The 29 Canadian Game-Changers Who Got Us Through 2020
This is Refinery29 Canada’s third edition of 29 Powerhouses, our annual celebration of women and non-binary trailblazers. As we looked back at 2020 and the Canadians who fought battles big and small, protected our health and wellbeing, and entertained us when we needed it most, it was clear this year’s list would recognize BIPOC individuals.
To say 2020 hasn’t been easy is a gross understatement. But this year’s Powerhouses have triumphed during both a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of colour and a racial reckoning that is in direct response to the relentless violence against Black and Indigenous people. These 29 groundbreakers have risen up against a world that has systematically denied them of power, dignity, money, safety, and even life. They have made their industries more inclusive (Aurora James), leapt into politics to push for change (Marci Ien), and got us to laugh when we thought we couldn’t (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). One, Joyce Echaquan, filmed the racism and abuse that ultimately led to her death, sparking an international uproar over Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people. The word “powerhouses” doesn’t begin to capture their courage, drive, creativity, and, yes, hope.
Four years ago, “Black Lives Matter” were three words unfairly associated with controversy and divisiveness when they really stood for Black liberation and equality. Then, Toronto activist, community organizer, and law student Sandy Hudson, 34, founded Black Lives Matter Canada. Now, she’s the face of another three-word movement facing unwarranted backlash: “Defund the police.” In May, as the world mourned another Black man murdered at the hands of police and another Black woman found dead in the presence of police, Hudson used her platform to push for the real law enforcement reform that would save Black lives. By June, she was schooling news anchors across North America on why defunding the police will protect women, making it very clear that public apprehension or fear will not stop her from fighting for what’s right — because even if the hashtags have cooled off, Black lives still matter. “The police’s emergency support is inadequate, and it kills Black people,” Hudson told Refinery29. “Surely, we can create an emergency support system that doesn’t kill Black people and Indigenous people.” Here are four more words for you: Listen to Sandy Hudson.
In February, Mississauga’s own Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was able to casually walk through a crowded Toronto arcade without getting noticed. We would know. We were there. Back then, the 18-year-old Tamil Canadian star of Netflix’s breakout quarantine hit Never Have I Ever told Refinery29 that she was still struggling to believe it all. “When I see my face on things, it feels like some other Brown chick. I’m like, Oh, good for you! Brown girl, represent!” As Devi Vishwakumar, Ramakrishnan did represent for all the Brown girls who didn’t grow up seeing themselves in teen coming of age comedies — especially with not one but two love interests. When Never Have I Ever dropped, its significance to the South Asian community was palpable, and the response even brought show creator Mindy Kaling to tears. It’s already been picked up for a second season. If going to crowded spaces was a thing we could still do in 2020, we’re sure Ramakrishnan would be mobbed by adoring Devi stans.
The 2020 racial reckoning and Black Lives Matter movement made it clear that companies and organizations have a lot of work to do when it comes to creating actual racial equality in workplaces: Fewer performative “listening and learning” seminars, more uncomfortable conversations, and deliberate change. The latter, of course, takes work… and commitment… and the right person to steer the ship. Enter Larissa Crawford, 25, a Métis-Jamaican anti-racism researcher, who launched Future Ancestors Services in April after she noticed a dearth of BIPOC-led diversity consultation services. The Calgary-based social enterprise helps companies in their efforts to root out systemic racism via multi-step courses, traditional Indigenous sharing circles, and instruction on everything from white fragility to unconscious bias to Karen culture. At the end, clients — including Global Affairs Canada, Penguin Random House Canada, and seven major law firms — get a report on how to move forward, hopefully into a future the next generation can be proud of.
A Black transgender artist who splices Ozzy Osbourne riffs with gothic Africana is the perfect winner for the 2020 Polaris Prize, Canada’s most prestigious independent music award. Both because — it’s official — indie music is no longer the exclusive domain of hipster white boys (Backxwash, aka Ashanti Mutinta, is the first trans person ever to win the prize), and because in a year where pretty much everything has come out of left field, honouring an album (and a musician) that defies convention feels exactly right. God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It is the Montreal artist’s first full-length album — an exploration of queerness, religion, family, identity, forgiveness, and witchcraft with lyrics that read like a deeply personal diary entry. Mutinta, 29, told the Canadian Press that winning Polaris “feels like the world just kind of telling me to be myself.”
