However, she believes the drop may not be indicative of people stepping away from getting involved, but rather it is a result of people changing where they choose to be involved in their community. And from her perspective any involvement is good and that’s something she hopes to get out at the Forum’s summit.

"My argument is engaged is engaged is engaged," she said.

What needs to be more prevalent in society is a recognition of the value of that involvement by others and those who make policy and lead organizations.

"There is an exponential effect when we find ways to encourage and facilitate people to be engaged in their communities," said Brown. "A bent toward participation lends people to be more involved in their society that, of course, builds social capital, and in societies where you have high levels of connection between people you have lower crime, higher health status, better achievement in education and a cleaner environment and so on.

One type of activity, which reaches right across the nation, is sports.

According to Brown there are over six million volunteers involved in all manner of sporting organizations across Canada and they offer an amazing way to get people involved and help form connections.

And, she said, the 2010 Winter Olympics is likely to play a role in increasing how important sport is as a way to get citizens engaged in their communities.

The benefits of getting involved in sports ripple out like a pebble in a pool. People feel better about themselves, they are fitter, health care costs might fall and participation in one area of life often leads to participation in other areas.

And if policy makers make the link between citizen involvement and benefits for society then funding priorities may change.

The Forum will be chaired by Angus Reid and Kristi Wells. Wells will also moderate a workshop on Whistler’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan and citizen involvement in it.

Members of the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform will also attend the conference to discuss the value of the organization.

For more information on the Forum, which runs Nov 11 and 12 at the Four Season Hotel and other locations, go to www.whistlerforum.com.

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