Most influential Canadians / Canada
Satirists to supermodels, mayors to moguls: here are Canada’s power players.
Former governor-general of Canada
Champion of the people
As governor-general of Canada between 1999 and 2005, Adrienne Clarkson ruffled a feather or two. The first person without a background in politics to hold the position as the British Queen’s representative in Canada (the country’s de facto head of state), Clarkson’s leadership style drew heavily on a long career as one of Canada’s most recognisable and colourful TV journalists. She renewed focus on the country’s often-overlooked northern communities and highlighted the work of the military; she and her husband, the author and philosopher John Ralston Saul, spent every Christmas she was in office with the Canadian armed forces posted overseas. Born in Hong Kong and forced to flee the Japanese occupation in 1942 when she was two years old, she is also a vocal proponent of Canada’s policy towards refugees escaping the crises in the Middle East.
Monocle: Would you say there’s a spring in Canada’s step at the moment?
Adrienne Clarkson: I think that we are in a most fortunate space in Canada. We have a bright, attractive prime minister; we have a very aware population. We are quite unique in the world because we are really the only country where there is no talk about immigration not being a good thing. Most of us came here from somewhere else. There’s an understanding that difference is something that you live with. And that makes a better place.
M: How has your own experience as a refugee to Canada formed your view of immigration policy here?
AC: My family arrived in Ottawa at a time when there were very few Chinese in this country. There was a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, which isn’t all that long ago when you think about it, but by the late 1950s and early 1960s it fell away. We started to welcome the world and that was very, very important. We’ve made it possible for people to say, ‘We’re going to come here and we’ll make our way.’ Canadians are very welcoming of people but they benevolently neglect those who come from elsewhere. And that’s a very nice thing, benevolent neglect. It makes it possible for people to come here and make their way without being watched over. It’s a rather wonderful tradition.
M: Why was it important for you to focus so heavily on Canada’s indigenous communities while you were governor general?
AC: I still feel very, very strongly about all of this. There were mistakes made. We’re seeing the damage the residential schools system caused [indigenous children were removed from their families and taken to church-run schools between 1876 and 1996]. I don’t think the residential schools were started as an evil thing. I don’t think that because I don’t think human beings are that malevolent. But what happened was evil. We have to make up for that. That’s why the current inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women is also so important.
M: Your speech in 2000 to mark the repatriation of Canada’s Unknown Soldier from France to Ottawa has become one of your most recognised addresses. Why do you think it resonated?
AC: I loved being commander in chief of the Canadian forces. I visited them everywhere, went to manoeuvres – did all of that because I think they are a very important part of our life in Canada. The Unknown Soldier was also very important to me. Canada in 1914 was a little country of 11 million people and fielded 600,000 men for the First World War. We were massacred. So the Unknown Soldier represented the person who’d given his life who was not known – we will never know who he was – and I felt that people had to have that personified for them. So I worked very hard on that speech and I’m still very proud of it.
Face of progressive politics
It’s one thing to lead a city when things are going well; it’s a different matter to do so when times are tough. When former city councilor Don Iveson was elected mayor of Alberta’s capital in 2013, the province was coming to the end of a major economic boom. Yet under Iveson’s leadership, Edmonton has managed to weather the fall in oil prices far better than much of the province. Many see the young mayor, elected at 34, as a new type of leader: one who embraces progressive politics, urbanism and business investment as well as raising the profile of the city he governs.
Monocle: Edmonton is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. How has that affected the city?
Don Iveson: There’s a confidence now that wasn’t always there. We still have a long way to go in terms of economic diversification. We have a lot of people working hard to double down on what is already a pretty strong medical sector here, anchored in particular by the research at the University of Alberta. But we are not complacent about the fact that we’ve so far ridden out this downturn with greater resilience than, say, in the 1980s, when it was like tumbleweed in Edmonton.
M: When it comes to infrastructure, how has Edmonton coped with an expanding population?
DI: Well, we’ve had a relatively stable housing market. But rapid growth has certainly brought with it challenges: we are now starting to experience greater metropolitan congestion.
