Grant Harris, left, and Jenna Dunsby participate in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Grant Harris, left, and Jenna Dunsby participate in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Smithers Talks event exceeds organizers expectations

38 people signed up for conversations with others of differing political perspectives

A unique event designed to bring together people of differing political opinions in Smithers exceeded organizers’ expectations.

The initiative, dubbed Smithers Talks, was spearheaded by high school student Madeleine Ghatavi, who said after seeing a Ted Talk on the My Country Talks program she wanted to do something to heal some of the divisions she saw develop over the course of the last couple of years in her hometown.

“When I look at the political tensions that are rising in the world, as a young person, it is inspiring to see these grassroots dialogue spaces coming to fruition and that can help to diffuse tensions before they become civil wars and make an impact on how we run societies,” she said.

In order to pull off Smithers Talks, Ghatavi needed a media sponsor to host the online survey that would pair participants with different political perspectives for one-on-one conversations.

Ghatavi approached The Interior News to become the media sponsor. Publisher Grant Harris said the newspaper was proud to get on board.

“After my initial conversation with Madeleine about her desire for bringing Smithers Talks to fruition and looking at the Ted Talk from ZEIT Online Editor Jochen Wenger, it convinced us that this was definitely something our community needed,” he said.

She also needed a place to hold an event once the pairs were matched so she approached Smithers town council at a regular meeting in July. Council agreed to host the event in the town hall.

“This is exciting,” said former Coun. Greg Brown. “This is something I’ve always believed in, getting people together.”

Prospective participants were asked to fill in an online survey that presented a number of statements on hot-button issues designed to elicit an ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ response.

For example: “All residents of Smithers should be provided a home”; “The government measures against COVID-19 were appropriate”; and “The Coastal GasLink project is a good example of a balance between jobs and the environment.”

By the time the Nov. 12 event rolled around, 38 people had taken the survey and signed up to have a one-on-one conversation with someone who answered the survey differently.

Sara Cooper, the technical project manager for the My Country Talks organization said it was a very good result for a town the size of Smithers.

“I’m really impressed by how many people turned up,” she said. “Thank you all for your hard work and dedication, this is definitely one of the most engaged events we had all year.”

Harris was also impressed.

“As the media sponsor, I guess I can express my pride in the job that we did assisting Madeleine in her efforts to bring this into the public,” he said. “I want to also express my thanks to the community and those interested citizens who were willing to sit with somebody who didn’t agree with them, and have a civil and interesting talk with each other.”

Harris wasn’t just the media sponsor, though, he also participated and said it was an eye-opening experience.

“There’s an opportunity there for your blinkers to be either taken off completely or at least widened with things that you may not have thought about a particular issue, which is what happened with me a couple of times and in the conversation that I had,” he said.

He even changed his opinion on a couple of issues. For example, on the statement “The Smithers job market is fair,” he realized there were factors outside of his personal experience that he hadn’t taken into consideration.

“My eyes were opened that, for example, single parents have a really big issue in obtaining employment here, or obtaining all the options for employment here because of the daycare issues,” he said.

Jenna Dunsby, a project manager with the provincial government, was Harris’s partner. She said she didn’t necessarily change her mind on fully on any particular issue, but it was a very valuable experience for her.

“At the end of the day, I really appreciate the opportunity just to talk one-on-one with someone who I might not speak with otherwise,” she said. “And I find that in that… type of forum, it really humanizes us. It’s kind of the base unit of human interaction, is just one on one conversations.”

Since the Nov. 12 event, there has been more interest from the public, but there are currently no plans in the works for another event.



editor@interior-news.com

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Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi greets participants at the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi greets participants at the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi greets participants at the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi greets participants at the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi addresses participants in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi addresses participants in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi addresses participants in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi addresses participants in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi writes out the statements used to pair participates in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi writes out the statements used to pair participates in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi addresses participants in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)

Organizer Madeleine Ghatavi addresses participants in the Smithers Talks event Nov. 12 at town hall. (Thom Barker photo)