29 Powerhouses: The Canadian Women Killing It In 2018

A toast to the game-changers, the culture-makers, the stereotype-smashers, and the boys’ club-crashers.

Squiggly Line
When we launched Refinery29 Canada in October, I wrote about our mission to help women see, feel, and claim their power. This showcase of ass-kicking Canadian women, which we're calling 29 Powerhouses, is closely tied to that mission. Because as incredible as it is to blaze our own trail, the path gets a little bit clearer with so many gutsy women lighting the way.
For me, there’s no b­etter way to close out 2018 than by making a big freaking deal over 29 of these firestarters. (Because who doesn't love a good list?) It's also a chance to challenge the way we typically think about power as confined to the boardrooms and backrooms of big business and politics. It's true some of our list-makers are dominating those spaces (Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, #5, may be the only person to have bent Donald Trump to her will in the last 12 months), but power can also be reviving a dying art form (Instagram poet Rupi Kaur, #14), clapping back against the ruling class (teenage sex-ed crusader Rayne Fisher-Quann, #3), producing the cultural event of the decade (unofficial royal-wedding planner Jessica Mulroney, #2), and, of course, supporting other women (Knixwear founder Joanna Griffiths, #18, who does so quite literally).
Advertisement
Topping the list is Karena Evans, the just-turned 23-year-old director (happy birthday, Karena!), who owns her power in a major way. This year, she wrangled the Degrassi cast for Drake’s “I’m Upset” video, added "actor" to her CV, and is about to make her TV debut, directing the premiere of a show about a community of strippers in Mississippi. “Any time I get the opportunity, it’s about telling an authentic, inclusive, representative story,” Evans said in the exclusive interview that accompanies this feature. Tellingly, when she arrived on-set for her R29 photo shoot, she brought her bestie, Clark, with her. “There’s power in women supporting women, and in the past few years in particular, I think women are realizing that,” Evans said. “If Clark’s winning, I’m winning. If I’m winning, my girls are winning.”
And if the women on this list are winning (and YEAH, they are), then we are too.
— Carley Fortune, Executive Editor
Photographed by Chrris Lowe.
1. Karena Evans, director, Toronto
Even if you don’t know Karena Evans' name, you know her work as the 23-year-old force behind all three of Drake’s 2018 Internet-breaking music videos: the one where he gives away the video budget to the needy in Florida, the one with all the badass female celebs, and the one with the Degrassi cast reunion. Needless to say, Drizzy can work with whoever he damn well plizzies, so the fact that he tapped Evans three times running says a lot about her craft and capability. Following this month’s Grammy noms, a Rolling Stone article posited that Drake’s Best Song nod for “God’s Plan” was as much about the video as the song itself — further evidence that Evans is unstoppable. And uncontainable. Not content to simply conquer one industry in 2018, she also earned raves for her acting performance in Firecrackers, a modern Thelma and Louise story that premiered at TIFF and recently raked on the fest’s top 10 Canadian films list.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Ted Belton.
2. Jessica Mulroney, stylist/secret wedding planner, Toronto
Best known as Meghan Markle’s Canadian BFF, Jessica Mulroney was the uncredited architect of the royal wedding, reportedly consulted on everything from the dress to the flower arrangements. Since May 19, the 38-year-old has become a celeb in her own right — the no-longer-secret style weapon behind the Duchess’s estimated $212-million USD influence on the global fashion economy and a fixture of the British gossip rags (which described her royal blue, rear-hugging wedding day ensemble as a “Pippa moment”). When the newlywed Meghan wanted respite from the drama around her dad, she flew to Toronto to hang with Jessica, and when the Sussexes went Down Under for their first overseas tour in October, J-Mulz went along for the ride. These days her schedule is crazier than ever with a new fashion line for The Bay, new celebrity clients including Shania Twain, and a new gig as a fashion correspondent on Good Morning America. Still, it’s probably safe to assume she’s got time for godmother duties, should the opportunity arise.
Photo: Toronto Star/Getty Images.
