Op-Ed: For Canada 150, what unique gift can we give the world?

Jul 13 2017, 7:52 am

Written for Daily Hive by Khalil Shariff, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation Canada

Canada. We are a country of innovators, creators, and pioneers.

For centuries, we have shared these talents with the world. We all know about Canadian innovations in technology (the Blackberry), cardiology (the pacemaker), and, of course, late-night fast food (poutine).

Some of our other inventions have obvious Canadian roots: snowmobiles, snow blowers, and birch bark canoes. Instant replay in sports broadcasting was first pioneered – where else? – by a producer at Hockey Night in Canada.

We lay claim to basketball, IMAX, and the egg carton, and it seems fitting that the country that gave the world butter tarts also discovered insulin.

But our biggest gift to the world is yet to come.

We are not just innovators and inventors. Canada is also a country of global citizens, living at a time when the world is facing unprecedented challenges.

Violent turmoil and deadly attacks make headlines every day. We also face slower-moving – but, arguably, deadlier – crises like climate change, forced migration, and growing inequality.

These challenges are vast and complex. At times, they are bewildering, even frightening. But we cannot let them paralyze us.

For decades, Canada has exercised leadership on the global stage – an inclusive, bridge-building kind of leadership which seems to be in dwindling supply in many other parts of the world.

This leadership has endured in Canada because it draws on our unique values and ideals. We recognize that diversity is a source of strength, not a threat, and that more can be achieved through collaboration and listening than by digging in our heels and shouting.

The world has never been more in need of these values than it is today. As the CEO of Aga Khan Foundation Canada, I’ve seen firsthand the challenges facing fragile regions. In places where opportunity is hard to come by, scarcity and poverty breed competition, division, and fear.

But I’ve also seen that when women and men have opportunity, they have hope for a brighter future, and they are motivated to work together to make their vision a reality. And, I have seen the progress that can be made when Canadians decide to engage with the world, and work alongside these communities to build stronger societies where everyone has opportunity and the right to hope.

khalil Shariff akfc

Khalil Shariff visiting Aga Khan Development Network programming in Afghanistan (AKFC)

Leadership is not only exercised in the halls of Parliament or corporate corner offices. Each of us can lead by example. It is imperative that we take on the personal responsibility to contribute – our money, yes, but just as important, our time and talents. Canada’s civic engagement may be one of our most powerful assets on the global stage, a contribution which has not escaped the notice of world leaders.

This month, His Highness the Aga Khan commemorates 60 years of leadership as the Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. In these six decades, his unflagging commitment to investing in social, economic, and cultural development has transformed millions of lives around the world.

In 2014, he was invited to address Canada’s Parliament, and in his remarks, he reminded Canadians of our vital role in this work.

“Amongst the great common denominators of the human race is a shared aspiration, a common hope, for a better quality of life,” he said. “Increasingly, civil societies are voices for change where change has been overdue… I believe Canada is uniquely able to articulate and exemplify [the] critical underpinnings of a quality civil society.”

This year, Canadians are marking 150 years since Confederation. Anniversaries are a chance to celebrate, but also remind us to pause and take stock. As we think hard about who we are, we should reflect not only on what Canada means for Canadians, but what Canada means for the world.

We have domestic problems which must be addressed, but we don’t live in isolation. Canada is one country in a very big world. If this world is not successful, we will not be successful.

Again, the words of His Highness the Aga Khan: “Instability is infectious. But so is hope.”

As we decide how we choose to commemorate this milestone in Canada’s history, it has never been more vital that we extend our thinking across oceans and borders.

It is up to each of us to offer the best of Canada to the world. If we can give a spark of hope to communities a world away, they can come together to celebrate their own unique assets, and ignite a brighter future for all.


Khalil Z. Shariff is the Chief Executive Officer of Aga Khan Foundation Canada, an international development organization and registered Canadian charity. Since 1980, the foundation has improved millions of lives in Africa and Asia, working in partnership with the Government of Canada and diverse Canadian institutions and individuals. AKFC is an agency of the global Aga Khan Development Network, one of the largest and most respected development organizations in the world. In July 2017, the chair of the network, His Highness the Aga Khan, commemorates his Diamond Jubilee – 60 years of leadership as Imam of the global community of Ismaili Muslims.

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