Long before 2020, it was no secret that the fashion industry needed an overhaul when it came to Black representation. Diversity hasn’t always been high fashion’s strong suit on runways, but it’s even worse when it comes to supporting off-the-rack options made by Black creators. This year, Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based Brother Vellies creative director Aurora James, 36, decided to change that with the 15 Percent Pledge, a call to arms for retailers across the U.S. and Canada to drop the performative allyship and commit to stocking more products by Black-owned businesses. So far, big brands like Sephora, West Elm, Indigo, and Macy’s have signed on to reserving 15% (roughly equal to the proportion of Black people in America) of their shelf space to the pledge. Leading this push to hold her industry accountable landed James on the coveted September cover of Vogue wearing a Black designer (Pyer Moss) and illustrated by Black artist Jordan Casteel. The cover was a hopeful moment in bleak times and put James in a unique position to lead fashion into a brighter future.
The path to politics from TV stardom has been followed before — to varying degrees of success — but not by anyone who looks like Marci Ien. The 51-year-old broadcast legend and former co-host of The Social won the Toronto Centre byelection in October, becoming the sole Black woman Liberal MP in the House of Commons. After years of speaking out about Black Lives Matter as a TV host to racist backlash, Ien decided it was time to put her words in action. “It’s one thing to scream from the mountain tops, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Ien told Refinery29. “It’s another thing to be at a larger table that puts programs and laws in place.” That “missing piece,” as she calls it, is why she said yes when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered her the job. And her experience with bigoted trolls is why she felt like she was up for the task: “Because I’ve experienced all of that, I’m ready.”
In 2019, KIAWENTIIO beat hundreds of young actors across Canada to score the role of Ka’kwet in the Netflix/CBC award-winning series Anne With an E. This year marked the next chapter of her promising career. The 14-year-old Mohawk actor starred in the must-see drama of 2020’s Toronto International Film Festival, Beans, a coming-of-age story by Tracey Deer about a tween rebelling against her family, set during the Oka Crisis. (She also recorded the end credit song, nbd.) Up next: Catch the Akwesasne, ON-born actor voicing a character in the upcoming Marvel animated series What If…?, which drops next year. All this and she’s not even old enough to have her driver’s licence. Talk about Gen Z excellence.
Dr. Samira Mubareka
Microbiologist Dr. Samira Mubareka happened to be on duty back in January when Canada’s first COVID-19 case was wheeled into Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. Swabs she took from that patient gave the New Brunswick–born Mubareka, 38, and her co-researchers (Dr. Arinjay Banerjee and Dr. Rob Kozak) a jumpstart on decoding the genetic material to isolate the virus, which is science speak for growing COVID in a test tube so that we can figure out how to crush it. The game-changing Canadian discovery made global headlines and prompted a $1 million buy-in from a big investment firm. Mubareka is now the boss behind the Sunnybrook Translational Research Group for Emerging and Respiratory Viruses, making major strides in patient care and healthcare worker protection.
Una Momolu just wanted a simple apology from the Edmonton Catholic School Board after her 11-year-old son, Emmell, was told to take off his durag in school last September because the school believed it signified a gang affiliation. Instead, when Momolu met with the school’s administration, the principal banned her from the premises and called the police. Momolu spent the next nine months protesting the racist mistreatment of both her son and herself, circulating petitions, and meeting with officials. This past May, the board finally apologized in writing to Momolu and her child, promising to review its dress code. “We want to make sure that this never happens to another Black, Indigenous, or racialized child in our schools again,” she wrote on the Facebook page, Justice for Emmell.
When Joyce Echaquan went to a Quebec hospital with stomach pains last September, she shouldn’t have been ignored by nurses and staff. She shouldn’t have been the target of their hateful and racist comments as she lay in her hospital bed. And she should not have died because of their neglect. The mother of seven, 37, from the Atikamekw Nation of Manawan, who live-streamed the abuse that ultimately led to her death, will be remembered as a hero. Her death has ignited an international outcry against the on-going oppression, erasure, and violence against Indigenous people in Canada. A nurse has been fired (and there are calls for criminal charges); there’s a public inquest; and Joyce’s Principle, a list of recommendations to ensure Indigenous people have equitable access to healthcare, has been sent to the federal and Quebec governments. “It’s sad that it had to happen like this, but I know there is good on this planet,” said Echaquan’s husband, Carol Dubé, after her death. Let’s prove him right.
