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These six Canadians are making the country a better place

You don't need a cape or a long white beard and a flying sled to make a difference. This season of giving, we celebrate six heroic Canadians with a selfless dedication to improving the lives of others.

December 13, 2021

Written by Tangerine

These six Canadians are making the country a better place

As we come to the end of another challenging year, we'd like to show our appreciation for those who made our lives just a little bit brighter.

These heroes led by example. They crossed the finish line. They gave what they could – time, expertise, a platform, even the shirt off their back – to make this country a better, more just place.

And there are countless more great Canadians working tirelessly every day to make their communities better. And they do it not for the credit, but because they care. We want to thank all those heroes as well.

From a decorated athlete to a tireless advocate for Indigenous rights, there's one thing that unites these exceptional Canadians: a selfless dedication to improving the lives of others.

Andre De Grasse

The Olympian 

Andre De Grasse, sprinter. Won three medals at the Tokyo, Olympics including gold in the Men's 200 metres, Canada's first track and field gold in a quarter century. Creator of the Andre De Grasse Family Foundation, a charity that aims to inspire and empower youth through access to sport, education and healthcare.

In another pandemic year, what drove you with your charity efforts in 2021?

I was inspired by the resilience that kids have shown through this pandemic. Whether it was learning remotely from home, missing out on organized sports or just the opportunity to see family and friends, children were forced to sacrifice a lot. When I was approached by Montreal teenager Jesse Briscoe about creating a program to help kids with their physical and mental health, it was a no-brainer. The Race With Me! Canada Virtual Challenge was born. It felt really great to use my platform to make a difference for thousands of kids and their families who participated. In September, we donated $25,000 raised through the initiative to Kids Help Phone.

Who were your heroes in 2021?

My girlfriend Nia has been amazing and is my number one hero of 2021. I was gone for most of the summer travelling to competitions and training camps around the world. Meanwhile, Nia was back at home looking after our three children. It was so amazing to see them virtually after I won the 200 metres in Tokyo.

What are you looking forward to in 2022?

For the first time ever the World Track & Field Championships will be held in the U.S. I can't wait to represent Canada in Eugene, Oregon in July in a packed stadium.

How to help 

We update information on the charitable programs and initiatives me and my foundation are supporting at our website. I've also got autographed copies of my children's book Race With Me! available for purchase at racewithme.ca with all proceeds going to my foundation.

Masai Ujiri

The Team Builder

Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors vice-chairman and team president. Having guided the Raptors to the 2019 NBA Championship, this past summer Ujiri signed a multi-year extension to stay in Toronto. He is also president of Giants of Africa, the non-profit he co-founded in 2003, which uses basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth.

What drove you in your advocacy efforts this year, and what accomplishments are you most proud of?

Every summer, we go back to Africa to hold basketball camps and clinics for young boys and girls across the continent. It's just life-changing, for the youth – but also for me. In my heart, I believe basketball and sports can be used as a tool to move the continent forward and change the lives of the next generation forever.

Like everyone, our lives changed over the past 18 months. We had to find new ways to impact the lives of African youth due to the pandemic. We shifted to investing in infrastructure. We've committed to building 100 basketball courts across the entire continent. To date, we opened 10 courts in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. So, 10 down, 90 to go.

What are you looking forward to in 2022?

I'm sure everyone has a list of plans that went sideways in 2020, and I'm no different! That summer, we were planning to hold the first-ever Giants of Africa Festival – in Kigali, Rwanda, a place that I really love. Like so many others, we pressed pause on those plans and it'll now happen in August of 2022. I can't wait. We're bringing together 200 boys and girls, from 11 countries across the continent. There is so much talent in Africa, and this festival is an example of how we can nurture and showcase it. Plus, we have those 90 more courts to build! 

How to help

Following @GiantsofAfrica on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook provides a great glimpse into the work that we do. Visiting our website and signing up to receive our latest news and announcements is another way to stay up-to-date and get involved.

Of course, 2021 was a year when the Raptors waved goodbye to their all-time hero Kyle Lowry. How do you hope to cultivate the team's next generation of heroes?

I think those heroes are already here. Pascal Siakam's story is unbelievable. He didn't start playing until he was 17. Seventeen! He left Cameroon to play and not even 10 years later he's an NBA Champion. Fred VanVleet, he's another hero. He didn't get drafted after college, but never gave up. And I know fans are going to embrace the new players on our team, like Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa. The future is bright in Toronto. I have said it before and I am saying it again: we will win in Toronto! 

Phyllis Webstaf

The Icon 

Phyllis Webstad, founder and ambassador of the Orange Shirt Society. As a six-year-old attending the St. Joseph Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., Phyllis Webstad couldn't have known that a traumatic incident — the confiscation of her new orange shirt — would inspire both the 2013 creation of Orange Shirt Day and the 2021 establishment of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation leader is “proud and honoured" to tour Canada telling her story and raising awareness about the impacts of residential schools.

In another pandemic year, what drove you in your advocacy efforts?

I had a shirt taken away from me, but thousands of Indigenous families had sons and daughters taken away. With all the unmarked graves discovered around former residential schools, we know that many Indigenous children had their lives taken away. Before this year, a lot of people saw residential schools as part of history and nothing more. Now, they are starting to understand how they still affect us today.

What are you looking forward to in 2022?