M: What other changes would you like to see?
DI: Edmonton is a place of great opportunity but that opportunity is not open to everyone in the same way yet. Immigrants and refugees struggle with racism and other discrimination everywhere in the world. I would like this to be the place where that doesn’t happen. So my vision is that the people have the opportunity to achieve greatness, and that’s every one of them: indigenous, incomer, settler.
Voice of the nation
At the end of each episode of the Rick Mercer Report, his eponymous weekly TV show, Rick Mercer rants. Staring directly into camera, he wanders the graffiti-scrawled alleyways of downtown Toronto and muses on the mood of the day. “Some weeks it’s obvious what I’m going to rant about but some weeks it’s just something that has affected me,” he says. “It’s the most personal part of the show and it’s 100 per cent mine.”
The rants are a cultural institution in Canada and have made Mercer a household name. From comic critiques of the country’s political classes to treatises on the freedom of the press, no-one articulates the state of the nation as Rick Mercer does. In 2009 the Rick Mercer Report won the Rose D’Or at Cannes. In 2016 Mercer was awarded Canada’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada, for his contribution to the country’s cultural life.
Rick Mercer Report first aired on CBC Television in 2004 and continues to draw some of the network’s biggest audiences – about a million people tuned into each episode last year. “My show is very old fashioned in many ways but I think we’re unique too,” he says. Mercer travels across the country meeting the likes of rock stars, prime ministers and lobster fishermen, and has even rollicked in the snow with polar bear cubs. “We don’t kick down ever,” says Mercer. “If I’m talking to guys who race skidoos as a sport, I’m not there to look down my nose at them. If we go there, we’re there to celebrate. And that’s it. I think the audience gets that.”
Fortunately Mercer has no shortage of material. “Canada is this great big, huge country with thousands of stories. So I try and tell some of those and have fun with them.”
Ambassador to the UN
There’s a certain nostalgia that surrounds Canada’s historical role at the UN, says Marc-André Blanchard, Canada’s representative at the UN, who took up his post in April 2016. The country’s contributions to UN peacekeeping missions during the Cold War and its aftermath, and its role as a mediator in crisis talks around the world, are strengths that Canada played to effectively previously. But it’s different times now, he says.
“We need to be way more audacious than we’ve been in the past,” says Blanchard, speaking from his office in New York. “Prime Minister Trudeau has said, clearly, that Canada is here to help. So this is all about making sure that we’re willing to contribute, to solve, to bring real solutions.”
Whereas previous governments sought to assert the country’s active military clout in conflict zones, Blanchard says that contributing more robustly to bodies such as the UN and addressing factors that may appear peripheral to a crisis will be the focus. “How do we assist in a country’s economic development, for example?” says Blanchard. “Is it things like infrastructure, renewable energies, better transportation systems? These are where Canadian expertise is among the best. If we’re helping to create economic growth throughout the world I believe we’re helping with the security of the world too.”
Blanchard will lead Canada’s petition to join the UN Security Council and will be a key figure in the reintroduction of Canadian troops into UN peacekeeping missions – a role it hasn’t played since 2009. “When offered a choice between a negative narrative and a positive one, we’re confident people will chose the latter,” Blanchard says. “And we feel inspired to carry this positive narrative into everything we do.”
Supermodels from Canada aren’t uncommon – both 1990s superstars Linda Evangelista and Shalom Harlow hail from Ontario – but 28-year-old Coco Rocha has managed to reach the top in an unconventional manner, anchored as much in what she’s chosen not to do professionally as what she has.
A Jehovah’s Witness (she has been known to go door to door with her fellow congregation members) Rocha is resolute in how she wishes to be perceived. She doesn’t pose nude, or in fur, or in lingerie, or with cigarettes, or religious artefacts, or in suggestive poses with other models.
“Growing up in this industry, were there times when I felt I couldn’t stand up for myself or what I believed in?” says Rocha. “Yeah, sure. But you have to find your voice. Once you have that voice, it’s really easy to use it.”