Adeela Carter & Amoye Henry
Zero. That’s how many Black Canadian women entrepreneurs are backed by venture funding in Canada. Adeela Carter, 40, and Amoye Henry, 33, founders of Toronto-based Pitch Better, are working hard to change that. The duo’s company, which launched in 2019 and was featured in Forbes this fall, bridges the gap between women-led startups and investment capital by increasing opportunities to secure grants for their businesses. The longtime friends also host workshops, talks, and coaching sessions, in addition to collecting data on Black women-led businesses at FoundHers, the company’s national research arm led by an all-woman team. Queen B once said that power is not given and should instead be taken. Carter and Henry are taking charge — and paying it forward.
For Algonquin and Métis director Michelle Latimer, her documentary Inconvenient Indian is the call and her CBC series Trickster, the answer. The former being an unflinching exploration of cultural colonization of Indigenous people, and the latter a shining example of what representation can look like — in front of the camera and behind it. Both projects debuted at this year’s streamlined Toronto International Film Festival, which was a little less festive than usual. But for Latimer, (who used to work at the TIFF box office just so she could see the movies), it was a reason for multiple victory laps. Inconvenient Indian won the People’s Choice Documentary Award and the Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature. Meanwhile, Trickster scored a U.S. distribution deal on teen soap central The CW and a green light for season 2.
During the one-year anniversary of the Raptors’ 2019 championship celebration parade in June, #KaylaGreyAppreciationDay started trending on Twitter. You’d think the hashtag was to recognize a major career milestone. After all, Grey, a TSN anchor and the first Black woman to host a flagship sports show in Canada, covered the historic win. But the support was in response to online bullying she received after speaking up against the use of the N-word in an essay by a white sports journalist and a wishy-washy statement from her network in response to Grey’s trolls. (TSN later issued a second statement in full support of Grey.) The Scarborough, ON-raised 27-year-old is no stranger to bringing attention to racism in Canadian media, making numerous appearances on shows like The Social and etalk. “For me, speaking is all I know,” she told Broadview Magazine. “So, that’s what I need to do to make sure that I am effecting change.”
Dr. Theresa Tam
Since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Theresa Tam has been a familiar face on our TV screens, our Twitter feeds, and yes, even our T-shirts, calmly guiding us through our weird new normal. Back in March, when fear of the virus was growing at about the same pace as our self-isolation obsession with TikTok coffee and sourdough, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada took fast action by recommending quarantine for travellers and pinpointing the community spread of COVID-19, two major curve-flattening coups. This isn’t Tam’s first time flexing her leadership muscles in crisis. During her 20 years in public health, she helped lead Canada’s response to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H1N1, and Ebola. Earlier this year, a British study found that countries with female leaders have an advantage navigating the current crisis. Thankfully the prime minister has Tam on speed dial.
Cicely Belle Blain
Cicely Belle Blain deserves a week off. Hell, they deserve a year off. Throughout the trash heap that was 2020, the social-justice advocate and founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver hasn’t stopped hustling to make the world better. Through their diversity and inclusion consulting firm, they’ve worked with hundreds of businesses worldwide. They are also an instructor in executive leadership at Simon Fraser University, and in August, the 27-year-old multi-hyphenate released their first book, Burning Sugar, a stirring read about the Black experience. “I am deeply inspired by the resilience we have collectively shown and the innovation that has come about as a result of being in a shared crisis,” they told Refinery29. “I really hope a lot of the mutual aid, peer support, and community spirit lasts beyond this year.” With leaders like Blain, we stand a chance.
When COVID-19 shut down gyms and fitness studios in pockets across the country, Jennifer Lau went from boss trainer to the health and wellness industry’s biggest advocate. The thirty-something co-owner of Toronto gym Fit Squad and Canada’s only woman Nike master trainer formed the coalition Health and Wellness Relief Canada and has spent the past nine months lobbying the government to provide rent relief to small-business owners and recognize gyms as an essential service. “There’s a lot of stuff going on that Canadians are struggling with right now,” Lau told Refinery29 earlier this year. “Without the help of health and wellness providers, how are they going to get through that?” With the second wave in full force and many gyms once again shuttered, Lau has her work cut out for her. She recently launched a video campaign and is focused on collecting signatures for a petition to send to the Ontario government.
