For Cathie Brown, engagement means more than just having an opinion.
For Cathie Brown, like most rural Ontarians, the Walkerton Tragedy still looms large. “We’ve really taken water for granted,” says Brown, the project manager of the Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley Drinking Water Source Protection Region and a member of the Walkerton Clean Water Centre’s board of directors. “I think the events of Walkerton stopped us all in our tracks and caused us to really rethink what we had taken for granted.”
Brown, who also lectures on rural health issues at the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Health Sciences, believed that a different approach to the creation of a regulatory framework, one that involved citizens from the beginning, was needed. “If the people in the municipalities don’t understand the rationale and the goals it’s going to be very difficult to move forward,” she says. “It’s a more difficult process than it needs to be if people aren’t included right up front.”
That inclusion makes the conventional concept of public consultation—which tends to take the form of a few one-off meetings and a Seinfeldian airing of grievances—look like a joke. Brown believed that the public didn’t just need to be consulted, but engaged and educated, an approach that she describes as a “community development model.” Rather than simply asking for their opinions, she wanted to create a program that would help them formulate more educated and informed opinions; ones that would challenge the people making the decisions.
The result was a network that featured six local, multi-stakeholder, community-based working groups, a regional municipal sub-committee and a professional adult-education learning program to train its participants. Almost 100 people joined the working groups, with more than 75 of those completing the 15-module training component by 2009. The educational benefits produced by this form of so-called “deep engagement” flowed both ways, too. “It sharpened our ability to understand what people were thinking, and the things that maybe we’d overlooked in terms of issues and perspectives that we were going to have to address,” Brown says. “It was very educational for us; it was educational for everybody.”
Larry Moore, CEO of the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, admires Brown’s ability to see the bigger picture when it comes to formulating good policy. “She doesn’t just take a two-dimensional view of what communication and outreach can be,” he says. “She sees it as a very complex, but at the same time manageable, enterprise to really engage the people of Ontario in drinking-water issues.” That engagement, Brown believes, has to take place at the source. “I know broadly people have been looking at electronic alternatives, but my experience is that face-to-face really does have a huge impact. It is such a rich process, and the results are so valuable, that I believe it’s worth the effort.” — Max Fawcett