Councillor wants city leaders to take empathy workshop as Hamilton grapples with hate

The one-day seminar would cover things such as active listening and decreasing conflict.

Brad Clark is proposing a restorative practices seminar for councillors and staff

Ward 9 Coun. Brad Clark says learning about a restorative practices would help city leaders broaden their perspectives.

Brad Clark wants city leaders to take a workshop focused on broadening perspectives and building empathy as Hamilton continues to grapple with concerns about hate.

The Ward 9 councillor is planning to bring forward a motion to have city manager Janette Smith organize a one-day seminar for councillors and other senior staff on "restorative practices" with facilitators from the John Howard Society.

"It concentrates on empathy, it concentrates on perception, on active listening skills," he explained. "All of those things I think would benefit council and the senior leadership team as we wrestle with very challenging times."

Clark says the seminar would cost $1,500.

His move comes as council continues to try and address hate in Hamilton.

Issues including weekly clashes between yellow vest protesters and anti-hate demonstrators, violence at the Pride Festival and the revelation that Hamilton has the highest rate of police-reported hate crime in the country, have led council to propose new policies on hate.

Clark's motion mentions communities are advising council they are "experiencing an increase in hateful, bigoted and oppressive racism," adding the ability to see issues through the lens of different communities is key to creating a successful dialogue.

He says councillor Sam Merulla was actually the first person to encourage such a workshop, adding he plans to bring the motion before the emergency and community services committee the Ward 4 representative chairs on Thursday.

Coun. Sam Merulla says restorative justice does more than just push hate underground, it helps eradicate it. (Dan Taekema/CBC News)

Merulla says the society gave a presentation to council back in May, that inspired him to try and arrange some sort of training for council. He points out his goal was to be proactive, adding the original presentation happened before the violence, protests and demonstrations started to really pick up steam.

"Counter protests are very successful in pushing hate mongers away, but not very successful in eradicating hate. In essence … you're just pushing it underground," Merulla said.

But restorative justice can make a difference.

"It literally reprograms the individual's belief system to no longer feel that hate, which is what we should all be striving for."

Building empathy and broadening minds

A description of the workshop provided by the society and included in Thursday's agenda says it includes theory, experiential learning and group work.

It promises to increase understanding the difference between punitive approaches and a restorative approach focused on showing people are equal and valued.

The workshop will also cover assumptions and intent as well as teaching techniques to increase understanding and how to decrease or prevent conflict.

Clark said it's his opinion, based on years of experience, that civic leaders can find themselves defaulting to a pattern and perspective as administrators.

"We don't always consider the perspective of the individual we're speaking with from an empathic point of view," he explained.

The councillor pointed to the frustration felt by the city's LGBTQ community following the attacks at Pride, adding it's important to try to see the issues they face through their eyes.

"I am a white guy. I'm a Christian guy. I'm heterosexual. I have not experienced racism or had to have that conversation with my children as to why people hate us," said Clark. 

"If I'm dealing with that issue and we're trying to come up with policies to address hate I really think it would help us to be more empathic in terms of what people feel like and what they're going through."