That voice has made her a refreshing presence among the more traditional supermodels of her day and has cemented her position as one of Canada’s most potent soft-power ambassadors. “I think her outspokenness has worked for her far more than it’s worked against her,” says Jeanne Beker, a Canadian fashion broadcaster.
“It amazes me when I go home to Canada and someone, a stranger, comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, you’re Canada’s best export,’” says Rocha. “I definitely don’t think that’s true but I do really appreciate that sort of support, for sure.
“I’m definitely losing that Canadian niceness,” she adds. “But in this industry you’ve got to be polite. People thought it was cool to have some attitude, be a bit of a diva, but it just doesn’t work like that any more. So I guess being Canadian has served me well.”
Before the rapper Drake became an international music sensation, Jeff Stober’s hotel of the same name was revolutionising Toronto’s hospitality scene and helping to transform the city into a must-visit destination.
Stober bought a derelict hotel called The Drake on Queen Street West in 2001 and with the help of designer John Tong transformed it into a space that was equal parts artistic hub and culinary destination. The Drake reopened in 2004 and was a breath of fresh air on the city’s hospitality scene, at the time dominated by uninspiring corporate hotels.
The Drake hosts an artist residency and has its own curator, Mia Nielsen. Gone are generic hotel artworks and in their place are original pieces by homegrown artists and creatives. The service is affable and casual; guests are treated as if they are friends. “The international guest who comes gets immediately thrust into the real heartbeat of the city,” says Stober. The gift shop – called the Drake General Store – is filled with house-branded merchandise sporting Toronto iconography, such as the city’s baseball team the Blue Jays, alongside other items designed and made in the area. “We love nostalgia and treat the notion of Canadiana with a nod and a wink.”
The Drake hotel’s success has precipitated the birth of standalone concept shops, a separate restaurant in Toronto’s business district and a sister inn in Prince Edward County. The company is currently working on a hotel expansion as well as setting up a commissary kitchen-cum-café in the city’s Lower Junction neighbourhood. But no matter how the brand expands, Stober still wants to stick to his original vision: “From the beginning The Drake hotel was a communal living room.”
President, Savira Cultural and Capital Projects
The woman shaping public art at home — and abroad
“I can’t imagine a world without great architecture and art,” says Wende Cartwright. “In Canada it’s been very important to me that we built that foundation.” Cartwright discovered her love of public art at a young age and has since blended that passion with strong business acumen to bring large-scale cultural projects to life across Canada and abroad. Her company oversees projects for arts, media, cultural and educational institutions, acting as a mediator between the organisations that have the funds and ambitions and the great architects who realise their visions.
Savira’s work is about placemaking – an obvious trait in buildings such as the Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto, which opened this year. Canada’s national newspaper now has a modern home on the upper floors of a 17-storey glass building but its structure, designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, was also created to act as a cultural hub in the St Lawrence district. There are retail and public spaces built in too. “It’s not just running a business,” says Cartwright.
“We believe in community and city building.” For her, planning a successful building project means understanding the community’s wants and needs – and looking forward. “Your audience today is not your audience of tomorrow,” she says. “It’s our job to show what the future will bring.”
The fashion juggernaut
Though Jason Wu made his name dressing US royalty – Anna Wintour and Michelle Obama – the Taiwan-born, Vancouver-raised designer has retained a Canadian approach to fashion. “Jason Wu has an ironic sense of humour that’s rather Canadian,” says Noreen Flanagan, editor in chief of Fashion magazine, adding that Wu’s hybrid sensibility is restrained and classic yet also graphic and playful.
The 33-year-old designer set up his womenswear brand in the US in 2006, before taking the reins as artistic director for Hugo Boss, making him a force to be reckoned with in both men’s and women’s fashion. And while today he’s based in New York, his brand still has a powerful connection to Canada: Michelle Obama wore one of his dresses to a state dinner in honour of the Trudeaus this year.
Galen Weston Jr
Executive chairman, George Weston Ltd
It was announced in September that Galen G Weston would succeed his father Galen Sr as the executive chairman of their family’s company George Weston, Canada’s largest food and retail conglomerate. Galen Jr was already a household name, if not for belonging to the country’s second-wealthiest clan then for his appearance in television spots for President’s Choice Organics, a brand sold in the group’s supermarket chain Loblaws.
