Special Report: Council Conduct

Councillors, Listening to Angry People is Your Job

Although you may think you know how things work, what you don't know is how people experience the world that you control.

By David Harvey
Published October 02, 2020

I was stunned when I heard that Hamilton City Council filed a complaint to its own Integrity Commissioner against the volunteer Chair of its LGBTQ Advisory Committee, due to critical comments he made about council and city staff in a media interview.

I was even more dismayed to hear that upon receipt of the Integrity Commissioner's report, Council voted 12-2 to reprimand him.

So, for Hamilton City Council, and for politicians everywhere, I offer the following open letter:

An open letter to politicians:

I get it. You're human, you don't like to be criticized. You especially don't like it when you think you've done nothing wrong, or that you're being criticized for things that other people did. You take it personally when someone is angry, and directs that anger at you. And to that I say: get over it. It is your job.

You see, for many members of the public, you're not just a city councillor or a member of parliament, you're a representative of the status quo. You are the public face of a system that many people believe has failed them. When they look at you, they're not seeing the soccer mom or the Rotary Club member that you think you are.

They look into your faces and see the government that sent their people to residential schools, the police department that has harassed them for no other reason than the colour of their skin, the bureaucracy that has made it so difficult for them to navigate the process to just get safe shelter or enough food to eat.

They see the people who couldn't save the factory where they used to work, the people who didn't do enough to make sure they could feel safe from violence just walking down the street holding hands with their same-sex partner.

They are bringing a lifetime of fear, and frustration, and despair, and they are unloading it on you. And your job, as a representative of government, is to sit there and take it. Your job is to listen, to absorb not only the information, but the hurt and the pain and the desperation.

You have no right to expect them to be calm and polite, but you have an obligation to treat them with compassion and respect. Why should they play by your rules, when those rules have failed them?

To them, you may be the only access point they have to the people who run the system, the people they may consider their oppressors.

You may think they're naive or uninformed, that they don't know how the system works. Well, maybe the way the system works is the problem. Although you may think you know how things work, what you don't know is how they experience the world that you control.

You don't live in their skin. That's why they are there, to tell you how your decisions affect their lives.

Sometimes it's messy, emotional, disjointed, or very hard to hear. Sometimes your instinct is to interrupt, to defend yourself, to tell them that they're wrong or that it's someone else's department.

Don't.

It's not their job to tell you how to fix the system - that's your job. That's the reason they came forward - despite any insult or unfair criticism you perceive, despite the anger directed your way, people rarely make the effort to speak to a politician just to vent.

They came to you for help. They want change. They want a better life. Your role is to see them, hear them, and determine how you can make things better. And most importantly, to remember, always, that it is not about you.

Suppressing your own feelings and actively listening through the anger and the hurt to truly understand is very, very hard. But if you're not capable of doing it, then politics is not the job for you.

David Harvey is a retired lawyer living in Burlington. For 20 years, he represented people who had become infected with HIV and hepatitis C through blood and blood products in Canada. He represented patient groups at the Commission of Inquiry into the Blood System in Canada (the Krever Commission). He won damages for people infected with HIV, including precedent setting cases at the Supreme Court of Canada, and negotiated a $1 billion compensation package from the federal government for people infected with hepatitis C. Follow him on Twitter @davidharvey.

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