Dreading holiday COVID-19 conversations? Help is out there

December 19, 2021
Dreading holiday COVID-19 conversations? Help is out there

It’s the time of year when many of us look forward to social outings or family gatherings, but this December, divisions over COVID-19 vaccinations may make planning and conversations around those events more challenging than usual.

Ask almost anyone on the street, and they’ll have a story about a pandemic-related holiday conflict.

Chantal Lagasse, for instance, told people invited to her Christmas party they would have to be double-vaccinated and show their Manitoba Health QR code and identification as proof.

Some of her friends didn’t attend, though she didn’t ask why.

‘Separating the groups’

“It’s definitely separating the groups,” she said, stopping to answer a CBC News question at Winnipeg’s The Forks Market about how COVID-19 issues are affecting her social plans.

Another passerby, Rachel Dueck said she tries to avoid arguments about her anti-vaccination stance but doesn’t hesitate to give her opinion when asked. 

“This is a free country — well, it’s supposed to be — and you shouldn’t have to be forced into it, to vaccinate,” Dueck said.

She said she hasn’t seen some people in her life for nearly two years.   

“If they don’t want to be around me, then I don’t go around them,” she said. “Pretty much, they isolated me and my kids at home.… I just feel like it’s not right.”

Stopping to talk to CBC News, Rachel Dueck said she dreads conversations with people who want to force her and their children to get vaccinated. (Jaison Empson/CBC News )

Such divisions are fuelling conflicts between friends, family members and colleagues that could last long after the pandemic ends, said Tony Friesen, a trainer at Mediation Services in Winnipeg.

COVID-19 is an underlying factor in almost every one of the group’s mediation cases these days, from custody disputes between parents to a nurse being threatened at work.

“People have found what they believe, and they’ve settled into it, and so, this isn’t about trying to convince someone to go to a different position,” Friesen said.

“This is recognizing there are people out there with different positions that are somewhat incompatible — and not having healthy conversations about this can lead to very toxic conflict.”

Online course for navigating COVID conversations

Established in 1979 as a project of the Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba in response to concerns about victims of crimes and the high number of people being incarcerated in Canada, Mediation Services has now created an online, on-demand training course called COVID Conversations:  A  Roadmap  to Existing Together with  Opposing  Views.  

Tony Friesen and Christine Ens of Winnipeg-based Mediation Services are seeing so much COVID-19 related conflict, they created an online training course to teach people how to have productive conversations and save relationships. (Jaison Empson/CBC News)

The webinar, which costs $187, covers several issues that tend to emerge during conflicts around COVID-19 and vaccines, including:

  • Understanding how both people in the conflict established their positions. 
  • How to shift from a place of judgment to a state of curiosity.
  • How to identify the common and incompatible interests of the conflict.
  • Communication tools necessary for a healthy argument.
  • Healthy and effective ways to say no.
  • Respectfully ending a conversation that is not going well.

“There are doctors and scientists all over the world researching the virus and understanding how the virus works and is transmitted, and our job as conflict-resolution specialists is to think about the impact of what this virus is — and what it’s doing to relationships,” said Christine Ens, executive director of Mediation Services.

“We want to be focused on relationship and putting relationship over our position or opinion.”

Plays, podcasts, books aim to help

That’s also some of the thinking behind a series of free theatre scripts, podcasts and digital books called Dialogues for the Vaccine Hesitant and Those Who Love Them.  

The project is a collaboration between Boca de Lupo Theatre in Vancouver and the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver, which received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Immunization Partnership Fund.

Its goal is to address vaccine hesitancy among people experiencing barriers to care and to encourage vaccination.

The scripts are meant as “practice dialogues for people who might find themselves in any number of difficult conversations,” according to an online description of the project.

They explore different root causes of vaccine hesitancy, including fear of needles and misinformation, as well as anger over vaccine passports and wariness in some racialized communities when it comes to government-mandated procedures.

Hera Nalam (left) and Stephanie Sy record the Yvette Nolan play Case of You at the BMO Tom Hendry Warehouse in Winnipeg. The play is also part of the Dialogues for the Vaccine Hesitant and Those Who Love Them series. (Melissa Langdon/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

“It’s really directed to people like you or me who have found themselves in these difficult conversations,” said Jay Dodge, artistic director of Boca de Lupo and producer of the Dialogues project. 

“And hopefully, that’ll give folks just a little bit of background and preparation so that they feel they can have those conversations with empathy and compassion.”

Plays recorded with actors from across Canada

Dodge commissioned four Canadian playwrights, Omari Newton, Yvette Nolan, Mary-Colin Chisholm, and Karen Hines, to write the scripts.

Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Halifax’s Eastern Front Theatre, Montreal’s Centaur Theatre and Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit recorded the plays with professional actors and turned them into podcasts that also include discussion with the playwrights and some of the experts they consulted during their research.

WATCH | Actors from Centaur Theatre Company in Montreal record one of the dialogues for the vaccine hesitant:

Vaxx Pass by Omari Newton

Members of Centaur Theatre Company in Montreal record the play Vaxx Pass by Omari Newton, one of four scripts created for a podcast called Dialogues for the Vaccine Hesitant and Those Who Love Them. 1:03

“These aren’t informational pieces in that hard news kind of sense. These are illuminating, intimate conversations and moments between people who care about each other and that are struggling to understand each other.,” Dodge said.

“As artists, that’s the part that speaks to us the most. How can we bring people together and and hopefully create more understanding with each other on both sides of the issue?”

Winnipegger Aleem Rasool says this is a hard time of year to have tough conversations about who can attend family gatherings and visits with the children. (Jaison Empson/CBC News)

Help navigating tough conversations can’t come soon enough for Winnipegger Aleem Rasool, who stopped to answer a CBC News question while heading back to work with colleagues after lunch.

“How do you convince someone who doesn’t believe in COVID? And if they don’t want to get vaccinated, how do you alienate them from your family and say, ‘Well, if you’re not vaccinated, you can’t spend time with my kids or your grandkids?'” he said.

“That’s a tough conversation because it creates enmity between family members.”

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