As executive chairman of the chain in 2014, the younger Weston acquired and integrated pharmacy group Shoppers Drug Mart in 2013 before becoming president of the new acquisition a year later. “His spearheading of the takeover is working out well,” says retail expert Marina Strauss. “It gives Loblaws the clout to take on rival global giants.”
While the Westons’ influence at home is considerable, it is their investments in high-end retailers abroad that make them global powers. During his 40 years at the helm, Galen Sr acquired at least a stake in many European retail brands, including British department store Selfridges, Ireland’s Brown Thomas and the Netherlands’ De Bijenkorf.
Galen G (nicknamed G2) will lead George Weston through its fourth generation of family leadership. The company has transformed since its founding in 1882 by Galen Sr’s grandfather and the nation now eagerly awaits its next evolution under G2’s progressive direction.
Canada’s next big architect
Canadian regional architecture can easily lapse into comfortable caricature but Omar Gandhi’s work on the Atlantic coast stands apart. Though only 36 the Nova Scotia-based architect has been named one of the Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices, crowned the nation’s next top architect by The Globe and Mail and won the Canada Council’s Prix de Rome for architecture in 2014. His work, already a force on a national level, is now set to make waves internationally as the next great Canadian architectural export.
His most notable designs involve isolated cabins that take their surroundings into account to become a hybrid of traditional form, modernist simplicity and radical exaggeration. “We take a fairly common regional prototype and play this game of transformation,” he says. “But it isn’t random. Everything has to deal with climate or context.”
Said context is about to shift for Gandhi, who is now setting up a practice in Toronto. He will split his time between this new office and the region where he’s first made his name.
Chairman of McCain Foods
The rural village of Florenceville, New Brunswick, calls itself the “French Fry Capital of the World”. This is where, in 1957 when the frozen-food industry was in its infancy, brothers Harrison and Wallace McCain set up a small company called McCain Foods Limited with a modest production facility. Today that business – still based in Florenceville – operates 45 sites across six continents, employs 19,000 people and has global sales of CA$8bn (€5.4bn).
Allison McCain has been chairman of the company’s board since 2002. He started in the family business in 1975 as a project engineer and worked his way up over the next three decades, with stints at McCain Foods subsidiaries in Australia and the UK. Although he’s by no means a household name even in his own country, few Canadian companies have as comprehensive a global footprint as his: the business calculates that one in every three French fries sold worldwide is a frozen McCain fry. That’s a strong soft-power player.
Hollywood’s rising star
Tatiana Maslany is more than Canada’s most recent breakout star in Hollywood. The actress from Regina earned an Emmy for playing 11 (and counting) clones in the sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, showcasing her talent with a dizzying range of accents and personalities. Yet it’s Maslany’s career beyond the series that marks her as the nation’s most promising actor.
The 31-year-old can take her pick of roles but she’s also chosen to continue working with lesser-known independent Canadian film-makers. “I think we tell really interesting stories in Canada,” she says. “People see us as apologetic but we have Xavier Dolan, David Cronenberg and actors such as Suzanne Clément really ripping it up, boldly telling brave stories.” Her growing global popularity is bound to awaken the world to the richness of Canadian cinema, making her a true soft-power force.
George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg
Founders of Yabu Pushelberg
George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg’s studio has made a name for itself largely thanks to its brand of high-end interiors for luxury mainstays such as Park Hyatt. The Ontario-born duo have charmed their way into Asia, the US and Europe. Yet it was a project in their original base of Toronto that catapulted them onto the world stage: the creation of Club Monaco’s first Canadian outpost in 1984.
After meeting at Ryerson University in 1972, Yabu and Pushelberg started the company in 1980. Their business has since grown, with a huge warehouse in Leslieville and a New York counterpart in Soho. “Opening the New York office proved that we were international designers,” says Pushelberg.
