Canadians love to boast about their own people – probably because of the overshadowing of their southern U.S neighbor – especially those who have made a name for themselves in the history of the world. These Canadian icons shaped the face of everything from television and science to arts and entertainment.
While the following list of notably famous Canadians may surprise you, you’re likely to recognize at least a few. These are the heroes of Canada, be they artists, doctors, athletes, or otherwise, who inspire their fellow countrymen and women to go above and beyond.
If you happen to find yourself in Canada, you might even be able to see some of these famous people (if they’re still living) or travel to their childhood homes and historical sites dedicated to their memories. Read on to discover more about these great Canadian icons.
Terry Fox began his cross-country run in 1980 as an unknown, cancer-stricken young man with a dream to raise money for other cancer patients, especially children. His familiar lilting run – he had one good and one prosthetic leg – took him from Newfoundland to northern Ontario, where he succumbed to his cancer that moved into his lungs. By the end, his "Marathon of Hope" had become a national sensation, attracting thousands to line the streets to watch him pass through.
Terry Fox runs are still held every September in schools and communities across Canada, and more than C$750 million have been raised through the Terry Fox Foundation toward cancer research.
David Suzuki is a national treasure for many Canadians who look to him to help decipher often-confusing environmental issues like climate change. He came to prominence in the 1970s through his popular TV show on nature and the environment, “The Nature of Things,” but in 2001, he turned his attention full-time to environmental activism through his David Suzuki Foundation.
The Foundation’s main goals are to protect Canada’s climate, creating liveable clean-energy communities, establishing environmental rights and justice, transforming the economy, connecting students and parents with nature, and building community.
Possibly Canada's most famous author, Margaret Atwood does not shy away from the public spotlight and is known for her sardonic, sharp intellect and personality. Born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Atwood has written prose and poetry as well as being an outspoken environmental advocate.
Since 1969, Atwood has released more than 16 novels, numerous short story and poetry collections, 10 works of non-fiction, children's books, anthologies, and scripts. Her most famous work, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was made into an Emmy-winning Hulu original television show, with a fourth season confirmed to air sometime in 2020. "The Testaments," a sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale," was released in September 2019 and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize.
Margaret Atwood has several recurring themes in her writing including technology, feminism, the dangers of theology, and the importance of animal welfare. For instance, “The Handmaid's Tale” is a dystopian account of the United States overthrown by a Christian theocracy.
Alexander Graham Bell
Though born in Edinburgh, it was after moving to Brantford, Ontario, that Alexander Graham Bell patented the first telephone. Like his father, Bell had an intense interest in sound transmission and human voice transfer. This preoccupation led to his experiments with acoustic telegraphy, which eventually became the telephone. Today, Melville House, where Bell worked and lived, is open to visitors as a museum and is a National Historic Site of Canada.
Known simply as "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky's hockey career is legendary and it all began in Brantford, Ontario. When Gretzky was playing minor league hockey, word began to spread that a talented kid was tearing up the ice, not with speed or brute force, but intelligence and the ability to anticipate play that was unlike anything parents and coaches had ever seen.
Though he played with four NHL teams, Gretzky is probably best known for the nine years he played with the Edmonton Oilers, during which time the team won four Stanley Cups. Gretzky also broke a host of records, including all-time scoring and most points in a season and is widely hailed as the greatest hockey player ever.
Though he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, moved to the U.S., and married American actress Janet Jones, Gretzky maintains Canadian citizenship and keeps business and political interests in Canada.
Dr. Frederick Banting
Though sadly more people probably know Canadian Justin Bieber than they do Frederick Banting, Banting is truly one of Canada’s most esteemed and treasured national icons.
Banting was a medical scientist and physician who, in the 1920s, began research on separating the hormone that regulates glucose in the bloodstream with the aim to treat diabetes. Dr. Banting and research assistant Charles Best were successful in isolating what became known as insulin, which is still used today as a means for diabetics to lead long, healthy lives.
William “Billy” Bishop was an Air Marshal and Canadian flying ace during the First World War, after which he received the Victoria Cross for his service to the country of Canada. Bishop was officially credited with 72 victories during the Great War, making him Canada’s most winning ace.
In the Second World War, Bishop was instrumental in establishing the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, which is still used today to train fighter pilots for the country’s armed forces.
Billy Bishop is by far Canada’s most famous war hero, an inspiration to young soldiers and servicemembers across the country to this day.
Another veteran of the First World War, Norman Bethune was better known for his service as a frontline surgeon supporting the democratically elected Republican government during the Spanish Civil War and his service with the Communist Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War, where he brought modern medicine to rural China.
He treated both sick villagers and wounded soldiers during his time in China, making a profound impression on the Chinese people, including their leader Mao Zedong. His statues can be found throughout China to this day for the selflessness he displayed as a wartime surgeon.
Bethune is also responsible for developing a mobile blood-transfusion service that revolutionized aid on the battlefield, and he was known for decrying the First World War as motivated by profits rather than principles.
Now known as a CBS hockey commentator, Don Cherry started as a professional hockey player before moving on to coaching and eventually sports writing before ascending the ranks to be one of the most sought-after announcers in network hockey coverage.
Don Cherry is an icon of Canada because of his flamboyant style (which garnered him the nickname Grapes), outspoken mannerisms, and extreme levels of Canadian nationalism. Cherry has appeared on ESPN coverage of the annual Stanley Cup and is a syndicated radio host on Sportsnet Radio Network.
Before there was Bieber, there was Bryan Adams, the Canadian heartthrob that stole not only the hearts of the people of Canada but of those in the United States and Europe. This singer-songwriter and activist defined the Canadian rock genre of the 1980s.
You might recognize his hits “Run to You” or “Summer of ‘69” from his 1984 album “Reckless,” or maybe “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” (1991), “Heaven,” “All for Love,” or “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” Adams set records around the world for his music, namely on the United Kingdom music charts for hitting number one for 16 consecutive weeks.