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The Greatest Canadians You (Probably) Don't Know About

Groundbreakers who don't have the recognition they deserve for helping build our great nation.

New lists of greatest Canadians roll out pretty regularly but almost always with the same old names — more specifically, the same old straight, white, male names.

Folks like Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson, and John A. MacDonald were undeniably pivotal to the development of Canada, but our country is called a mosaic for a reason. There have also been many minority activists, leaders and other groundbreakers who don't have the recognition that they, too, deserve. Some may be better known locally, but all have contributed to the building of our great nation.

Chief Joe Capilano
In 1906, Squamish Chief Joe Capilano led a delegation to London to petition King Edward VII over a land claims dispute with the City of Vancouver as well as its ban on potlatches.

Though the King proved as obstinate as federal and provincial leaders, Capilano's two-year effort to establish a mandate to represent all B.C. First Nations helped unite the the province's 200,000 indigenous peoples — leading to the first inter-tribal political organization three years later.
Rose Fortune (1774 - 1864)
Arguably the coolest Canadian ever, Rose Fortune was born into slavery in Virginia and immigrated to Nova Scotia at age 10 with her Black Loyalist parents after the American Revolution.

She became a successful entrepreneur in an era where that opportunity was nearly impossible for a black woman. Fortune became one of port town Annapolis Royal's "most notable and respected figures during the first half of the 19th century."

So much so that she was entrusted with maintaining order, patrolling the town as Canada's first (albeit unofficial) female police officer.

When her descendant Daurene Lewis became Annapolis Royal's mayor in 1984, she kept the family's trailblazing spirit alive as Canada's first black female mayor.
Douglas Wilson (in overalls) (1950 – 1992)
Charles Dobie, photo taken in 1977 (
In 1975, Doug Wilson placed an ad in a University of Saskatchewan paper about starting "a campus gay organization." A dean suspended him from supervising student teachers, so Wilson launched an employee discrimination case, one of the first involving sexual orientation.

The Sask. Human Rights Council never conducted an inquiry, but the issue became so big the university passed its own anti-gay discrimination policy, cementing Wilson's reputation as a pioneering gay rights activist. His efforts continued until he died of AIDS in 1992 at age 42, leaving behind a legacy of change.
Rae Luckock (1893 - 1972)
In 1943, Rae Lockock became one of the two first women elected to Ontario's legislature, alongside Agnes Macphail, and served as the her party's education critic fighting for free university and equal pay for equal work.

An early environmentalist, she also championed a woman's right to work outside the home after the war.

She served in office for a couple years but stayed politically active afterward, serving as president of the Housewives and Consumers Association (HCA), organizing the "March of a Million Names" campaign in 1948 to fight price-fixing of goods like bread and return costs back to pre-war levels.

Luckock eventually became president of the Congress of Canadian Women. In 1956, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and spent the rest of her life in hospital.
Dr. Joseph Yu Kai Wong (1948 - Present)
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (right) congratulates Red Cross Power of Humanity award winner Dr. Joseph Wong at a news conference in Toronto on Monday April 11, 2005. (CP PHOTO/Frank Gunn)
Dr. Joseph Yu Kai Wong immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 1968 to study medicine at McGill, but was prevented from doing so due to degree restrictions on foreign students. (He later got his medical degree in New York).

So when he saw a racist segment on CTV news show W5 in 1979 called "Campus Giveaway," claiming Asian students were taking university spots away from white students, he became politicized.

Wong not only led a successful Chinese-Canadian protest movement against CTV, he went on to become a leading advocate for human rights. That same year he started an organization to help settle Vietnamese Boat People in Toronto.

In 1987 he founded the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care and a decade later he founded Toronto ALPHA to "seek justice for the victims" of the Rape of Nanking.

He was named Man of the Year by the Toronto Star in 1986 and received the Order of Canada in 1993. In 2005, he was awarded a Humanitarian Award from the Canadian Red Cross.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier (1953 - Present)
Sheila Watt-Cloutier was born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik (Northern Quebec) where she was raised in traditional Inuit-hunting culture. After studying education and human development at McGill, she went on to a career of activism for Inuit rights and environmental causes.

She began her career by working in hospitals as an Inuktitut translator and helping reform education and address land claims in Nunavik. She then became a leader of the Inuit Circumpolar Council from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, helping to ban PCPs and DDT while demonstrating the affect of global warming in the Arctic.

Watt-Cloutier, who now lives in Iqaluit, has won countless awards, including a Global Environment Award, UN Champion of the Earth award, Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Norwegian Sophie Prize, the Order of Canada and honourary doctorates from universities across Canada. Her book The Right to be Cold was released in 2015.
Dr. Emily Stowe (1831 – 1903)
Canada's first female medical doctor, Emily Stowe made a lasting impact as the leader of the country's women's suffrage movement.

In 1852, after years as a teacher, Stowe's college application was denied on the grounds of her being a woman. Stowe eventually found a school that would accept her, and later became Canada's first female principal. It was after her husband developed TB that she decided to get into medicine.

Unable to study in Canada as a woman, she had to go to New York where she met famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

In 1876, she founded the Toronto Women's Literary Club, later known as the Canadian Women's Suffrage Association.

She died a decade-and-a-half before women were granted the right to vote.
Wong Foon Sien (1899 - 1971)
Known as "the mayor of Chinatown," Wong Foon Sien immigrated to Canada in 1908 with his parents. He studied law at UBC, one of only 5 Chinese-Canadian students enrolled at the school at the time.

In 1945, he began successful campaigns to grant franchise rights to Chinese-Canadians and repeal the notorious 1923 Chinese Immigration Act (also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act) which had separated many families.

In 2008, the federal government declared Wong a "National Historic Person."
Louise Arbour (1947 - Present)
CP Photo
Montreal's Louise Arbour most recently came off a five-year stint as president of the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution NGO, but her storied career has ranged from her early days as a law professor and vice-president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to her appointment to Canada's Supreme Court.

She's best known as the chief war crimes prosecutor for the Rwandan and Yugoslavian tribunals, which included the first prosecution of rape as a crime against humanity and her landmark indictment of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević.
Ulrick Chérubin (1943 - 2014)
Born in Jacmel, Haiti, Chérubin fled the Duvalier regime for Quebec in 1970 to attend university. He was elected as a municipal councillor in the predominantly white northern town of Amos in 1994 before becoming one of Canada's first black mayors in 2002.

Chérubin -- who was quoted in the Globe&Mail as saying “The colour of skin is not what makes the person. What makes a person is what's in his head, in his heart" -- was awarded the Jackie Robinson Award in 2004 for his pioneering political position.

He also won $222,500 on "Le Banquier," the Quebec version of game show "Deal or No Deal" and donated all of it to the city of Amos' 2017 centennial celebrations.

Chérubin won his fourth consecutive term with 73 per cent of the vote in 2013, but died a year later at age 70.

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