With furniture lines, textiles and an industrial-design team, the pair are now embracing an all-encompassing approach to interior design; their most recent project, Las Alcobas in Napa Valley, saw their 140-strong team create everything from uniforms to architecture.
Chairman and founder, Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts
Isadore Sharp, founder and chairman of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, has been a leader in the global hospitality scene for more than 50 years. His lauded brand launched with a meagre motor inn in downtown Toronto in 1961 and has since expanded to 99 hotels in 41 countries. Sharp’s business-savvy and rigorous focus on service soon gave the brand an edge. The Four Seasons gave every staff member on the front line authority to do whatever they deemed necessary to make guests feel at home. It paid off: Sharp’s first venture abroad, the Inn on the Park in London in 1970, was voted the best hotel in Europe after its first year.
“One thing that can’t be copied is the corporate culture,” says Dr Gabor Forgacs, an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University and one-time Four Seasons employee. “That is a result of hiring policies that look at character before experience or qualifications.”
Sharp also pioneered a number of ways to improve travel, reshaping the entire industry along the way. His company offered pioneering 24-hour laundry services and overnight shoe-shining. The Four Seasons was also the first to offer in-room amenities such as toiletries, hairdryers and monogrammed robes. Now expected touches, these taken-for-granted amenities are all thanks to Sharp himself.
Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair
Professor, University of Manitoba
Champion of indigenous rights
Shortly after Justin Trudeau’s election, the prime minister promised a “renewed relationship” between the federal government and indigenous Canadians. But for Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, words are not enough. “All of the same vestiges are still there,” says Canada’s staunchest advocate for indigenous people, many of whom still suffer higher poverty rates and discrimination.
The Indian Act that was passed in 1876, for example, is used to control the 614 First Nations groups by legally distinguishing them from other Canadians. Although it promised education to aboriginal children, the Indian Act allowed for the notorious residential schooling system that separated countless indigenous children from their families and forced them to learn English, convert to Christianity and abandon their native culture.
“The Indian Act is still with us, Canada still hasn’t recognised the UN’s declaration of the rights of indigenous people and we still have race-based law,” says Sinclair, who heads the department of native studies at the University of Manitoba. “But there’s more opportunity today to manoeuvre the relationship in a positive direction.”
CEO and founder, Shopify
Tobi Lütke is often described as an unlikely CEO. Quietly spoken and shy of the press, his demeanour belies one of the most influential technology entrepreneurs in Canada today. Shopify, the online e-commerce platform he launched in 2006, is the standout success story of the nation’s technology sector.
“Retail is in the midst of a revolution,” says Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s COO. “Companies such as ours are democratising entrepreneurship. You can create a multimillion-dollar company with Shopify.”
Born in Koblenz, Germany, Lütke moved to Ottawa in 2002. Unsatisfied with the e-commerce platforms available for his snowboarding-equipment brand, Lütke decided to create his own. Today Shopify supplies the e-commerce technology to some 300,000 businesses, which generate about CA$26.3bn (€17.9bn) of revenue between them, according to Finkelstein.
Big multinationals are among Shopify’s clients. But for Lütke, allowing first-time entrepreneurs access to the market was a key motivation. Many of the companies that started small with Shopify now turn over millions of dollars a year.
“Being in Canada is a big strength for us,” says Finkelstein. “There’s a collaborative approach to doing things here. I’m not sure that Shopify would be a CA$3.9bn [€2.7bn] company if we’d started elsewhere.”
The Canadian teacher
Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan
We should be clear: Canadian teachers may be very good at their jobs but their inclusion here has nothing to do with the quality of their work in the classroom. Instead, their global influence should be judged by their pensions.
The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP), which looks after the pension pots for 316,000 working and retired teachers, has become one of the world’s largest institutional investors. It puts a lot of money into transport infrastructure, from airports such as Copenhagen and Birmingham to the British railway line that links to the Channel Tunnel. It also holds millions of shares in car companies (18.9 million in Nissan and 6.2 million in General Motors), banks (6.8 million in Credit Suisse and 2.8 million in Citigroup) and entertainment (1.1 million in Walt Disney and 4.5 million in Sony). And then there’s property: the OTPP owns dozens of shopping centres and office blocks.
