Whether artists or scientists, athletes or social activists, writers, explorers or innovators, greatness elevates us all. To dream. To inspire. To live better lives. The greatest Canadians have come from all across this vast and beautiful country, their influence spanning its history and reverberating across place and time. Some are household names, forever woven into Canadian lore. Others are little known outside their fields. More than 200 are covered in this lavish issue. All made a difference, leaving their indelible mark on Canada and the world beyond.
Put one Canadian from each province and territory in a room and ask them who is history’s greatest Canadian, and you will likely get 13 different answers. Opinions are products of time and place, race and gender, socio-economic status and memories. This edition of Canada’s Ultimate Story focusses primarily on great Canadians who are no longer living, who come from different parts of the country, who lived in different times and who excelled in different fields.
Perhaps there is no vocation more reflective of Canada’s diversity and breadth of experience than that of the artist. From Indigenous artist Pitseolak Ashoona, who grew up in the coastal Inuit camps of Canada’s Far North, to Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven, who led Canada’s first internationally recognized art movement, the range of style and talent is awe-inspiring.
There were the visionaries (the Fathers of Confederation) and the innovators (Tommy Douglas), the revolutionaries (Louis Riel), the trailblazers (Agnes Macphail) and the pragmatists (the Mohawk war chief Thayendanegea). Canada’s history is replete with leaders who saw a better way, who had the wherewithal to forge new directions and help shape the unique country that is the Canada we know today.
Who knew that Lieutenant-Colonel John By and his 6,000 workers overcame disease, accidents and harsh weather to build the 202-kilometre Rideau Canal linking the Ottawa River with Kingston, Ont.? Or that turn-of-the-century architects Alice Charlotte Malhiot and Esther Hill overcame the sexism of their time to excel in their fields and leave lasting marks on Canada’s architectural landscape?
It took guts and gumption to steer society to a better course. The Famous Five from Alberta fought to have women declared persons under the law and eligible for political and judicial office. Mary Ann Shadd and Viola Desmond made their marks as anti-slavery activists. And the founders of Greenpeace and hunting guide Andy Russell are known as protectors of wild creatures and places.
From country and folk music performers that got toes a’tappin across the nation to internationally renowned artists like singer Leonard Cohen, jazz legend Oscar Peterson and classical pianist Glenn Gould, Canadian musicians have been a continuing delight.
Canada has no lack of military heroes, including Tecumseh and Isaac Brock who joined forces in the War of 1812; Métis general Gabriel Dumont fighting for his people’s rights in the Northwest Resistance; air aces, snipers and generals of the two world wars; warplane engineer Elsie MacGill; doctors and nurses who cared for the wounded; and journalists like Ross Munro and Matthew Halton who risked their lives to report war news.
Our great photographers and sculptors capture emotions, moments in time and character of their subjects and their society. Canadians across the generations have been inspired and awed by such sculptures as Injuwas Bill Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaii and Walter Allward’s National Vimy Memorial, as well as photographic portraits of Yousuf Karsh and landscapes of Roloff Beny.
Is it the bracing air that has produced so much scientific genius in Canada? The man who devised standard time; the inventors of the light bulb; developers of insulin; an early forensic pathologist; developers of the electron microscope and the depth finder; chroniclers of nature and geology.
Movie idols like Walter Pidgeon and Mary Pickford, television stars like Lorne Greene, Alex Trebek and Dan George, king of comedy Max Sennett, television newscasters Peter Jennings and Morley Safer, film director Claude Jutra and Tom Patterson, who started the Stratford Festival in Ontario, have kept Canadians (and our neighbours south of the border) entertained for decades.
Meet the moguls and tycoons who built railways and ship lines; department stores and the cosmetics sold in them; motor cars, farm equipment and the places to fuel them; the genius who popularized economics; and the men who provided the alcohol for celebratory cocktails and drowning of sorrows.
Canada’s writers capture Canada–beauty, warts and all. Stephen Leacock kept us laughing. Lucy Maude Montgomery gave us the romance and innocence of country life, while Margaret Laurence plumbed its angst. Pierre Berton brought us history that did not sound like it came from a textbook. Mordecai Richler and Richard Wagamese showed what it was like growing up as a Montreal Jew and in the echo of the residential school system. And Richard Bonnycastle, hardly a household name, gave us Harlequin Romance.
Insulin for treating diabetes, open heart surgery, methods to conduct genetic research, effects of chronic stress, radiation for cancer treatment, modernizing medical education, chiropractic care, brain surgery–and we have hardly tapped the pool of medical genius in Canada’s history.
Canada’s great ballet stars like Celia Franca and David Adams transported audiences out of their everyday world into a dreamlike realm where emotion is expressed in movement, while opera singers like Portia White and Maureen Forrester carried them away with vocal artistry that added layers of meaning to words.
The lure of wealth attracted French and English, Spanish and Scottish explorers to this land. Some came to map the country for exploitation by European powers. Others hoped Canada would provide a path to the riches of the Orient through a Northwest Passage. None could have survived without the aid of Indigenous peoples who guided them.
Hockey heroes Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe are but two on our roster of great Canadian athletes. Lesser known are record-breaking Indigenous runner Tom Longboat; the Edmonton Grads, an all-female, world champion basketball team; Lionel Conacher and Bobbie Rosenfeld, male and female athletes of the first half of the 20th century, who were champs in multiple sports; and Guy Weadick, who elevated cowboy skills into the rodeo championships at the heart of the Calgary Stampede.