Culture and Mediation: a complex issue

overlooking Rankin Inlet

Teaching mediation theory and skills to a group of family and poverty lawyers in Nunavut last week gave me much to think about.

It is one thing to teach Toronto lawyers about mediation. Most of us here buy into the “Harvard” model of negotiation, where you assume that you have people of equal bargaining power sitting at a table, playing more or less by the same rules.

For instance, a person who is serious and truthful will look you in the eye. If a person feels you are wrong, they will tell you so. People choose a mediator they respect and trust. People will be comfortable telling the mediator, in confidence, what is really important to them.

But when you go to the north, you quickly learn that things are different there. The clients will be from a culture

by Tony Kelypalik, Rankin Inlet

that, understandably, deeply distrusts white professionals. They will not be quickly willing to confide in their mediator. Theirs is a culture where looking one in the eye is not a comfortable thing to do. Where if you disagree with someone, you keep quiet about it because it is wrong to insult someone in public.

Family mediation in the north is particularly complex. The risk factors that we routinely “screen” for— domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, neglect of children, depression– are all more likely to be present. This is a society that is trying to adapt, in only one or two generations, to a complete upheaval in life. Loss of a world that revolved around surviving off the land; loss of an entire generation of children to residential schools; loss of food supplies; loss of meaningful existence for many of the men, and loss of traditional roles for the women. It is mind-boggling, and any family mediator will be dealing with all of these losses. How can someone who has not lived through this, and who does not speak the language, possibly understand?

I found hope in the fact that, in my class, there was one young Inuit woman, and of course there are many more young Inuit who will be the next generation of mediators in Nunavut.