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Speaker’s corner gets new life

Calgary takes a cue from London’s Hyde Park

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Since early June, organizers have been hosting Speaker’s Corner events on Sunday afternoons at 17th Avenue’s Tomkin Park. Modeled after events first hosted in London’s Hyde Park over 150 years ago, Speaker’s Corner gives Calgarians the chance to share their views on current issues in a formalized setting.

On Sundays, speakers are given a block of time to voice their thoughts on a specific issue. Supporters and detractors on an issue are selected to speak before the microphone is offered to the crowd.

Topics have ranged from Canadian domestic and foreign policy, global affairs and the recent political upheavals in the Middle East. “We are constantly soliciting suggestions for topics and speakers,” said Calgarian lawyer and event organizer Gabor Zinner.

Crowd size varies, but some topics have drawn crowds in excess of 100.

“I would love to see the format embraced by the public with sufficient enthusiasm to allow it to take root and form part of the Calgary cultural landscape on an enduring basis,” Zinner said. “In addition to being a good outlet for people to put forward and exchange views of topical interest, thereby providing stimulation and educational value, it should offer a little spice in what, to many, is an intellectually barren landscape.”

As is true for most Speaker’s Corners, no topic is officially off limits. However, unlike in Hyde Park, topics are selected by organizers.

“I would like to push the envelope of intellectual freedom and expression. However, we have to be cautious about not being bold enough to trample on the sensitivity of the general public and thereby be viewed as fringe and denied respect and credibility,” Zinner said. “I am not yet ready to drink the hemlock. I would like to move the needle in terms of Calgary’s tolerance to bold and novel ideas.”

Alberta Green Party leader Janet Keeping, who spoke at last week’s event, was intrigued by the prospect of a new open forum for discussion.

“I was really pleased that Gabor Zinner and his colleagues put this Speaker’s Corner series together. It’s a wonderful initiative and we need more of this,” Keeping said. “It seems to me that this initiative is illustrative of a sense that there just has to be more discussion of the big issues that are hitting us. Having not discussed enough about these issues, that sense of complacency permeates everything.”

Organizers have also reached out to federal Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, hoping to discuss marijuana legalization in Canada.

During the last meeting, some were critical of the platform’s organizational structure, viewing it as exclusionary.

“I did get some feedback from people who were there who felt that it was too top-down,” Keeping said. “I myself would like a bit more give and take.”

Keeping’s and other speaker’s suggestions for improvement are being dealt with by organizers.

“Just this past Sunday, two people observed that the format involving two speakers kicking off a session with comments from the audience has a top-down flavour to it, which may be a deterrent to some,” Zinner said “They thought that a more [wholesome] discussion could ensue if chairs were arranged in a circle with the mike being passed around.”

Speakers from the University of Calgary take part in many of the programs ­— something organizer Eliah Bailey hopes to continue in the future.

“We are looking to encourage students to get involved and use Speaker’s Corner as a platform to hone their speaking skills. Moderators, videographers, organizers, speech writers or any others that may wish to work on developing [those skills],” Bailey said. “We are also toying with the idea of a think tank for topics.”

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