3. Rayne Fisher-Quann, teen activist, Toronto
On September 21, 40,000 students and teachers walked out of classrooms at 100 high schools across Ontario in protest of Premier Doug Ford’s sex-ed curriculum rollback, which removes mentions of gender identity, bullying, consent, and same-sex relationships from elementary school classrooms, as well as the scrapping of Indigenous education programs. The expression of collective WTF? (the largest youth demonstration in the province’s history) was organized by 17-year-old Grade 12 student Rayne Fisher-Quann, whose activist career had kicked off just a few months earlier with the March For Our Education rally in July. Since then she has emerged as a powerful voice for young people, boldly sharing her own experiences of abuse and harassment as a way to demonstrate why the updated curriculum is not just advisable, but essential.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Karen Reid.
4. Annamaria Enenajor, lawyer, Toronto
For Annamaria Enenajor, the mission to delete the records of the half-million Canadians with simple cannabis possession convictions is less about getting high (she's not much of a toker), and more about getting justice (her stimulant of choice). Last spring the 34-year-old partner at Ruby, Shiller, Enenajor & Digiuseppe and founder of Cannabis Amnesty launched a petition calling on the feds to consider “expungement,” ie total erasure. The problem with the current policy is that “suspended” charges ultimately remain on permanent records, affecting everything from job, housing, and scholarship applications, to border-crossing and custody hearings. The even bigger problem: It’s totally racist, since Black, Indigenous, and other racialized cannabis consumers experience disproportionate arrest rates and stigma surrounding drug use in Canada. Clearing the deck is the first logical step, and given Enenajor’s own permanent record (getting what she wants), we’ll probably get there sooner than later.
Photo: Courtesy of Adam Scotti.
5. Chrystia Freeland, politician, Ottawa
Under the contemporary truism that you’re nobody till Donald Trump trash talks you on Twitter, Canada’s hardest-working MP officially arrived on September 26, 2018. That's when the Big Bad Troll recapped the latest NAFTA negotiations with Canada by noting: “We don’t like their representative very much.” But for all of his huffing and puffing (and threatening the “ruination” of the Canadian economy), POTUS proved incapable of blowing Chrystia Freeland down or even breaking her stride. With America caught in a fog of regressive nationalism and ridiculous bluster, the 50-year-old former journalist has personified Canadian values around human rights, feminism, and multiculturalism. And she got the new NAFTA deal (which sounds a lot like the old deal) done, managing to both placate The Donald and put Canadian interests first.
Advertisement
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.
6. Sandra Oh, Actor, Los Angeles
The just-tapped Golden Globes host and SAG nominee already has some experience with awards shows: Sitting front row at the 2018 Emmy awards, flanked by her parents and looking resplendent AF in a deep-cut ruby red dress, Sandra Oh was victorious even before the winner was announced. That the trophy went elsewhere (to Claire Foy for S2 of The Crown), didn’t take away from the 47-year-old Korean-Canadian’s historic achievement as the first Asian woman nominated in the leading actress category. Her portrayal of Eve Polastri on the totally unique and addictive thriller Killing Eve is emotionally understated — imagine Dr. Cristina Yang as a detective chasing a seductive serial killer through Europe. Playing confident women with their own self-defined versions of femininity is kind of Oh’s thing. Now would someone hand this woman a trophy?
Photo: Linda Roy.
7. Autumn Peltier, environmentalist, Manitoulin Island, ON
Two years ago, Autumn Peltier earned props as the 12-year-old who used a photo op to call out Prime Minister Trudeau on his environmentally dubious Pipeline policy and got him to commit to a clean-water strategy. This year, the Anishinaabe teen took that same mission to the UN’s General Assembly meeting in New York, telling the group of international dignitaries that it’s time to “Warrior up!” and protect our planet’s most precious resource. With eco-protection taking a major hit south of the border this month, her message of H2O sacrosanctity is more urgent than ever.
Advertisement
Photo: GP Images/WireImage.
