UCalgary hosts vital conversations on the future of Canada

One of my privileges as Chancellor has been getting to know citizens who are passionate about Canada. University of Calgary Senator Colin Jackson is one such person. Outside of Senate, Colin is Chair of imagination 150. imagination 150 is a national, citizen-driven movement that believes that celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 is an ideal time to encourage public discourse about the building of our country’s future.

Leading up to next year’s sesquicentennial, imagination 150 is spearheading a variety of initiatives to engage, inspire and re-energize citizens. Several months ago, Colin asked whether the University of Calgary would partner with imagination 150 to host a ‘Chancellor’s Vital Conversation on the Future of Canada’ event. The intent would be to engage university students in discussions about the kind of future they desire and how they can pursue such a vision.

This was a no-brainer. I immediately replied “yes!” Our ‘Vital Conversations’ event occurred a couple of weeks ago. In fact, our university was the first to host such an event. I was so proud of our students who participated. As I eavesdropped on the students’ conversations, I was inspired by their sense of reality as well as their vision for our great nation. I left with a reassurance that the shaping of Canada’s future is in good hands.

One of the participating students was Erica McLachlan. Like Colin, Erica is also a remarkable citizen and UCalgary Senator. I asked Erica if she could find time in her busy grad school schedule to guest blog about the event. This is what she had to say:


On February 18, I had the opportunity to participate in an exciting initiative on campus, hosted by the University in partnership with imagiNation 150. The Imagination Café brought together student leaders from across campus to discuss the future of Canada in honour of the country’s 150th anniversary in 2017. It is hoped that these dialogues will spread across Canada as we approach 2017.

Our discussions kicked off early on a Thursday morning during reading break. Armed with coffee and a sense of anticipation, I entered TFDL’s Gallery Hall and discovered four tables that had each been assigned a different theme: pluralism, innovation, healthy communities and use of resources. Curious as to the direction the discussions would take, I made my way to the “pluralism” table. Each table was well-equipped to support the conversations that followed, outfitted with flipcharts, markers, paper, pens, post-it notes and stress balls, and overseen by enthusiastic and knowledgeable facilitators.

After welcoming all those in attendance, including the Honourable Lois Mitchell, Chancellor Thirsk explained his motivations for championing the Imagination Café. It was clear that the excitement surrounding Canada’s Centennial celebrations in 1967 had a lasting impact on the young astronaut-to-be, particularly the opening of Calgary’s Centennial Planetarium. Emphasizing the overwhelming sense of optimism that emerged from these cross-country Centennial celebrations nearly fifty years ago, Chancellor Thirsk expressed his desire to see a resurgence of this positivity amongst Canadians, asking the students in the room to consider: “What kind of Canada do you envision?”

Following Chancellor Thirsk’s stirring introductory remarks, the University of Calgary’s Rita Egizii outlined the principles that would ground our discussions during the Imagination Café:
1) Focus on the context
2) Maintain a welcoming space
3) Explore questions that matter
4) Encourage everyone’s contribution
5) Connect different perspectives
6) Listen for patterns and insights
7) Share collective discoveries

We would be given 15 minutes to discuss the table topic as a group, at which point each group would move to a different table. Rita then led us through an exercise designed to help us identify our key personal values. It was clear from her warm smile and teasing tone that she derived great pleasure from this activity, watching us squirm as we attempted to whittle down a list of 80 values to our top 3 in less than 10 minutes.


After much deliberation, we were invited to share the values we had chosen with the other students at the table. There was very little overlap between the values we had each selected, prompting the question: “What makes us Canadian?”

The diverse group of student leaders in attendance contributed to the conversations that took place. Various organizations on campus, from the Graduate Students’ Association and the Graduate Residential College to the Students’ Union, Chancellor’s Scholars and Debate Society were represented around the table. The vastly different interests and experiences of the participants led the conversations in interesting and sometimes unexpected directions.

At the pluralism table, our group began by attempting to define the term, settling on an understanding that emphasized multiple recognized sources of authority. However, the group also maintained that “tolerance” is not the best way to approach diversity, and instead an empathetic approach that accepted and celebrated differences would serve Canada well moving forward. We also discussed the notion of Quebec being recognized as a “distinct society” within Canada, and acknowledged the many “nations”—particularly Aboriginal communities—within Canada have distinct cultures, and that supporting these communities will be an integral part of creating a better Canada.

After 15 minutes, we moved to the innovation table. There, we discussed what innovation meant to us. Around the table there was general agreement that innovation includes developments in various fields that are “more,” “better,” or “different,” and have a specific purpose. One point that was raised, which left an impression on me, was the need to improve Canada’s self-esteem when it comes to innovation. There are many opportunities to pursue innovation in Canada, and Canadians are incredibly creative and innovative, but there is often a mentality amongst innovators in various fields that they must leave the country in order to be successful. Therefore, moving forward, it will be important to celebrate and support Canadian innovation and change our collective narrative to one that recognizes the opportunities for “home grown” success.


Chancellor Thirsk moderating our group’s discussion.

Moving on, our group participated in a discussion about healthy communities. We focused on how to build thriving cities, using the analogy of an ecosystem to describe the way in which it could create healthier populations. Cities cited as examples of “healthy” communities included Singapore, Lombok and Dubrovnik, which had features such as green spaces or historic interiors that promoted the mental and physical health of citizens. Examples of “unhealthy” cities included New York City and Santiago, where urban sprawl resulted in a feeling of disconnect and very little sense of “community.”

Lastly, the facilitator’s recap of previous discussions at the “use of resources” table revealed the many different ways that groups interpreted the topic throughout the morning. Some groups talked about the importance of natural resources and sustainability, while others focused on human resources and intellectual capital. Our group focused on the responsibility that universities have to disseminate knowledge and some of the challenges with sharing that information through open access. We recognized the importance of finding ways to build bridges between post-secondary institutions and the communities that they serve to help Canada flourish.

At all of the tables, a common theme that arose was considering what the University of Calgary could do to contribute to creating the Canada we envisioned. As we approach the University’s 50th Anniversary, there is a sense of excitement about the future of our institution. From the University’s various strategies—such as the Aboriginal strategy (forthcoming) and the campus-wide mental health strategy— to its efforts at engaging and connecting with the broader Calgary community, it is clear that we will play a leading role in defining what the future holds for Canada.

While the challenges ahead are great, having the opportunity to listen to other students share their vision for Canada’s future left me feeling not only optimistic, but motivated to help make it a reality. Canada has come far in the past fifty years, but its strength lies in our conviction as Canadians to make it even better.

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