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During Canada’s 1967 Centennial, Ottawa funded a whole series of building projects across the country.

JOHN MCNEILL/The Globe and Mail

With Canada's 150th birthday now just two years away, there is a budding movement to rekindle the patriotic fervour that swept the country during the 1967 Centennial – only this time with citizen-inspired rather than government-led celebrations.

Dubbed Canada 2017 Give Back, the effort is being championed by a number of chief executive officers and high-profile Canadians and aims to make the sesquicentennial bash more than simply a state-financed initiative. Instead, it's meant to encourage citizens – individuals, classes, companies, communities – to dream up their own projects to mark the 150th, from planting trees to holding concerts.

Of course, the government will be have its own anniversary plans – Ottawa has already spent an estimated $6.5-million on advertising for the party. But this idea revolves around Canadians giving something, or doing something, to mark the occasion.

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For the Centennial in 1967, Ottawa funded a whole series of building projects across the country, from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to a UFO Landing Pad in St. Paul, Alta. It's hard to imagine that happening now.

Jean Charest, the former Quebec premier and one of a number of co-chairs of Canada 2017 Give Back, noted that people long remembered the Centennial projects the government gave their town, such as a building on Lac des Nations in his home town, Sherbrooke. "Here we are 50 years later, and the theme isn't receiving, it's giving," he said. "I love the idea."

He said he'd like to see people organizing projects that wouldn't otherwise get done, possibly because the government wouldn't fund them – such as the initiative film producer Denise Robert took a few years ago to make the waiting area at Ste. Justine's children's hospital in Montreal a more hospitable place. Mr. Charest was premier, but said his government couldn't really justify paying for it all with public funds.

"It was a great idea. We would not have done that on our own," he said. "Those are the kinds of things, I think, that people should think of. The process is about recognizing what we have received and how lucky we are to be in this country and have each other."

That idea is what has attracted a series of high-profile co-chairs even before the official Give Back launch, expected in June. One, Shan Chandrasekar, founder and CEO of the Asian Television Network, was a pioneer in multicultural TV in Canada in the 1970s, and now runs a company that claims 53 specialty channels. But he came to Canada as a student from India to visit Expo 67. His 50th year in Canada happens to be the 150th anniversary of the country.

"This country has been absolutely wonderful to us, so I just felt this is our duty to give back to the country," he said. "There must be thousands of people like me across the country who feel the same way."

The Give Back idea was dreamed up by two public-affairs consultants with Maple Leaf Strategies, Phil von Finckenstein and Ian Todd, both of whom worked in politics with the Reform Party. TransCanada Corp. CEO Russ Girling was an early backer – funding a poll that found strong support for the idea. They're trying to get some companies to launch projects at the beginning. One of CIBC's projects is to fund a series of six concerts across the country, for example. But it's not exclusive sponsorship.

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"It's like open-source code," Mr. von Finckenstein said. "We're not trying to be the Olympics. We're not trying to create Coca-Cola gives back. Coca-Cola can do its own thing. So can Pepsi. The movement is owned by Canadians for Canadians."

It wasn't immediately obvious that the idea would fly in Quebec, where federally funded Canada Day celebrations, for example, aren't always hot tickets. But the poll found 74 per cent of Quebeckers support the idea, Redonner in French, about the same proportion as in Atlantic Canada.

Mr. Charest thinks Quebeckers will actually be more enthusiastic about it than typical patriotic appeals. "It isn't about the federal government going out giving favours or trying to gain favour, or trying to convince Quebeckers that Canada's good. It's about allowing Quebeckers to express their appreciation for their country," he said. "I think there's more chance of that being a successful conversation than the other way around."

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