Cougars Near the Library

Conflict Analysis Training at Royal Roads University

By Hugh MacDonald | 1999-05-01 12:00:00

For someone who grew up in Southern Ontario, the flight to Vancouver Island presents an amazing panorama of mountains, islands, and sea. I first saw it on a sunny afternoon in October 1998 on my way to a five-week residency at Royal Roads University (RRU). Together with 34 others, I had been accepted as a member of the inaugural class of the university's new MA program in Conflict Analysis and Management. Located on the straits of Juan de Fuca, about 20 minutes west of the city of Victoria, RRU's campus was breathtaking. The rooms in the graduate residence overlooked Washington's Olympic Mountains. Peacocks were every- where. I never got used to the idea that on an early morning walk to the cafeteria, it was normal to see rabbits and deer. Obviously, I was a long way from King and Bay.

It Beats an MBA

As a human resources practitioner in Toronto's financial district, I had decided that advanced study of conflict would be more useful than the traditional MBA in organizational behavior. Despite the humor this choice evoked among my business colleagues, conflict analysis was a field where my community and personal interests and my on-the-job activities could come together.

With the explosion of Canadian university courses, training programs, certificates and diplomas in peace and conflict studies (see David Last's article in the Jan/Feb. issue of Peace Magazine), I had many options. RRU was chartered by the province of British Columbia following the closure, in 1995, of the former Royal Roads Military College. I chose RRU because it tailored its new program for mid-career professionals. I could continue my graduate education without taking a year off work. Instead, over two years, I would spend two five-week periods on campus. Between these full-time residencies, additional part-time courses would be taught by distance education. The final year would be devoted to preparing a thesis.

Even before we met, many of the learners - RRU prefers the term "learner" instead of student - had connected on the Internet. These initial relationships deepened during the intensive residential experience. Feeling that the rapid development of a learning community was important, especially prior to the distance education work, the faculty had designed a program that would deal with the class as a cohort group. We would go through the program together and cooperatively. There would be no competition for marks -- at least not with each other. On our arrival at RRU, the faculty informed us that each learner would be assessed, and assigned a grade for each course based on demonstrated competencies outlined in a personal learning contract.

At the welcoming reception, I met my classmates in person for the first time. There were two others from Ontario, one from the United States and several from the NWT, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The rest were currently living in British Columbia. There was considerably more occupational diversity. Our numbers included social workers, government negotiators, lawyers, human resources and labor relations specialists, a mixture of corporate, not-for-profit and government workers, a teacher, an RCMP officer and a municipal politician.

We also met members of the program's advisory board, several of whom would return as guest speakers over the balance of the program. RRU had established the board in an effort to make the program relevant to practitioners in the field of conflict resolution. I was particularly impressed by Alex Morrison, President of the Lester B. Pearson International Peacekeeping Training Centre, who talked about the peacekeeping partnership and who described peacekeeping as an idea that works in practice but not in theory. Like other advisory board members, he was passionate about the need for professional conflict management training grounded in real-world experience. Another advisory board member, Wayne Fagan, the Director of the Centre for Conciliation and Arbitration at St. Mary's University Law School, delivered what later became a sort-of mantra for many of us, "It's amazing how much you can get done if you don't care who gets the credit."

The faculty for the first residency included Professor Sylvia Milne, a member of RRU's core faculty; Professor Michael Lang, the editor of Mediation Quarterly and a special advisor to RRU; Cheryl Picard, head of the Mediation Centre in Ottawa and a Professor of the Faculty of Law at Carleton University; and Cecil Branson, an international arbitrator and former director of the BC Arbitration and Mediation Institute. The head of the Conflict Analysis and Management division at RRU, Jim Bayer, is a specialist in international relations and arms control in the Pacific.

We were taking three courses: Theory and Practice of Conflict Analysis and Management, Legal Principles and Institutional Conflict Management Systems, and a workshop in Conflict Management Skills. A typical day would contain mini-lectures, seminar groups, experiential learning, and daily readings - lots of readings. Every few days there would be an individual or group assignment. Each learner was also required to prepare a major paper before the end of the residency period.

Studying in the Garden

While working on these assignments and readings, my favorite place to study became a wooden bench, hidden in the depths of the Japanese garden. A nearby Italian garden would also become a favorite place to hold outdoor study groups or seminar meetings - at least until the photographers and wedding parties arrived late in the day.

Two weeks into the program, notices were posted on the doors of the residence, informing us that a cougar had been spotted on the tennis courts behind the library. It was said in such a matter-of-fact manner that it was clear it was a common occurrence. For the next week or so, we were advised to travel in pairs, especially when using the forest paths. Those of us from outside Van- couver Island joked about it being another experiential activity designed to promote even more teamwork, while the locals had a great time pulling our legs, sharing cougar stories and giving us survival tips. Apparently, the best strategy is to look as big as possible - preferably by unzipping your jacket and stretching out your arms. It fit right in as yet another conflict management strategy!

Program content was well balanced. There was a good mix of theory and practice. Morning lectures and seminars would focus on the developing academic body of knowledge in conflict studies. Afternoon workshops and presentations by guest lecturers were full of real world experience. It became obvious that the best alternative dispute resolution practitioners are those who can remain curious and avoid the temptation to pass judgment.

Something as deceptively simple as defining conflict proved to be among the most challenging assignments. One of our texts defined it as friction between individuals and groups due to perceived differences in interests. Another simply suggested that conflict is communication itself - that is, conflict is inherent in the act of communicating. Personally, I preferred to view conflict in terms of disabled, or unbalanced, human systems. In the end, I walked away with a functional view of conflict as neither negative nor positive in itself. It is not conflict, but our reaction to conflict, that might be thought of as good or bad. Without some conflict, no one would challenge the status quo.

One of the more interesting in-class sessions occurred when Dr. Gordon Smith, a former Canadian deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, spent the day at RRU. He noted that international relations were no longer, if they ever were, limited to state-to-state communication. The world system now connects many state and non-state actors, including the media, NGOs, transnational corporations and private citizens. He pointed to the growing importance of global governance, especially in economic and environmental matters, in providing conflict resolution models and in building relationships and trust helpful in dealing with more intractable political and ethnic conflicts.

Some of the best parts of the program turned out to be unplanned. After dinner one evening an informal symposium developed out of a group discussion lead by the RCMP officer who had worked as an advisor during a U.N. tour of duty in Haiti. She vividly depicted a range of challenges from homicide investigations to community policing in one of the poorest countries in the world. This led to a series of evening seminars as other learners shared their own experiences with international environmental negotiations, labor relations and negotiations with and between First Nations.

Too soon, as the last colored leaves were falling from the trees, it was time to go. I am back in Toronto. Our seminar groups are working on Internet-based courses in dispute systems design and ethnographic research methods. I have a small cloth bag on my desk with a few pine cones from the Japanese garden. Whenever I bring back a coffee from the food court in the subterranean mall beneath my office tower, disappointed by the lack of deer, rabbits or cougars, I pick up that bag and I look forward to next fall on Vancouver Island.

Hugh MacDonald is a graduate student in Conflict Analysis and Management .

Peace Magazine May-June 1999

Peace Magazine May-June 1999, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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