4th Annual Conference on Mediation: Mediation Advocacy in the Age of Diversity

By: Jean-Paul Bevilacqua*

“The oldest paradox of prejudice is that it renders its victims simultaneously invisible and overexposed.” — Bharati Mukherjee

Each year, the Winkler Institute of Dispute Resolution partners with the International Academy of Mediators (IAM) and Osgoode Professional Development to host a continuing legal education conference on mediation. The conference brings together an international faculty of experts in alternative dispute resolution with the goal of exploring how to navigate the complex and nuanced issues arising in today’s mediations. The timely topic of this year’s conference, which took place on May 11th, was diversity—a buzzword of sorts that, despite the common reference to its importance, requires unpacking. Understanding what we mean when we talk about “diversity,” and learning how difference (in many forms) can impact mediation, is an essential skill for a mediator and for counsel participating in mediation. As participants at the conference learned, diversity can present many varied and complex challenges for professionals in the ADR field if they are not reflective and proactive about understanding and accommodating it.

What is “diversity”? What does the word really mean? What does it really look like? The concept can be tricky to define and even more difficult to explain in a practical, concrete sense. It was, thus, a welcome moment of clarity when one of the conference’s guest speakers, Member of Provincial Parliament Nathalie Des Rosiers, brought up the above quotation during her morning presentation on ethical issues arising from human rights disputes.

Through the referencing of Bharati Mukherjee’s words: “The oldest paradox of prejudice is that it renders its victims simultaneously invisible and overexposed,” a conversation began that revealed the inherent complexities of diversity issues and highlighted the nuance with which these discussions between professionals must be had and this work must be done. This kind of critical, self-aware line of thinking was a thematic thread that was woven through the various speakers, panels and conversations throughout the day.

For example, early on in the day during the morning’s first panel, “The Frustration Factor – The Impasse You Don’t Understand,” mediator Susan Hammer called for a keen sense of awareness during the mediation process, stating: “As mediators, we are looking for clues all the time. We have to approach the situation with humility.” It is with this kind of intentional deference and attentiveness that we are more equipped to uncover and recognize our own biases and improve our interactions at mediations. It was also Ms. Hammer who emphasized the necessity of looking for both sameness and difference within one societal group—thus, a recognition of the diversity within diversity. It was acute commentary like this that lent a true sense of respect and intellectual curiosity to the proceedings.

During the afternoon panel on disputes between First Nations and governmental and corporate institutions, Andrea Morrison echoed a similar sentiment, cautioning practitioners to not create a cage or fall into assumptions when trying to understand another culture or bridge a cultural gap. Moreover, during her interactive, engaging presentation, Morrison stressed the importance of humility, deference and awareness, reaffirming themes from earlier in the day. Specifically, she noted that we have a lot to learn from Indigenous communities in terms of consensus-building and addressing pervasive, systemic issues.

During his afternoon presentation on advancing the needs of First Nations through mediation (or otherwise), the Honourable Robert K. Rae further advanced this conversation by giving the audience a historical lens through which to view First Nations disputes. This recognition of history added important layers and, more importantly, instilled a sense of duty and obligation in approaching this kind of work. “The lived experience of trauma is very deep in Indigenous communities,” Mr. Rae stated, adding that it is imperative that government and corporations recognize this fact. Diversity is often laden with history that can’t be ignored.

Throughout the day, whether it was Distinguished IAM Fellow Marvin E. Johnson’s keynote address on understanding and managing diversity issues in mediation, or the panels exploring human rights and sports and entertainment disputes, we were treated to the sharing of expertise and experience from professionals and practitioners doing this sometimes frustrating, oftentimes transformative, always rewarding work day in and day out. It was through this communion and respectful meeting of minds that some real learning and deepening of knowledge took place, all of which points to another successful year for this young, exciting and continually growing program.

We look forward to welcoming the ever-expanding group back to next year’s conference on April 23, 2018! We hope you will join us.

*Jean-Paul Bevilacqua is a project coordinator with the Winkler Institute of Dispute Resolution. He is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School and a member of the Ontario bar. Find out more at jpbevi.com or @jpbevi on Twitter and Instagram.