Feds advised to focus on the majority to counter populism, documents show

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OTTAWA — Newly released documents show senior government officials were advised to “bring the focus back to the majority” — instead of on diversity values — in public communications to counter the threat of populism in Canada.

The task force deputy ministers heard this idea among many during meetings last year looking at what the government could do to guard against a possible rise in extremism and populism domestically.

The group was told to encourage more public conversations and debate focused on “us” rather than “us-versus-them” narratives to foster “social cohesion.”

A briefing note prepared for the senior civil servants warned that if only “marginalized populations are considered,” the result would be that “others feel as if they do no matter.”

“Social cohesion must become a new lens of policy-making. In order to achieve this, the government needs to build connections across difference, foster greater empathy and bring the focus back to the majority (i.e. the middle groups),” officials wrote in the documents.

The suggestions originated from an international expert invited to speak to the deputy minister task force on diversity and inclusiveness in October 2018.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the presentation and other documents to the task force under the Access to Information Act.

Tim Dixon, co-founder of the U.K.-based think-tank More in Common, told the task force that Canada is facing the same disruptive forces playing out in other countries that can fuel polarization and division — although Canada may be more resilient to these forces due to past successes in building an inclusive national identity.

He said polarization of opinion can cause some to become resentful of minority groups perceived to be getting special benefits, such as housing or social assistance, at others’ expense. These sentiments are most common among a majority of people who fit into a “middle group” category, marked by moderate views between the extremes of “cosmopolitans with open values” and “nationalists with closed values.”

That’s why Canada was advised to “build social solidarity” by avoiding pitting the interests of one group against another in public communications. Rather, Canada should “elevate the ‘more in common’ message and demonstrate the falsehood of narratives of division,” according to Dixon’s presentation.

The documents show that after the meeting, officials discussed ways the government could incorporate the advice into federal policy. One idea put forward was possibly using Canada’s school system, with it’s “massive integration power,” to educate and connect people in order to build more empathy and social cohesion, according to a summary of the discussion among deputies.

When it comes to future communications, deputy ministers stressed the need to “focus on shared values rather than diversity values when framing the social cohesion narrative,” the meeting summary says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to have taken this advice to heart in his political messaging in the lead up to the federal election.

During a Liberal fundraising event last month, Trudeau stressed the need to seek common ground and compromise among Canadians when asked about countering populist sentiment in the campaign.

“We’ve always learned to listen to each other, find common ground figure out a way to move forward that brings people along,” Trudeau said at the July 18 event in Victoria, B.C.

“The idea is that we are a country of diversity, a country of a broad range of views and the responsibility we have is to try to bring those views together in a forward path. We can find things that Canadians understand are that right balance — and that, for me, is the counter to populism.”

Gesturing toward a group of pipeline protesters outside the event, Trudeau quipped that none of them were carrying signs promoting messages of compromise — a point he used to highlight that many of the loudest voices are on the peripheries and do not reflect the opinions of a majority of Canadians.

Social media is amplifying some of those voices, Trudeau added — another point echoed from the discussions and research studied by the task force.

Dixon’s presentation warned government officials they need to be mindful of how social media may distort data.

“The majority of people are not involved in the debate and do not like division, but it is those on social media who are most vocal and it could give disproportionate weight to certain issues.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press