TORONTO – In the chilly confines of a warehouse, images, voices and words carried from the far reaches of the globe converge, radiating from still photos and video screens.For citizens from at least 40 countries including Afghanistan, Kenya and Pakistan, their common bond is Canada, which plays a crucial role in shaping their communities and lives.

Organizers of the Bridges that Unite exhibition, which had a preview stop in Toronto recently, say they hope these stories will soon be part of a national conversation as they hit the road with the interactive, travelling display designed to engage Canadians and help them explore the country’s role in the developing world.

Bridges that Unite marks a quarter-century partnership between Canada and the Aga Khan Development Network in the region. Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) is an agency of AKDN, an international group of non-denominational agencies with a humanitarian agenda encompassing social, economic and cultural development.

The network was founded by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of about 15 million Ismaili Muslims in some 25 countries, including between 80,000 and 100,000 in Canada.

The Canadian International Development Agency and AKFC first collaborated 25 years ago in northern Pakistan employing principles around keeping the community in charge. They’ve seen “extraordinary results” in that part of the world, said Khalil Shariff, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation Canada.

Shariff said there have been improvements in almost all measures, including infant mortality and education for men and women.

“We thought this is an example of Canadian leadership, of thoughtful, sensitive, long-term visionary Canadian leadership, which is unheralded,” he said.

“At a time in the world where that kind of leadership is in real demand, we thought that showcasing it in a way that would make it accessible to lots of Canadians made sense: not only that experience in the northern areas of Pakistan but everything it has spawned across many other parts of the world.”

Just beyond the entrance of the sprawling 465 square metre exhibit sits a ring of chairs, symbolic of the approach allowing individuals to identify their own ideas and priorities for community development. Interactive audio elements allow visitors to listen to those working in the field, including program officers instructing on how to run a community meeting, take minutes and assign responsibilities.

“If we don’t understand, for instance, that the heart of most international development efforts is bringing the community together to discuss over time their problems, it’s gong to be very hard for us to appreciate why it’s complex, why it takes a long time,” Shariff said.

“If all we think (about is) distributing handouts, we’re going to be very poor decision-makers and very poor contributors.”

The Aga Khan University in Pakistan has also developed strong partnerships with Canadian institutions including the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Students can participate in exchanges or earn scholarships to study in Canada in hopes of taking their newfound knowledge back to their communities.

Hamilton’s McMaster University was involved in setting up a nursing school at Aga Khan University in Pakistan 25 years ago. In the past decade, the Aga Khan University went on to establish a growing presence in east Africa. In one of the featured short films, a Kenyan nursing grad speaks of her work at a local hospital while helping to raise her orphaned nephews and nieces.

“What we’re talking about here is investments in higher education so you create the leaders that you need to strengthen society and ensure all the parts are working together so you can have a vibrant, pluralistic, democratic society where people have choices,” said Jennifer Morrow, the foundation’s communications director.

The exhibition also spotlights Canadians who serve as “agents of change.”

Sarah Bandali followed two years of work with Aga Khan’s Geneva office with a two-year stint in Mozambique where she designed and facilitated HIV-AIDS prevention workshops.

She said it’s important to recognize the process of development is incremental, and the aim is to establish longer term changes and outcomes.

“I think working with communities, they have a lot of hope and inspiration and willingly and actively want to participate in enhancing their own development,” she said.

“I think they appreciate that you’re not only wanting to help them but you’re actually actively taking their concerns and voices into account by actively engaging them in the process itself.”

At the conclusion of the exhibition, visitors are welcome to share their thoughts on ways to help push Canada forward with “21 questions for the 21st century.” They can express what they believe to be among the most pressing global issues and how Canada can help address them. The answers will be compiled and posted on the exhibition website, along with details of future tour stops.

While initially greeted with walls of photos of a diverse array of faces, the journey concludes with visitors reflecting on their own image in a mirror and the Aga Khan’s parting words: “Successful experience with democracy, civil society and pluralism are the national genius of Canada of which much of the developing world is in dire need.”

“The significance of the mirror is that we see ourselves as the future, as Canadians who can make a difference, that we do have the capacity as individuals to have a voice of how we want Canada to play a role in the developing world,” Morrow said.

Bridges that Unite is slated to open Feb. 1 in Victoria at the Victoria Conference Centre, the first stop on a scheduled nationwide tour which will be open free to the public.

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