8. Tessa Virtue, figure skater/#relationshipgoals, London, ON
If you look back fondly on this year’s winter Olympics, there’s a good chance one half of Canada’s five-flame emoji ice-dancing duo has something to do with that. Regardless of their stated relationship status (“just friends”), the will-they-or-won’t-they, are-they-or-aren’t-they, oh-come-on-and-just-rip-each-other’s-leotards-off-already chemistry between Tessa Virtue and her partner, Scott Moir, tapped into our collective need for an unabashedly uplifting narrative — and scored the Games’ best TV ratings. Virtue was also the #1 most Googled Canadian this year, with Moir coming in at #7 (because in skating women really do rule supreme). This fall, the gold-medal winners embarked on a nationwide “Thank You Canada” tour. No, no, guys — on behalf of Canada — and all the babies born nine months after that Moulin Rouge free program — thank you.
Photo: Justin Lloyd/Newspix/Getty Images.
9. Alessia Cara, pop star, Brampton, ON
YouTuber turned chart-topper Alessia Cara recently put her haters on notice, calling out perpetrators of stan culture (ie, hardcore music fans who morph into toxic Internet trolls) right before releasing her aptly titled new album, The Pains of Growing. Since bursting onto the scene as an atypical pop ingenue in 2015, the 22-year-old has fended off criticism on everything from her flannel-forward fashion sense to her Grey Cup halftime show to her 2018 Grammy win for Best New Artist. But if her ascent has been occasionally rocky, Cara has also been an inspiration for young people who feel like they don’t belong. Besides, hit ballads aren’t born of the best of times.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Wood.
10. Tanya Tagaq, throat singer/author, Toronto
She’s best known as the woman whose electric, pounding throat singing catapulted the Inuk tradition onto the pop music scene, but Tanya Tagaq debuted an entirely new talent in 2018 with her first novel, Split Tooth. The best-selling and Giller Prize–nominated book is an ambitious and acrobatic blend of memoir, fiction, poetry, and dream journals that explores the life of a teenage girl in 1970s Nunavut. It’s not her first artistic venture away from music: The 43-year-old is an actor and painter. Oh, and a member of the Order of Canada. She's also earned global headlines for defending the Inuit seal hunt, a vital source of food and clothing, and Split Tooth, while a departure from her music, is entwined with it. Both employ the same themes of the life, dignity, and history of Indigenous people. “Literature has been infected by the long arm of colonialism,” she told the Globe and Mail. Tagaq is part of the antidote.
Photo: Courtesy of Bianca Scarlato.
11. WondaGurl, record producer, Brampton, ON
By the age of 21, WondaGurl (aka Ebony Oshunrinde) has already collaborated with some of the biggest artists in rap. Rihanna, Kanye West, and Drake, to name a few, have all come to the Brampton-born producer for her signature drum beats and silky-smooth synths. Hell, she even produced a track for Jay-Z at the age of 16. She credits YouTube for helping her learn the ropes and the women in her family for laying the foundation: her mom passed along her taste in music, her grandmother gave her a keyboard, and her aunt bought her a computer. “It’s been up-and-down as a woman in the industry — just a lot of people don’t take you seriously,” she told BET earlier this year. Given that she produced two tracks on Travis Scott’s mega-hit, Grammy-nominated album Astroworld this year, it’s about damn time they did.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Heather Pollock.
12. Jessica Platt, hockey player, Sarnia, ON
Last January, Jessica Platt, 29, had an important resolution to see through. Ten days into the New Year, the Toronto Furies defensewoman posted a message on her Instagram feed announcing that she is a transgender woman “fortunate enough to be able to live my life as who I am meant to be as well as follow my passion and play the game I love.” As the first openly trans woman to play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, Platt, who quit hockey as a teenage boy because she felt out of place in the male environment, became an instant icon for LGBTQ athletes who remain vastly underrepresented on rinks, courts, and fields across the country. Her announcement prompted the CWHL to update its rules regarding the participation of transgender athletes. Meanwhile she recently made the move from defense to forward, which feels pretty perf.
Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images.
13. Esi Edugyan, literary superpower, Victoria
Only three writers in Canadian history have twice won the prestigious $100,000 Giller Prize, and Esi Edugyan is one of them, as well as the first Black woman to win Canada’s top literary award. Her latest novel, this year’s Washington Black, not only earned her the Giller but a slew of international accolades, including a nomination for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize and a place on the New York Times10 best books of the year list. Washington Black is an epic work of historical fiction that charts the life of a young Black slave who escapes the cane fields of Barbados to explore the world. Edugyan, who grew up in Alberta and whose parents immigrated from Ghana, has become one of the world’s leading literary observers of race. “Confronting the world as a Black woman is my particular reality,” she told the CBC, “one that informs my work in both obvious and subtle ways.”
