Promoting process over politics 

Entering its fifth year, Whistler Forum still striving for better leadership

p class=Style1>William Roberts remembers his moment. Founder and president of the Whistler Forum for Dialogue and Leadership (WFDL), Roberts lead a past life as the NDP’s elected representative for Alberta’s poorest provincial riding, the ethnically fragmented arena of Edmonton-Centre. A politician for seven years, he roamed a landscape he’s come to view as cynical and deceitful. He knew the art of spin and was tempted by the square peg of ideology. He participated in a system he now says is top-down, poll-obsessed and woefully shortsighted.

And then he left.

“It takes people stepping back and reflecting hard on their experience,” says the wavy-haired, casually-dressed Roberts. “I was fortunate enough to have this experience at the Aspen Institute.”

Around since the 1950s, the Aspen Institute is a leadership centre not unlike the WFDL. And, while he’s reluctant to detail the specifics of that revelation, it’s clear that Roberts there experienced a formative moment that renewed his life’s direction.

Leaving legislative politics behind, Roberts came to Whistler, where he networked with like-minded locals to get the WFDL off the ground.

“We’ve now done close to 70 Dialogue Cafes for ordinary people to come out, share experiences, talk about the opportunities that exist, and build respect and trust in the public square.”

The sought-after results aren’t necessarily tangible. These sessions aren’t about zoning amendments, roadwork or budgets. At least, not specifically. As Roberts puts it, they’re less about policy than they are about process. The hope is to provide government and business leaders with an impartial source of guidance. From there, the vision calls for a society of fluid connectivity, one with intellectual weight supported by a framework of trust and familiarity.

“So our role is that of a neutral third party,” he says. “We want to be an open space and a neutral platform.”

This month marks the WFDL’s fifth birthday. A busy month, it is distinguished by the forum’s release of a report on aligning the goals of communities across Canada, an effort that comes with another leadership session scheduled for June in Montreal. Also on the April agenda is a call for nominees for WFDL’s Leadership Sea to Sky program, which looks to recruit community leaders from across the corridor. On April 18, there’s a five-hour session planned on Canada’s leadership role in the international community.

Perhaps the biggest event of the month is the Corridor Environmental Leaders Forum, which is set for April 12 at Quest University. Ann Dale, a Royal Roads University scholar and Trudeau Research Fellow influential in calling for coalitions in the environmental movement, will be the keynote speaker.

The future, meanwhile, is equally bustling. A so-called Facilitator’s Resource Centre is in the works; it’ll be mandated to connect collaborative thinkers with opportunities in establishing the sorts of public spaces WFDL tries to create. Further links with Quest University will be explored, with the aim of building mental muscle for open dialogues.

“We’re also looking internationally,” Roberts says. “So we’re looking to continue exchanges with centres of leadership in China and internationally.”

To that end, a group of the forum’s organizers will be off to China in May for the grand opening of the Shanghai Institute.

With his nose buried deep in these files, Roberts is an ideal candidate for sounding off on the state of leadership in the Sea to Sky corridor. But, with neutralism always top of mind, he does so cautiously, preferring language that avoids vilification.

“There are pockets of leadership that truly attempt to be collaborative and see the bigger picture, rather than the more conservative self-interest,” he says. “As much as we like to be a patchwork, we’re also like a quilt.”

Still, leadership is the primary focus of Roberts’s work with the WFDL and its directors. No doubt he could sound off in detail about his view of the corridor’s elected and bureaucratic leadership — but that wouldn’t do much for maintaining the forum’s impartiality, to say nothing of the general flow of ideas it promotes. Besides, credentials aside, it’s not really his place to offer an opinion.

“I’m a democrat,” he says, when asked about his inspirations. “I believe in the voice of the people. I’ve studied Classic Greek texts. I’m a small l liberal. Even as a person of faith, I believe that the community — the collective, the body politic — is vital.”

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