The overall portfolio is now worth some ca$171bn (€116bn). In short, if it’s a worthy investment a teacher from Ontario probably has a stake in it. And those teachers should feel pretty happy: last year the plan earned them a 13 per cent return on their investments.
All of this has happened in a generation. Until the OTPP became an independent organisation in 1990 it had mainly invested in long-term government debentures. Within a year the plan had invested in its first shopping mall and within a decade it had bought its first property company. Now the OTPP has joined the ranks of Canada’s largest public pension funds, including the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which owns global property company Ivanhoé Cambridge. At a time when public-sector pensions around the western world are – on the whole – in poor shape, the OTPP shows what can be achieved.
CEO, Bank of Montréal Financial Group
Native Montréaler Bill Downe became ceo of Canada’s oldest bank, the Bank of Montréal (bmo), in 2007, just a year before the global financial crisis and the ensuing economic contraction at home. It was a baptism of fire but Downe showed his mettle, guiding the institute through the crisis and minimising damage to the lender, one of Canada’s Big Five banks.
“We’ve embraced a better rule book,” says Downe. His ability to navigate the crisis is one of the reasons why he’s regarded by a number of people as the leading banking executive in the nation. Since Canada returned to growth, Downe has been focusing on spearheading the bank’s international expansion beyond North America into Europe and Asia. In the past six years he has overseen the acquisition of the Hong Kong-based wealth-management firm Lloyd George Management and bmo becoming the first Canadian bank to incorporate China.
He has also been wrestling with the many challenges that technology is posing to the industry. With “Fintech” companies taking over some of the traditional roles of the high-street bank, Downe has been outspoken in celebrating technology as a “gift”, claiming that new software can free up bank employees to excel in more human tasks such as handling clients. In the coming years, with more industry disruption inevitable, Downe will prove a steady hand in the volatile financial sector.
International president, Médecins Sans Frontières
Doctor leading the most influential health organisation
“One of the big things about being a Canadian is the belief that health is a public good,” says Dr Joanne Liu of Médecins Sans Frontières (msf). “We believe in access to care. We believe that immigrants should have access to healthcare. Health is not a commodity.”
It’s a belief that has led her to become one of the world’s most prominent – and trenchant – healthcare voices. Born in Québec City, Liu trained as a physician and first worked with msf in Mauritania 20 years ago, going on to play a prominent role in its operations in Darfur and following the 2004 tsunami. She became international president in 2013 but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what she says goes. msf is an argumentative organisation and even Liu has to fight with those who are junior to her. But that’s a strength, she claims. “My god, if you win the battle internally it’s going to be a breeze externally, certainly.”
In recent years, particularly during the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014, msf has taken a leading role in global emergency healthcare. It’s a role that Dr Liu would rather they did not have. “It is not normal that a private international ngo is running the show. We are not the ones to dictate the global public-health agenda. It needs to be governments. They are responsible for citizens’ health.” Yet, as she admits, the Ebola crisis has put msf in the spotlight. “People pay more attention to what we’re saying.”
Founder, chairman and dominant shareholder of Alimentation Couche-Tard
Since the first Couche-Tard was established in 1980, founder Alain Bouchard has been on a quest to take over the convenience-store sector in Canada and beyond. He has succeeded, turning a small Québec business into a global empire. Alimentation Couche-Tard (which operates under a suite of names) is now North America’s largest independent convenience-store operator and since the 2003 purchase of Circle K in Asia, the company has been slowly but surely expanding overseas.
“From a single location in Laval, Québec, to a chain of nearly 12,000 shops, Bouchard has unabashedly scaled the boundaries of his own country,” says Doug Stephens, author of Retail Revival. The company also continues to grow. This February, Couche-Tard finalised its purchase of petrol-station firm Topaz in Ireland, converting the 444 locations into Circle K outposts, and in August the company announced that it has bought 53 Cracker Barrel shops in Louisiana. Stephens sums it up: “Bouchard has demonstrated a level of international might that proves that Canadian businesses can be global leaders.”