Canadian Greatness

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Canadian Greatness

Need a dose of inspiration? These five exceptional Canadians are changing people’s lives.

We all know that Canadians are friendly, courteous folks, but we’re a selfless bunch too. According to the 2013 World Giving Index, Canada is tied for second among the most philanthropic countries on the globe. There are some people, though, who go above and beyond the call of duty.

Many Canadians are doing great things, but these five people are changing people’s lives. They’re advocating for social justice; they care about what we put in our bodies; they’re discussing important health issues and more. We wanted to highlight their stories. While we may be a giving group, we can, as these people prove, always do more.

1. Josh Harding

Goalie, Minnesota Wild

You’d think that a multiple sclerosis diagnosis would spell the end of a professional hockey career. The autoimmune disease affects the brain and spinal cord, and can wreak havoc on balance, coordination and vision. But for Josh Harding, the 29-year-old NHL goaltender from Regina, being diagnosed with the disease in September 2012 marked more of a beginning.

Partly because of the MS diagnosis, the Minnesota Wild goaltender played just five games in last year’s lockout-shortened season. After the team’s starting netminder got injured at the start of the current season, though, the perennial backup finally got a chance to shine.

And shine he did. Harding has been one of the league’s top goalies, which is remarkable considering he’s never played more than 35 games in a season. But it’s even more incredible considering what he’s gone through.

He rarely speaks to the media about his disease, but in a November interview with People, he said being diagnosed with MS was scary. “I didn’t know if I could continue playing hockey or if I’d be in a wheelchair,” said the goalie, who has had to sit out part of the second half of the season due to an MS-related flare-up.

Not only has he been an inspiring story on the ice, but he also founded a charity called Harding’s Hope to help people pay for treatments and medication. “I would like people that have MS not to worry about the decision to either take their medication or put food on the table,” he says. – C.G.

2. Winnie Giesbrecht

Founder, Families at the Dump, Mexico

When Winnie Giesbrecht and her husband vacationed at Paradise Village in Puerto Vallarta 17 years ago, they asked the resort’s Italian-Canadian owner to take them where North American tourists rarely go.

What they saw is hard to imagine: Mexican men, women and children living at a nearby garbage dump, scavenging for food and bits of plastic to sell. These people were born and raised at the dump – the fifth generation of Mexicans to be brought up here. They knew no other life and had no way out.

The 75-year-old Giesbrecht knows what it’s like to be needy. She’s a First Nations person who grew up poor in Grand Rapids, Manitoba, so seeing children eating off garbage hit close to home. “I couldn’t not help them,” she says.

The couple began by bringing the families water, food and clothing. Now, their mission, Families at the Dump, includes a preschool, daycare, food programs, adult classes and medical assistance. The foundation also built a 70-unit housing and learning centre at the base of the dump, which families began moving into in early 2014.

Many men and women still work among the garbage, but they now have proper identification cards and they get paid. One young woman has graduated from nursing school, and a young man is in culinary school and more children can expect post-secondary education too.

The mission brings tourists from Puerto Vallarta to the dump to educate and inspire action. Many end up donating money or clothing, and they volunteer with the families. At the very least, they get a glimpse into the real Mexico. “It’s seen as a vacation spot, but Mexico is a third-world country,” says Giesbrecht. “There’s a lot who are suffering.” – C.G.

3. Dr. Gordon Guyatt

Distinguished professor in McMaster University’s Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics

As a doctor, clinical researcher and professor at McMaster University, Dr. Gordon Guyatt noticed some strange inconsistencies in the practice of medicine in this country. While some treatments had become widespread despite having little supporting evidence behind them, other practices that had been shown to be beneficial through high-quality studies weren’t commonly embraced.

Concerned, Dr. Guyatt partnered with colleagues and, in the late 1980s, began to publish guides on how to read medical literature. He explained how to determine whether research may be biased and how to recognize, for instance, poorly designed studies.

“[Doctors] were completely vulnerable to what pharmaceutical sales representatives and experts were telling them,” he says, noting that even so-called medical experts can misinterpret studies. As an example, he points to hormone replacement therapy, which was widely recommended despite only circumstantial evidence, and was later found to increase the risk of breast cancer and heart disease.

His work as the father of “evidence-based medicine” and his research – into everything from patient preferences to lung cancer to which anticoagulant drugs have better results – has earned him the Order of Canada and a lifetime achievement award from the British Medical Journal. Last December, he was named Canada’s Health Researcher of the Year. “[The accolades] come as a very pleasant surprise,” Dr. Guyatt told Metro newspapers in December. “It’s very nice to be a part of making history.” – W.G.

4. Rachel Parent

Anti-GMO activist

Rachel Parent first spoke out against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at age 12, at her school in Aurora, Ontario. “They affect my future and the future of our planet,” she says.

Not only did she win a medal for her presentation, Parent also found her calling: rallying youth around GMO issues. Her chief objective is to get foods labelled so that Canadians can choose whether to consume ingredients that have been genetically modified – a process initially touted as a solution to world hunger, but since linked to everything from allergies to cancer to environmentally devastating superbugs and superweeds.

In 2011, Parent founded the not-for-profit organization, Kids Right to Know, which has over 8,500 Facebook followers and empowers members to attend rallies and fight for GMO transparency. Now 14, she is a United Nations Youth leader and has taken the microphone at events across the globe, including at the March Against Monsanto, a 400-city anti-GMO protest and at Free the Children’s We Day.

Her proudest moment? Getting Kevin O’Leary, the curmudgeonly co-host of CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange, to admit we’re all a part of a big science experiment and to agree that GMOs should be labelled. Her televised debate with O’Leary in 2013 has been viewed over 2 million times on YouTube and has elicited international messages of support. – V.H.

5. Jeffrey Skoll

Past president of eBay, founder of Participant Media, philanthropist

A lot of billionaires may spend their cash on lavish parties and vacations, but Montreal-raised Jeff Skoll, eBay’s one-time president, is using his money to change the world.

When eBay went public in 1998, Skoll, who had joined the company two years earlier, became an instant billionaire. In 1999 he established the Skoll Foundation, an organization that invests in people who are using innovation and entrepreneurial skills to improve lives. The Foundation has provided grants to 80 organizations on five continents and also runs a $20-million portfolio of “impact investments” – programs that make a financial return.

Skoll had always wanted to write stories that move people into action, but rather than pen them himself, in 2004 he started Participant Media, a movie studio that’s made 44 films, all with a social message. Syriana, An Inconvenient Truth, Fast Food Nation and The Help are just some of the blockbusters that he’s helped get made.

While he could have quit there, the 49-year-old is also passionate about the environment, and created the Skoll Global Threats Fund to tackle issues such as climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation.

His advice for people who have money but have yet to give is to start early. “Young entrepreneurs in general feel they’re too busy running their companies, which I think is a mistake,” he told the Guardian in November. “Once they’re older you see much more of a propensity to be involved in philanthropy.” – C.G.

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