We had our second book, Beyond the Orange Shirt Story, come out on Sept. 1. It includes lesson plans for Grade 7 and up, so I'm hoping it will help young readers become more aware of the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples. I'm also excited that some of the proceeds will go towards taking my family to Niagara Falls for a special 2022 Orange Shirt Day Ceremony.

How to help

Donations through our website help the Orange Shirt Society raise awareness about Residential Schools and their continuing impacts.

Billy Lo

The Innovator

Billy Lo, software engineer. Volunteer with Vaccine Hunters Canada, the grassroots group that helped connect eligible Canadians with available COVID-19 vaccines. He also developed a popular mobile tool that simplified the proof-of-vaccination process before most provincial governments had figured it out. Lo is Tangerine's Head of Enterprise Architecture and EDW. 

In another pandemic year, what drove you in your efforts in 2021?

Certainly a sense of civic duty. We engineers can't treat patients, but technology can play a role, not just in finding vaccine appointments but helping enact some of these policies that help vaccination and reduce transmission. I connected with the Vaccine Hunters team, and their eagerness and passion was off the charts. Since May I have been doing two jobs — my day job with Tangerine and a night job making tools to help Vaccine Hunters. Vaccine Hunters showed the passion of the people to help and the Canadian spirit that comes through. It influenced me. I still feel that we have one last hurdle to cross — to avoid the vaccine mandate fizzle. So, we made the grassroots.vaccine-ontario.ca tool so Canadians can easily show their proof of vaccination using their iPhone and Android wallets.

Who were your heroes in 2021?

I think the lead scientists. This notion of developing a vaccine that effective and that quickly is truly unprecedented. The scientists behind it and the entrepreneurs who made it scalable, they're my heroes.

What are you looking forward to in 2022?

Step one is children getting vaccinated, so we no longer have to worry about hugging each other again.

How to help

Believe in grassroots and get involved. Grassroots efforts like Vaccine Hunters can and do work. It doesn't take a lot — when you work as a group you can swing the needle. Vaccine Hunters was just one example, maybe the next one will be Carbon Neutral Hunters! 

Wes Hall

The Dragon

Wes Hall, Bay Street power broker and philanthropist. Hall is the founder of Kingsdale Advisors, and the newest 'dragon' on CBC's Dragon's Den. In 2020, he launched the BlackNorth Initiative, which challenges Canadian businesses to end systemic racism.

Can you tell us about your advocacy work this year?

We've been working on several educational programs this year, such as the Emerging Community Leaders program with the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business, and the BlackNorth Academy, a new initiative that aligns with my goals to help educate and prepare Black Canadians for the C-Suite and Executive Boards. I'm also extremely proud of the work we've done with the BlackNorth Playbook — an educational tool and guidebook for our corporate signatories to follow to promote inclusive work environments free of prejudice and systemic racism.

What are you looking forward to in 2022?

In 2022, I'm looking forward to folks seeing me on Dragons' Den, providing opportunities to Black or BIPOC entrepreneurs who otherwise don't get the chance to make it in the Canadian business ecosystem. It's important to have representation on television.

How to help

Readers can support my work, and the Black and BIPOC communities as a whole. Use social media to share Black businesses that you like or that deserve our attention. If readers want to get involved or donate to the BlackNorth Initiative, they're encouraged to visit blacknorth.ca. 

TJ Conwi

The Provider

TJ Conwi, Vancouver-based chef. Growing up in Manila above a restaurant run by his aunt and grandmother, TJ Conwi was raised on the foundation that a full stomach from a nutritious meal provides the essential tools for a person's happiness. “The greeting when you come over to a house is usually 'kumain ka na?' which means 'did you eat?'" This ethos is what fueled Conwi to pivot his kitchen consultancy service, Ono Vancouver, to provide meals for charitable organizations in the city's downtown core when the pandemic hit. Ono Vancouver has since provided over 350,000 meals to feed the community's most vulnerable, they've saved over eight tonnes of food that would otherwise have been destined for the landfill, and they continue to supply 2,200 meals a week to organizations like Health Initiatives for Men, Aboriginal Mothers Centre Society, Watari Counselling and Support Service Society, A Loving Spoonful, and YWCA Crabtree Corner.

What's driven your charity efforts in yet another trying year of the pandemic?

As COVID-19 began to impact restaurants and non-profits, I assembled a group of laid-off chefs that wanted to contribute to fighting food insecurity in Vancouver. Right away, we turned surplus food from restaurants into meals for laid-off hospitality workers. Later, through the City of Vancouver's COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre, we were introduced to community partners that needed food, so I knew that there was a big need for chefs turning excess food into nutritious meals for the community.

Do you have any heroes who inspired your own work?

Chef Jose Andres was already doing great work with World Central Kitchen by feeding people affected by calamities. He knows that food has no boundaries and hunger should not be politicized. I am in awe of the impact he's had, and it all starts with just trying to make people just a little happier and gain dignity through a simple meal.

What are you looking forward to in 2022?

I'm looking forward to having large gatherings of people at food festivals, and being able to once again have safe gatherings with friends and like-minded individuals. Whether through food events, fundraisers or just being able to cook together at home. 

How to help

Please visit our website or Instagram and let us know if you have an interest in volunteering, collaborating or donating.

Contributors: Joe Callaghan (Andre De Grasse, Billy Lo, Masai Ujiri), Adam Bisby (Phyllis Webstad), Johanna Chisholm (TJ Conwi), Ethan Rotberg (Wes Hall).

 

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