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Famous Canadians

Not all symbols of patriotism come in the form of flags, flowers, or anthems. Some are living, breathing human beings.

From a young age, Canadians are taught that some of their country’s proudest symbols are fellow citizens who have achieved great success or fame for making a positive contribution to their country and planet.

The following is a generally-understood pantheon of individuals whose fame and popularity has allowed them to achieve status as true “Canadian icons.”

See also the chapter on important people from Canadian history and the chapter on Canadian pop culture for information on Canadian celebrities.

Terry Fox (1958-1981)

Easily the most beloved Canadian of the last 100 years, Terry Fox is something of a secular saint in modern Canada. As a young student, Terry contracted bone cancer, forcing the amputation of his right leg. Inspired to raise money for cancer research, he organized a one-man Marathon of Hope across the country, but tragically quit less than halfway through, after his cancer spread to his lungs. He died a martyr for his cause.

Dr. David Suzuki (b. 1936)

A scientist, activist, and media star, David Suzuki has spent years in the public spotlight raising awareness of environmental issues. Since 1979, he's hosted a popular nature TV show called The Nature of Things, and writes a weekly column on environmental issues published in newspapers across Canada. A passionate progressive, he’s known for his outspoken opinions on issues like climate change and economic inequality.

Don Cherry (b. 1934)

Loud, brash, and politically-incorrect, Don Cherry has been the leading voice of hockey commentary on Canadian television for almost three decades. A former coach and player himself, Cherry’s insights are often overshadowed by his multitude of flamboyant eccentricities, particularly his wild outfits.

Wayne Gretzky (b. 1961)

Indisputably one of the greatest hockey players of all time, Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky broke countless goal-scoring records during his time playing centre for the Edmonton Oilers (1978-1988) and later several American teams as well. Since retiring, he’s stayed active in the sport, coaching the Canadian Olympic hockey team and serving as a patron of youth leagues.

Rick Hansen (b. 1957)

Like Terry Fox before him, Rick Hansen is a disabled athlete who captured the imagination of Canadians with a high-profile fundraising marathon. But while Terry only sought to cross Canada, Hansen's Man in Motion tour saw him wheel across 34 countries in two years, raising millions in the process. Today, he's a leading philanthropist and activist for spinal cord research and Canadians with disabilities.

Dr. Marc Garneau (b. 1949)

A navy man by training, Marc Garneau joined Canada’s fledgling space program in 1983. In 1984 he became the first Canadian in outer space when he served as crew on U.S. Shuttle Mission 41-G. After venturing to space a few more times, Dr. Garneau would go on to serve as head of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2005. Elected to parliament in 2008, he is now a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (b. 1971).

Colonel Chris Hadfield (b. 1959)

Another history-making Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield got his start in the Royal Canadian Air Force before joining NASA. In 2001 he became the first Canadian to walk in space, and in 2012 became the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station. Charming and charismatic, he has written several books about his space adventures and is a well-known social media personality.

Pierre Berton (1920-2004)

Canada's most famous non-fiction author, Pierre Berton authored dozens of books, columns, and magazine articles on all things Canada. To this day, his numerous volumes on Canadian history remain among the most definitive and readable studies of some of the most famous episodes of Canada’s past. Witty and charming, Berton was also a popular TV personality until his death.

Donovan Bailey (b. 1967)

An immigrant from Jamaica, Bailey was an Olympic sprinter who won two gold medals in the 1996 summer games, and broke numerous speed records. He has long been one of Canada's leading sports celebrities, known for a time as "the world's fastest man."

Dr. Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

A quirky, eccentric academic, Marshall McLuhan was a media studies professor best known for pioneering a number of theories regarding how modern society is influenced by television and the news. Though his writings were often convoluted and vague, and are still debated to this day, his famous claim that “the medium is the message,” or that technology determines the style of content, was among the most widely quoted ideas of the 20th century.

Craig and Marc Kielburger (b. 1982 and 1977)

Brothers Craig and Marc became two of Canada's most well-known social activists when they were just pre-teens, founding an anti-sweatshop group known as Free the Children. They now run a massive activism empire known as the WE Movement that seeks to get young children across Canada involved in all sorts of humanitarian causes.

Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

One of the most famous pianists of the 20th century, Montreal-born Peterson played alongside the great American jazz musicians of his time. He released dozens of albums that won numerous awards, including nine Grammys.

Dr. Frederick Banting (1891-1941)

Banting literally improved the lives of millions. Fascinated by the metabolic disorder known as diabetes, his medical research in the 1920s led to the invention of synthetic insulin, a drug which helps sufferers of the disease lead longer, happier lives. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, becoming the first Canadian to win one in any field.

Dan George (1899-1981)

Known affectionately as "Chief," Dan George was one of the most famous indigenous actors in Hollywood during the 20th century. He played a number of Native American characters on TV and film, often appearing alongside some of the top stars of his time. When not on screen, he was a prominent activist for indigenous rights in Canada and the US.

Peter Gzowski (1934-2002)

Celebrated as an icon of Canadian journalism, Peter Gzowski was a popular interviewer on Canadian radio (and later television), and spent decades chatting with everyone from rock stars to prime ministers. Known for his unpretentious, mellow style, few newsmakers — whether domestic or foreign — missed making an appearance on his shows.

The Dion Quintuplets

Multiple births were highly unusual in the 20th century, so when an Ontario woman gave birth to five healthy girls in 1934 it became a worldwide sensation. As babies, they were kept behind glass and turned into a tourist attraction by their pediatrician/manager Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe (1883-1943). Though they were the most famous Canadian celebrities of their time, today their story is considered a mostly grim tale of child exploitation.

E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913)

Perhaps the most famous indigenous Canadian woman of all time, Pauline Johnson was an accomplished poet in the late 19th and early 20th century, and one of Canada’s first literary celebrities. Her elegant prose and theatrical readings told sympathetic stories about Canada's native peoples that captivated Victorian audiences around the world.

Dr. Norman Bethune (1890-1939)

Bethune was a brave humanitarian and idealistic Marxist, dedicated to both medicine and his political cause. A gifted surgeon, he travelled the globe to help injured Communist partisans, first in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and later in the Chinese fight against Japan during World War II (1939-1945). For his service to their nation, he remains a hero in China to this day.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

A Scottish-born American citizen, Alexander Graham Bell lived portions of the middle of his life in Canada, which is enough for many Canadians to claim him as their own. A brilliant scientist and inventor, Bell invented and patented the telephone in the 1870s, and founded the Bell Telephone Company that still provides phone service to many Canadians today.