Tracey Deer was understandably emotional during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. She had just won the TIFF Emerging Talent Award and her first feature film, Beans, a harrowing coming-of-age story set during the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec, was getting some of the best reviews of the festival. The film is a testament to the power of a single story and what happens when trauma turns to art. Deer is a 42-year-old writer, director, and producer based just outside Montreal and mostly known for TV (Mohawk Girls, Anne With an E). She was still processing her personal accolades against the backdrop of the horrific news cycle of 2020 and the film’s heavy subject matter when she spoke to Refinery29, but her goals were clear. “I grew up feeling very invisible and very voiceless and very unimportant. And now I have this platform… I don’t want to be one of few. I want to be one of many,” she said. In keeping with that promise, Deer is ending the year with a new role: vice-president of the Director’s Guild of Canada.
This summer, in the midst of a racial reckoning, white people finally seemed to be waking up to the insidious ways anti-Black racism plays out in everyday life. Some posted black squares. Others issued threats. Sasha Exeter, 40, was on the receiving end of the latter. The Toronto-based content creator and single mother refused to be intimidated. In a courageous, viral, Internet-shaking post in June, Exeter spoke up for herself, her daughter, and a community tired of being the victim of white privilege and those who wield its power recklessly. Exeter emerged as a leader in the digital space by using her voice for change and redefining what it means to be an “influencer.” Sure, she continued to do what she does best — create relatable content about motherhood, partner with massive brands, and inspire her followers to live their best life by living hers — but her biggest endorsement was for posting with purpose. Now, with a new website, a handbag collection, and a legion of devoted followers, Exeter is proof that trying to silence a Black woman is always a bad idea, and that the best revenge is staying booked, busy, and unbothered.
Back in January, a photo of Leena Yousefi leaving for court while holding her then-five-month-old daughter went viral on LinkedIn. The post read, “One day I will tell you about all the sleepless nights and all the mornings I woke up and kissed you as I went to court, so you know if I can do it, you can, too.” That’s the energy she brings every day to YLaw Group, British Columbia’s fastest-growing, women-led law firm. Yousefi, who is founder and principal lawyer of the Vancouver-based practice, has aimed to turn around the bad rap family law gets by tuning into “female qualities” like empathy that are typically perceived as a weakness. Want proof of that? Yousefi, 37, was voted one of Canada’s most influential lawyers in 2019 and boasts a 90% success rate. So, what’s next for B.C’s Annalise Keating? Developing an app for people who can’t afford legal representation.
There weren’t any superheroes who looked like Iman Vellani when she was growing up. Thanks to the teen from Markham, ON, that won’t be an issue for the Pakistani kids who come after her. She’s taking on the titular role in the upcoming Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, which just started filming in Atlanta. Vellani will play Kamala Khan, the high-schooler turned Avenger and Marvel Studios’ first-ever on-screen Muslim character. The Hollywood newcomer has described herself as curious, adventurous, and meticulous. Might we add groundbreaking, talented, and poised for global superstardom to that list?
When campaigning for re-election in her North Vancouver riding, provincial NDP incumbent Bowinn Ma, 35, found herself the target of sexist bullying by Liberal MLAs who accused her of cuddling up with her colleagues and showing off her cleavage. “It is a burden that women should not have to bear while they are simply trying to live their lives and do their jobs,” Ma said, demanding an apology from the politicians who tried to slut-shame her. Not that she’s had even a second to think about her haters since. Ma, the youngest MLA in the B.C. legislature, won her riding with 60% of the popular vote, part of the NDP’s landslide victory, and is now working on an extension of the province’s COVID rent relief program and boosting access to childcare in her riding.
COVID-19 meant missing her dates to open for Billie Eilish, cancelling a headlining tour to support the release of her new album, Before Love Came To Kill Us, and nixing the crowning achievement on every young artist’s spring calendar: Coachella. Lucky for Jessie Reyez, the only thing cooler than what she didn’t get to do in 2020 are the things she did: In June, Reyez, 29, marched in Black Lives Matter protests in Toronto, telling her 2-million-plus followers: “If you support my music and you support my selfies, I need your help now.” In July, she popped up in Beyoncé’s Black is King visual album (Coachella, what?), and in August she kicked off the Raptors’ playoff run from 447 metres up, on the CN Tower SkyPod. Just in case anyone was wondering who’s on top…
To be clear, it’s not Shina Novalinga’s job to enlighten you about Inuit culture, throat singing, and why an “Eskimo kiss” ISN’T A THING. But the twenty-something Montreal-based singer is damn good at it. Just ask her 1.1 million (and counting) TikTok followers, who tune in to see her and her mom sing and practise the Inuit tradition together and to watch Nova’s on-the-nose — and frankly hilarious — takedowns of Indigenous stereotypes, Justin Trudeau, and Canada’s racist treatment of Indigenous people. (Peep her LOL lip sync of Canada versus Indigenous people lifted from This is 40.) Three words: Watch this space.
