June 14, 2017 8:00 am
Updated: June 15, 2017 7:55 pm

Top 10 most influential Canadians

Terry Fox continues his Marathon of Hope run across Canada in this Aug., 1980 file photo.

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Canada’s 150th birthday is a chance for us to celebrate our country and our history… and the people who made that history.

Many Canadians have made their mark on the world, whether by their craft, their words, or just by being themselves.

FULL COVERAGE: Canada’s 150th birthday 

Here are 10 important and influential Canadians (or groups of Canadians), in no particular order:

Terry Fox, who was born in Winnipeg in 1958, was diagnosed with bone cancer at 18 years old, and had his leg amputated. But that didn’t stop him from starting his Marathon of Hope, a cross-country journey to raise money for cancer research.

Though he wasn’t able to complete the journey, the process made him a national hero, and over $650 million dollars has been raised in his name.

He was the youngest person to be awarded the Order of Canada in 1981, shortly before his death. The first Terry Fox Run was held around two months later.

Why he’s on the list: A must-have on every list of notable Canadians; every kid in school learns his story across the country, and one day a year we all walk in his memory. The run has spread to over 28 countries – making him a world-wide name as well as a Canadian one.

READ MORE: Canada’s strangest laws: From witchcraft to blasphemy to sleigh bells


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Viola Desmond, the first Canadian woman to appear on our currency, was a pioneer of Black rights in Nova Scotia.

On Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond went to a movie at New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre and after purchasing her ticket, she sat in the lower bowl. When the manager informed her that seating area was for white patrons only, she refused to leave.

She was forcibly removed, jailed and fined for this act of defiance – but she fought the charges and was eventually pardoned in 2010, 45 years after her death.

Why she’s on the list: With her face on the new $10 bill, the newest Heritage Minute featuring her story, and Montreal naming a street after her, Desmond’s name is sure to be commonplace — if it isn’t already.

READ MORE: Canada 150: The Top 5 Canadian superheroes

Gord Downie’s battle with cancer and his determination to promote Indigenous rights has brought the singer to the front of Canadians’ minds over the past two years.

The frontman of the Tragically Hip, one of Canada’s most iconic bands, is fighting terminal brain cancer, which he announced to the country last year before embarking on a cross-country tour.

The final concert on the tour, in his hometown of Kingston, was watched by an estimated four million people — while even more gathered at public screenings.

But after that, he focused on challenges facing Canada’s First Nations in his solo album, The Secret Path. The album, graphic novel and animated film recounts the life and death of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who attended a residential school in the 60s. The album won two Junos earlier this year.

Why he’s on the list: Treena Wood of CKWX News in Vancouver put it best: “The outpouring of support and grief for Downie was unprecedented, and that kind of shared cultural experience that doesn’t happen often.”

READ MORE: Is Canada’s reputation as a safe haven for refugees deserved?

The suffragette Nellie McClung won Manitoba women the right to vote in 1916, making it the first province in the country to allow it.

A writer, teacher, wife and mother of five, McClung always fought for women’s rights.

Known as witty and elegant, she hosted a “mock parliament” in which men were asking a female government for the right to vote. As the mock premier, she first complemented the men on their appearance before telling them that politics would unsettle them.

That mock parliament contributed to the fall of the then-Conservative government and led to the right to vote for women.

Later in her career, she moved to Alberta and became an MLA, was the first woman on the board of directors for the CBC and was part of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations.

Why she’s on the list: With the U.S. Women’s march drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Washington, women’s rights are continually in the spotlight in today’s times.

WATCH: 100 years since Nellie McClung earned women the right to vote (2016) 

READ MORE: Is Canada’s reputation as a safe haven for refugees deserved?

Our fourteenth prime minister (from 1963-1968), Lester B. Pearson is the only Canadian to win the Nobel Peace prize.

He won the prize for his efforts in bringing France and England out of Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956 as Minister of External Affairs.

Born in Toronto, Ontario in 1897, his accolades as prime minister include: rebuilding the Liberal party; implementing the CPP and Medicare; and bringing Canada its current flag design (albeit with a different leaf in the middle).

Why he’s on the list: As a foreign policy expert, Pearson’s triumphs are still noted in 2017; just last week Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland used him as an example in her speech outlining Canada’s foreign policy priorities.

Another Nobel Prize winner, this time for medicine for his work in creating insulin.

Banting, born in 1891 in Ontario, was a doctor in the First World War and became interested in diabetes research after giving a talk at a university.

Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1923 along with Dr. J.J.R. Macleod, who helped Banting by providing facilities for his research.  But Banting initially refused to accept the award until his the medical student who helped him, Charles Best, was honoured as well.

While the award wasn’t given to Best, Banting ended up sharing the prize money with Best, the Banting House website explains.

Banting still remains the youngest person to win the Nobel for medicine (at age 32) and he was knighted by King George V in 1934.

Why he’s on the list: Insulin remains a life-saving protein for many Canadians and other people around the world.

WATCH: Insulin: A Canadian medical breakthrough

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was a communication theorist, and is credited for coining the term “The medium is the message.”

McLuhan was born in Edmonton in 1911, grew up in Winnipeg and worked at the University of Toronto before he died in 1980.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, he described the effects of the Internet and virtual reality in 1964, warning us that “the Global Village would not be a peaceful place.”

Why he’s on the list: In this day and age, with the “mediums” we use changing every year, if not sooner, McLuhan’s message and teachings are only becoming more and more relevant.

WATCH: Media Messenger: Marshall McLuhan’s legacy

There are too many to mention, and too many great ones to pick from. Artists like Susan Point, Daphne Odjig, Bill Reid, Norval Morriseau and many, many others make up the backbone of Canada’s culture.

As part of Canada’s 150th birthday, the National Gallery of Canada has added a new gallery, called Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967.

“The story of Canadian art will always include indigenous art — they’re inseparable in my mind,” gallery director Marc Mayer told The Ottawa Citizen.

Why they’re on the list: With a renewed focus on cultural appropriation, Indigenous artists of all kinds are speaking up for their rights and for their work in 2017.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the cultural appropriation debate

Clara Hughes’ biggest accomplishment to date is being the only person in history to win medals at both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

Born in 1972, the Winnipegger won medals in speed skating in 2002, 2006, 2010, and cycling in 1996.

But what makes her more impressive is her drive to destroy the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. As spokesperson for the “Let’s talk” campaign, she shared her struggles with depression and mental illness and encourages other Canadians to do the same.

Why she’s on the list: Mental health is a growing concern for people around the world, and having a role model like Hughes can make a huge difference.

WATCH: Clara Hughes talks about doping in new book (2015)

Voted by Canadians as the Greatest Canadian on the CBC in 2010, Tommy Douglas brought socialized medicine to Canada.

Douglas was born in Scotland in 1904 and immigrated to Winnipeg when he was 15-years-old.

He moved to Saskatchewan and went into politics, where he was known as a skillful debater, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. As premier of Saskatchewan, Douglas brought government-funded health care to the province, prompting the federal government to follow suit eventually.

Why he’s on the list: Canadians are watching the health-care debate south of the border, so Douglas’ point of view is still relevant.

Did we miss anyone? Let us know of your picks for most influential Canadians in the comments section below.

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