With Canada Day looming, I’ve been revisiting my book 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. A cursory inspection reminds me that these outstanding individuals have a lot to teach the rest of us.
1. Don’t be afraid to wade in a swamp. Because, as a boy, he felt like an outsider, David Suzuki took refuge in nature: “My main solace was a large swamp a ten-minute bike ride from our house.” The youth was fascinated by plant and animal life, especially insects. “Anyone who spotted me in that swamp would have had confirmation of my absolute nerdiness as I waded in fully clothed, my eyes at water level, peering beneath the surface, a net and jar in my hands behind my back.” Suzuki would build on those early experiments to earn a doctorate, become a science broadcaster, and awaken the world to climate change.
2. If you really like a movie, go see it ten times. As a fifteen-year-old, James Cameron was knocked out by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the local theatre in Niagara Falls, Ontario, he went to see it ten times. He decided that, instead of a comic book artist, he wanted to be a filmmaker. He borrowed his father’s Super-8 camera, started shooting film, and didn’t stop. In Hollywood, he helped lead the shift into the digital world. And in 2009, when he released the 3-D movie Avatar, he made digital technology the bedrock of the modern cinema experience.
3. Sometimes you have to lie to your mother. Just before she flew into Somalia, which was a war zone, Samantha Nutt left a series of post-dated postcards to be sent to her mother from Kenya. Having a wonderful time on safari. Seeing tons of lions, zebras, giraffes, and elephants. Wish you were here. At age twenty-five, she was researching an advanced medical degree on women’s health in failed states. What she discovered shocked her, and galvanized her into co-founding War Child Canada. By delivering aid to war-torn nations, this charitable, humanitarian organization changed the world.
4. Do not dismiss your premonitions. On December 30, 1981, while driving to the arena with a team mate, twenty-year-old hockey player Wayne Gretzky turned to his fellow Edmonton Oiler and said, “Geez, I feel weird. I might get a couple tonight.” Gretzky was chasing a record set in 1945 by Maurice “The Rocket” Richard: fifty goals in fifty games. With thirty-eight games behind him, Gretzky had scored forty-five. But on this night, he wrote later, “it was almost eerie the way things happened.” He registered four goals, “but then the magic suddenly left me.” He missed three point-blank chances. As the game wound down, he mounted one final rush. With seven seconds remaining, he took a cross-rink pass and then fired the puck “into the world’s most beautiful net.” Having scored fifty goals in thirty-nine games -- a record that has yet to be broken -- Wayne Gretzky went on to bring hockey into the mainstream of North American sport.
5. When all else fails, go lie on a beach. When he was twenty-four, Guy Laliberte went to Hawaii for a holiday. He had been performing with a street festival in small-town Quebec, specializing in juggling, stilt-walking, and fire-eating. The year was 1983, and the provincial government had announced that it was funding projects to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the arrival of French explorer Jacques Cartier. While lying on a beach in Hawaii, watching the sun go down, Laliberte conceived of mounting a Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun). That vision, inspired by a Hawaiian sunset, would enable Laliberte to transform our conception of the circus and give rise to a global empire that today employs thousands of people from more than 40 countries.
[50 Canadians is available here online and in all the best bricks-and-mortar bookstores.]