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Robin Prest is the civic engagement program director at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue.

If your family gatherings are like most, there are probably a few topics that are guaranteed to generate controversy around the dinner table. Religion. Politics. Parenting advice.

In the extended family that we call Canada – a federation of 10 diverse provinces and three territories – that topic today is energy. From pipelines to carbon taxes, raising the issue of energy can be a surefire way to spoil the mood at the national table.

With such polarization around a complex subject, how will Canadians ever find agreement around our shared energy future?

Depending on where you live, energy might account for as much as 20 per cent of your province's economic activity. Energy is also responsible for 80 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. Add to that the potential effects of energy policy on Indigenous rights, government revenues, jobs and our ways of life, and it's easy to see why the issue cuts so close to home.

Compounding the problem and mirroring a global trend is the fact that Canadians now distrust most major institutions, from government to business to the media.

New polling results just released by Simon Fraser University's (SFU) Centre for Dialogue and Forum Research show that Canadians don't even agree on where to get their information. In some regions, only 32 per cent of Canadians trust industry to predict Canada's future energy needs, while in other regions, this number is as high as 60 per cent. Similar regional differences exist over trust in environmental groups. Forty-nine per cent of Canadians say they are unfamiliar with the federal government's plans for the future of energy in Canada.

A well-functioning democracy requires both quality information and trust in institutions to work. This is particularly true for a file as crucial to the national interest as energy.

Unlike at a typical family gathering, the country doesn't have the option of avoiding thorny topics such as energy. There's too much at stake and Canada's people, diverse regions and industries are too interdependent for us to continue to shout at one another indefinitely.

We need to approach the conversation differently. And it starts with citizens. That's why we're convening the Citizen Dialogues on Canada's Energy Future.

Through a series of regional dialogues this September and October, the SFU Centre for Dialogue will convene 150 citizens who reflect the diversity of all Canadians. Coming from different home towns, perspectives and backgrounds, these participants will sit down to hear about one another's values and how they relate to energy.

This new approach begins by laying all the information on the table. Too much of what we read about energy in Canada contains cherry-picked facts that build the case toward some predetermined outcome. The discussion guide we have just launched provides a unique and original resource for this critical discussion, exactly because it surfaces multiple perspectives without censorship.

Just as important as fact-based information are the values that guide our decisions. Experts, campaigners and even lobbyists all have important roles to play, but it would be a mistake to think that they can replace the functions of citizens in a democratic society.

This initiative will mark the first time ever that randomly selected citizens have come together to deliberate and advise the federal government on energy policy. This work is funded by the federal Department of Natural Resources, which deserves credit for placing citizens front and centre in its decision-making process.

The results will be unprecedented: A set of recommendations showing what citizens – coming from all corners of the country and different walks of life – can agree upon when they search for common ground on energy.

No one's saying this conversation will be easy. Participants will have to imagine themselves in the shoes of others and will consider the same constraints and trade-offs faced by their elected representatives. But working through the hard questions is something we desperately need as a country and the citizen dialogues will provide a reference point to inform future pathways in national policy.

Along the way, we expect a robust discussion. There will almost certainly be moments of disagreement. That's healthy in a democracy.

What we can't afford is to squander another opportunity to listen deeply and improve the conversation about energy. Energy is central to our lives – and the family of Canada is too important.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says the auto industry has expressed its support for free trade in North America. The U.S. chief negotiator targeted the sector on the first day of NAFTA talks in Washington on Wednesday.

The Canadian Press

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