Ottawa Citizen
Friday 5 May 2000

No time for zero tolerance

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

'If you want to teach children how not to behave, just take them to a session of the House of Commons or any legislature."

The line popped up last week during an interview at the ADR Centre (Alternative Dispute Resolution) on Bank Street. The purpose of the meeting was to get leaders in the field of mediation to comment on the spread of zero tolerance. It came from lawyer Ernie Tannis, the capital's leading promoter of ADR as a problem-solving tool, and a necessary life skill.

Also in the room was ADR team member Melinda MacDonald, a graduate psychologist who now bills herself as a psychotherapist, and is another strong believer in dispute resolution.

Monday, Ontario Premier Mike Harris proved Mr. Tannis's point when he came within a whisker of being ejected from the Ontario Legislature for unruly behaviour. He was warned by Speaker Gary Carr: "I will not tolerate it (insults shouted across the floor) again." The premier's one-week record for unacceptable conduct at that point was standing at three.

Our leaders are telling us we are doing a lousy job of raising our children, and they are going to step in and shape us up. The Parents Responsibility Act is looming, and if passed, will hold Ontario parents responsible for the actions of errant children. The philosophy is simplistic: We are no longer to learn from our mistakes, because mistakes will not be tolerated.

A recent victim of this kind of thinking was a proven program in high schools. Alternative Dispute Resolution training at Woodroffe High School showed its worth a few years ago when a snowball fight turned violent. Hatreds surfaced and there was a near riot. Students were able to defuse the situation in a way politicians can't. When there was a calm, they sat across from each other in reasonable give-and-take discussions.

Jean Cody, now vice-principal at Canterbury High, was co-ordinator of Woodroffe's peer mediation program at the time. That students were able to work out their differences, she says, was a direct result of their training in mediation.

Shortly after that incident, the program was cut. Woodroffe principal Barbara McIlveen wasn't there at the time of the trouble, but says cuts to funding and staffing killed the program. It originally went into the school in 1987 as a test, and although it proved itself, it died of political disinterest.

ADR takes the view that people of any age will make mistakes and have disputes. It's a program that started in California more than three decades ago as an alternative to expensive litigation, and continues to grow across the United States. The message is to use lawyers only as a last resort.

In many jurisdictions, including Ontario, ADR is bumping noses with zero tolerance. That's a political decree that mistakes will not be tolerated. Apply it to the snowball crisis at Woodroffe, and dozens if not hundreds of teens, would have been kicked out of school.

U.S. writer Barbara Coloroso, during a recent CBC radio interview, gave an example of how stupid zero tolerance can be. A child in the U.S. picked up her mother's lunch by mistake, and took it to school. In it was an apple, and a kitchen knife intended to cut the apple. When the girl realized she was in school with a knife, she took it to the office to turn it in and explain. She was expelled.

Mr. Tannis: "Children should be nurtured, not nuked. It (zero tolerance) didn't work in the Soviet Union, but we don't seem to have learned from that."

Judges see the value of ADR, and at the Ottawa courthouse routinely send accused persons to an office called the Dispute Resolution Centre for Ottawa-Carleton. There, people who have made mistakes can work out agreements with those they have been harmed. Both sides benefit. Somebody learns a lesson, and nobody goes to jail. That office continues to be notoriously underfunded by myopic political leaders who offer instead zero tolerance, and their own shining selves as examples.

The premier of Ontario lost his cool and publicly hurled insults. That's human. He didn't apologize. That's power.

The ADR Centre is at 567-9714.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. His e-mail address is .

Read previous Dave Brown columns at

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen