A unique approach to nation-building

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This article was written by Peter ter Weeme in January 2009. This month we're showcasing some of our best, in celebration of four years of WorldChanging Canada.

On Saturday, I returned from Ottawa where I attended the last few days of the 2008 Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference (GGCLC). Held every four years and hosted by the Governor General , the GGCLC, “brings together Canada's future leaders from business, labour, government, NGOs, education and the cultural sector for a unique two-week experience aimed at broadening their perspectives on work, leadership, their communities, and their country.”

I made the trek to Ottawa because I was a participant in 2004, and this year, alumni like me were invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the program over the course of three days. The highlight was a special event at the Museum of Civilization attended by Ed Schreyer, the original patron of the GGCLC.

Inspired by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conferences (held since 1956), the Canadian leadership conferences began in 1983 with a vision of Canadian nation-building. What’s particularly powerful and unique about the program is that the 225 members of each Conference are Canadian citizens from different regions of Canada, with different perspectives and different careers.

Through a combination of examination, debate, and discovery packed into an intense two-week period, the GGCLC is designed to help broaden the perspectives and enhance the leadership qualities of its members. After all, how often do you get to spend two weeks in a melting pot of people representing all facets of Canadian society, debating a range of issues that relate to the Canadian experience?

No topic during the GGCLC is taboo. Indeed, members are exposed to issues ranging from inner city poverty and the treatment of First Nations to regional economic development challenges and innovative approaches to addressing local social issues. And, by ensuring a diversity of participants, members are forced to confront their own biases, prejudices and tightly held perceptions.

The conference begins with a three-day plenary session in a Western Canadian city where a range of noteworthy speakers set the context for that year’s theme. For example, this year the theme was Leadership and Community; in 2004, it was Leadership and Diversity. Plenary speakers this year included Peter Lougheed, Phil Fontaine and Sheila Watt-Cloutier. In 2004, the roster included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bernard Kuchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders, and Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi Cola International.

Following the plenary sessions, the 225 members divide into 15 groups that travel to different parts of Canada where they engage in an action-packed tour of that region, meeting and debating with local business and community leaders of various shapes and sizes. An average day starts at 6:00 am and ends as late as midnight after a study group session where members discuss the day’s events.

The GGCLC ends with four days in Ottawa where members prepare a consensus presentation for Governor General on what they have seen and learned. With all those teams of A-type people, most presentations incorporate a range of creativity—poems, theatrical vignettes, songs and art—to help communicate their message. Then, the Governor General engages the group in a 20-minute discussion where she explores further that group’s themes.

To call this a life-changing experience is no overstatement. Members leave with a newfound appreciation for Canadian values, enriched perspectives on all aspects of Canadian society, stronger leadership skills, and a range of friendships with current or emerging leaders across the country.

As part of the alumni program I attended, we were treated to a private tour of Parliament Hill with Pat Martin, the MP for Winnipeg Centre and an alumnus of 1991. The tour ended with a chance to watch Question Period on the last day the House sat before summer recess. Pat left us at that point to take his seat on the floor.

Sitting in the gallery, we were all taken aback by the rancourous, mean-spirited and, frankly, childish display of our elected officials. The kind of cat calls, insults and accusations flying across the floor would not be acceptable in a classroom or at a dinner table, yet it was on full display that day in the House.

Speaking with Pat during the tour, he suggested that Parliament and all Canadians would benefit from having elected officials participate in a program modeled on the GGCLC prior to taking their seats in the House. I agree. Doing so, MPs would gain a new appreciation for other parts of Canada, be exposed to the complete spectrum of actors that make up Canada, and move beyond a purely partisan perspective.

Just imagine the kind of political leadership, and by extension, the kind of Canada, that could emerge from that experience.

Another terrific article by Peter ter Weeme, Stemming the tide of greenwashing, was chosen to be reprinted as a chapter in a textbook by BC Open Schools, in a module focussing on environmental literacy, nutritional literacy and media literacy.

For more great WorldChanging Canada articles by Peter ter Weeme, see:

For more inspiring WorldChanging Canada stories on leading and taking leadership, see: