10 Great Canadians Reveal the People Who Inspired Them

Behind every great Canadian is a mentor or role model who sparked that greatness. Here, 10 public figures reveal the impressive individuals who’ve influenced them.

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Zarqa Nawaz
Photo: Ridwan Adam

Zarqa Nawaz: The Canadian Who Inspired Me

“When I was a journalism student at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, as it was called then, my instructor was Stuart McLean. He taught the radio broadcast course, and we were all in awe of him. One day he strode in and asked, ‘Zarqa, how many people are in a barbershop quartet?’

‘Twelve,’ I stammered. I didn’t even know what a barbershop quartet was.

Stuart stared at me for a few seconds, then bellowed, ‘In the Muslim world, it takes 12 people to form a barbershop quartet!’

I never found out why he asked that question, but he would do that: ask questions of us when we least expected it. And he taught us to find the magic in the unexpected. When people say something that confounds you, use the material and spin it into gold. Story is made of magic you collect when you least expect it.” —Zarqua Nawaz is a writer, journalist, filmmaker and creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie.

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Buffy Sainte-Marie
Photo: ShutterStock

Who Inspires Musician Buffy Sainte-Marie?

“Most inspirational to me is the continuing work of Idle No More—not only the women who founded the movement but also all the people across Canada who show up to protect and celebrate our Indigenous and human rights to self-determination, our lands and natural resources. Lawyer and Idle No More co-founder Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum) keeps moving ideas forward: revitalizing Cree law, One House, Many Nations [a campaign to build sustainable homes], and sharing with non-Indigenous people the information needed for real reconciliation.”

Check out the full RD Interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie!

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Jill Barber
Photo: Shutterstock

Jill Barber: The Canadian Who Inspires Me

“When I think about Canada and what makes this country so great, I think about universal health care. Whether you break a bone, have a baby or get diagnosed with a devastating disease, you will be cared for, no matter your age or income level. This is all thanks to Tommy Douglas, who was responsible for developing a socialist approach to health care so coverage would, in the words of the Medical Care Act of 1966, be provided to all Canadians ‘according to their need for such services and irrespective of their ability to pay.’ Makes sense, right?” —Singer Jill Barber is working on her next solo album, and has also written two children’s books.

Check out Jill Barber’s Road Trip PlaylistPhoto: Lok NG

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Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Photo: Amazon.ca

Louise Penny: The Canadians Who Inspire Me

“I’m going to cheat and name two great Canadians who not only inspire me personally but have played vital roles in the creation of my books and my main character, Armand Gamache. The first is my late husband, Michael Whitehead, who was the head of hematology at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. He worked day and night to save children with cancer. Despite this horrific task, he was the happiest man I have ever met because those children taught him about the gift of life—and what a betrayal it would be if those of us who got to live it didn’t do so with joy, gratitude and awareness of our good fortune.

The other person is Roméo Dallaire, whose integrity, courage and humanity became the hallmarks of Gamache.

Two extraordinary Canadians. How lucky I am. How lucky we are to nurture such souls.” —Louise Penny, a Canadian writer who just released Glass Houses, the latest in her bestselling Chief Inspector Gamache series.

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Romeo Dallaire
Photo: Ian Patterson

Who Inspires General Roméo Dallaire?

“As I reflect on Canada’s 150th and our proud history of leadership on issues that really matter—such as human rights and dignity, protection of the vulnerable and sharing our magnificent wealth of resources—my mind turns to one young person who represents the greatest that Canada has to offer the world. Michel Chikwanine was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was abducted and forced to become a child soldier when he was only five years old. The members of his family who survived came to Canada as refugees. Today, Michel is an accomplished scholar and activist—and a genuinely kind young man.” —Former lieutenant general Roméo Dallaire’s most recent memoir, Waiting for First Light, was released in 2016.

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Heavyweight boxer Lennox Lewis
Photo: ShutterStock

Lennox Lewis: The Canadian Who Inspires Me

“The Canadian that I’m most inspired by is Michael Lee-Chin. This country is home to many immigrants and Michael is Jamaican-Canadian, like me. Recognized as one of Canada’s self-made billionaires, he’s a model of character, commitment and community. He has a long history of charitable endeavours that includes donations to the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto, McMaster University and the Joseph Brant Hospital Foundation in Burlington, Ont., where he is based.

Even though he lives in Canada, he has contributed to Jamaica’s financial, tourism, health care and communications sectors, earning him the country’s highest honour, the Order of Jamaica. What inspires me about Michael is that he continues to give back to the communities, and the countries, he calls home.” —With his wife, Violet Chang, former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis created a foundation to promote boxing in underserved communities in Jamaica, Canada and the U.S.

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P.K. Subban
P.K.S.S. Management Inc.

Who Inspires P.K. Subban?

Terry Fox is a great Canadian. I know that anyone who is Canadian understands all that he accomplished.” – NHL hockey player P.K. Subban. Despite his trade to the Nashville Predators, the defenceman has strong ties to Montreal, including his $10-million commitment to the city’s Children’s Hospital.

Check out our Ultimate Guide to Canadian Hockey Slang!

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Naheed Nenshi
Photo: Vanessa Paterson

Who Inspires Naheed Nenshi?

“I have always been a voracious reader. When I was a kid, I loved politics and history books in particular. In junior high, my teachers encouraged me to invite my favourite author, historian and former mayor of Calgary Dr. Grant MacEwan, to the school.

And he came! (My dad even got a picture of us.) He was in his 80s then, very tall and unbowed.

Many years later, in 2013, I was elected mayor and was assigned a temporary office prior to my swearing in. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the room was named the Grant MacEwan library. It was an incredible honour to begin my career under the watchful eye of Dr. MacEwan’s portrait. I think about him every day and try to follow his example.

And I never say no to a photo with a child.” —Naheed Nenshi is the mayor of Calgary. 

Here are 40 Great Reasons to Spend Your Next Vacation in Calgary!

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Photo: Janaya Khan
Photo: Texas Isaiah

Janaya Khan: The Canadian Who Inspires Me

“Sandy Hudson [co-founder of BLMTO], is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. She’s a leading voice in BLM; she’s contributing to a necessary discourse on Canadian politics; and she fights like hell against injustice. Sandy is the future of social justice in Canada.” —Janaya Khan is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto is an outspoken civil rights activist.

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Shelagh Rogers
Photo: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

Shelagh Rogers: The Canadians Who Inspire Me

“Chief Wilton Littlechild, Dr. Marie Wilson and Senator Murray Sinclair, the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are deeply inspiring to me. They listened to almost 7,000 testimonies by residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors. With vigour, rigour, dignity, honour, humour, respect, courage, kindness and, above all, love, they pressed and continue to press for a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. They drew up 94 calls to action. They told us that, as Canadians, we are all called to action.” —Shelagh Rogers is a beloved journalist who currently hosts CBC Radio One’s The Next Chapter.

Bonus: Five celebs answer, “What Does It Mean to be Canadian?” 

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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