Her Insta bio reads “Dr. Ruth meets Rhianna,” which is a pretty good way of describing Gen-Z’s go-to sex doc, a frank but fierce oracle on all things hot and horny, who launched her new series Sexology on Quibi this past spring. The ill-fated network folded a few months later, but not before Boodram, 35, got a chance to cover only-in-2020 topics like self-pleasure during self-quarantine and the dos and don’ts of the dreaded Zoom date. Her October maternity shoot for Essence magazine was a steamy clapback at anyone who says pregnant women can’t be sexy. Post mat-leave, she’ll be taking her sexpertise to the pod-o-verse and also to a new partnership with Bumble that will advise singles on how to hook up and date in the post-pandemic reality.
Back in January, Citytv reporter Ginella Massa was doing a live news hit about a wave of sexual assaults on Toronto transit when a young man walked through the shot screaming “suck my d-ck.” In the moment, Massa kept her composure, but later she unleashed on Twitter and in an op-ed titled “Why I refuse to accept sexual assault as an occupational hazard.” So often the victims of these kinds of crimes are stunned into silence, she said, adding, “I’m fortunate enough to have a platform when I can speak openly about my experiences and be heard.” That platform will be even bigger next year when Massa, 33, who made history as the first hijab-wearing Canadian to anchor a news broadcast and is now at the CBC, anchors a yet-to-be-named primetime show, infusing our national broadcaster with a fresh — and fearless — perspective.
Sipekne’katik lobster fisher Jolene Marr, 39, wasn’t trying to go viral. But when she got a call from her brother Jason, who was trapped in a building under attack by anti-Indigenous protesters, the only thing she could think to do was start rolling. Some 25,000 people have watched the footage via Marr’s Facebook account, one of some 30 livestreams she’s recorded documenting the attacks the Mi’kmaq people have faced for exercising their treaty-ratified right to fish lobster off-season. The violence and harassment is nothing new to Indigenous peoples. But thanks to the irrefutable and easily shareable evidence created by Marr and her fellow citizen journos (#alleyesonmikmaki), the police are taking action (the RCMP has charged three people in connection with the attacks) and people all over the world are paying attention.
After learning that the disgraced WE Charity had paid Margaret Trudeau thousands of dollars for her speaking appearances, creative triple threat Jully Black (also a repeat WE celebrity speaker) had just one question: Why not me? It was a gutsy Instagram callout to WE’s founders Craig and Marc Kielburger (hey guyyyys, you owe her, like, $250K). But it was also a sweeping statement on pay disparity and the undervaluation of women of colour. Other 2020 highlights include her musical theatre debut in the civil rights musical Caroline, Or Change (a performance that scored Black, 43, a Dora award) and belting out her hit “Glass Ceiling” as part of CBC’s Emancipation Day celebration. This month, she’s bringing all the holiday feels as part of Andy Kim’s annual Christmas special (a hot mug of holiday CanCon that will expand even the smallest, Scroogiest heart).
After 25 years of writing poetry, Souvankham Thammavongsa turned to short fiction as a professional palate cleanser — no book deal, no deadline, and no idea her side hustle was about to turn into something huge. Since its spring release, How to Pronounce Knife has earned raves in the NYT, Vogue, and Vanity Fair, a place on Time’s Must-Read Books of 2020 list, and recently Canada’s most prestigious literary award, The Giller Prize. Thammavongsa, 42, (who was born in a Lao refugee camp) delivers a fresh and unflinching version of the immigrant experience — one that goes beyond the predictable tragedy and struggle to a place that is often uncomfortable and hilarious. Her protagonists are people that tend to get pushed to the sidelines — a furniture mover, a chicken plant processor, a housewife learning English from daytime soaps — but this time they’re the stars of their own stories.
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