On July 1, 2017, Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday. Yesterday, thirty prominent Calgarians gathered to discuss what a suitable gift for the occasion might look like.

It's not that these Calgarians had nothing else to do, given that the group included executives representing major oil, media and investment companies. The CEO of the Calgary Stampede was there as was the publisher of the Calgary Herald. The Mayor and Chamber of Commerce President, a university of Calgary representative and CEO of the community foundation—they all cleared their schedule to answer the invitation issued by former Epcor Center CEO and prominent Calgarian Colin Jackson who, with a few other civic leaders, launched Imagination 150. And, the Governor General, His Excellency David Johnston was in town and had agreed to be the honorary patron of this civic movement. He presided over a discussion preparing for a party that is still 5 years and 138 days away.

The premise for the discussion was simple but inspiring. There's going to be a party in 2017, whether we do something or not. But the group was challenging each other to bring a gift to the party that would leave a legacy. The bulk of our time together was spent in an open brainstorming exercise, and the reflective comments of these community leaders were insightful. There were no rose-coloured glasses. The group was conscious that global economic and social measures were not all trending positive. There was a widespread recognition that many Canadians, and especially the aboriginal community, would not view Canada's 150th as a particular reasoning to celebrate. The resource-driven prosperity enjoyed by Albertans was a source of resentment for some others in the country, and the demographic challenges were only likely to sow further seeds of intergenerational discord.

Still, the "can-do" attitude that characterizes entrepreneurial Calgary pervaded. An honest evaluation of challenges and a wide range of ideas regarding a birthday gift for the country were tabled:

  • ending homelessness;
  • building on the strengths and broadening the reach of our education system;
  • finding a way to overcome the challenges in the aboriginal community;
  • expanding the experiences of Canadian, especially young people, by imagining ways to encourage people to travel the country and meet their fellow-citizens across the land;
  • or maybe focusing closer to home, facilitating a national day of service in which we all volunteer for a local community organization on a common day and serve our neighbours in that way;
  • encouraging the 8% of Canadians who live outside of the country to come home for a visit in 2017;
  • recognizing that there is already an initiative to connect the trails from coast to coast by 2017, perhaps match this investment in physical infrastructure by an investment in social infrastructure?

The two hours flew by quickly, and the point was not to come to any concrete conclusions at the meeting but rather to go from here inspired and both working together and in our own networks and organizations, catalyzing a national conversation about what we might give to Canada for her 150th birthday.

His Excellency the Governor General adjourned the meeting referencing a quotation from George Bernard Shaw, "Some men see things as they are and say why—I dream things that never were and say why not."

It was a privilege to be invited to participate in this conversation. As I left the meeting, my mind was spinning with the possibilities that were explored. I must confess that starting to plan a party and thinking about a gift more than five years in advance is something I had never done before, but as someone reminded us in the conversation, perhaps the greatest gift we can bring to the party are not noble statements of what we intend to do, but rather a set of accomplishments of what we have done. Two hours of conversation hardly counts as an accomplishment, but I suspect I am not the only participant who left invigourated and enthusiastic to translate some of the ideas into concrete actions so that Canada's sesquicentennial not only reminds us of our history and celebrates our present, but also is a nation-building exercise in its own right.