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Kayla Rocca.
14. Rupi Kaur, poet, Brampton, ON
Two years ago, Rupi Kaur’s debut poetry collection, milk and honey, beat out the previous all-time bestseller, The Odyssey by Homer, 10-to-1. In 2017, her follow-up volume, the sun and her flowers, debuted at #1. Today the 26-year-old is the uncontested queen of the Insta-poetry movement, which means she’s either the saviour or the ruination of the Bard’s favourite art form, depending on who you ask. Regardless, Kaur’s work — tattoo-friendly, fragmented verses about heartbreak, womanhood, and various forms of millennial angst — has been instrumental in moving poetry from the dusty bowels of bookstores to the buzzy tables up front. Over the summer, Emma Watson tapped milk and honey as her newest feminist book club selection, just the latest in a list of celebrity fans.
Photo: Courtesy of Kelsey Giesbrecht.
15. Taylor Bowman, social media activist, Manitoba
Like a lot of ex-Hedley devotees, 22-year-old Taylor Bowman (whose hometown is undisclosed for security reasons) has her own Jacob Hoggard story. In 2015 she says that the band’s front man grabbed her then-18-year-old butt outside a bar. After talking with other female fans and learning her experience was allegedly far from unique, she decided to take action, tweeting the message: “I believe survivors and will continue to stand with them” along with the hashtag #OutHedley2k18, which has since been used more than 1,000 times. What started as a place for women to share their experiences ultimately provoked the band’s early retirement, a police investigation, and sexual assault charges against Hoggard, who will appear in court on December 19. Who says a hashtag can’t make a difference?
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Adam Coish.
16. Vivek Shraya, gender critic/artist, Calgary
With her breakout bestseller, I’m Afraid of Men, Vivek Shraya has written a galvanizing text of the #MeToo era. In it, the musician, artist, academic, and writer explores her experiences as a trans woman of colour growing up in Canada, many of them painful, in service of a question that implicates us all: What are the costs of patriarchal masculinity, especially for the most marginalized of voices? Shraya, 37, seems driven not only to expose cultural injustice but reverse it: She’s launched an imprint for Arsenal Pulp Press that will also serve as a mentorship opportunity for one young writer of colour. Her next work, a comic book called Death Threat, will be based on the ones she’s received — a renegade’s answer to the risks of challenging gender in 2018.
Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images.
17. Robyn Doolittle, investigative journalist, Toronto
In the age of #MeToo, no journalist has done more to uncover our country’s indifference towards sexual assault than Robyn Doolittle. Doolittle, 34, spent 20 months investigating how 873 police jurisdictions handle sexual assault complaints, and what she found was damning: On average, police deem 1 in 5 accusations of assault to be baseless. Unfounded, the resulting investigative series for the Globe and Mail published this year, shook the criminal justice system. The federal government earmarked $100-million to combat gender-based violence. Law-enforcement agencies are reviewing more than 37,000 cases and many are pledging to revamp their approach to policing sexual violence.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Griffiths Knixwear.
18. Joanna Griffiths, panty pioneer, Toronto
Six years ago, Canada’s most accomplished underweartrepreneur launched Knixwear, with the radical notion of imagining female undergarments through a female gaze: undies that absorb period leaks, bras that provide lift without uncomfy underwire, and real women models in all shapes and sizes. Since then, the anti-Victoria’s Secret brand has become a major player, selling a garment every 10 seconds, with a devoted following on social media. For Joanna Griffiths, 34, supporting her customers is about more than a killer sports bra. Following her own miscarriage earlier this year, she launched a #FacesofFertility campaign, encouraging women to share their stories in the name of busting stigma.
Photo: Courtesy of Kayla Rocca.
19. Julie Buczkowski and Angela Pastor, stylists to the stars, Toronto
The Fitzroy began as a seasonal pop-up boutique, but when regular customers started “borrowing” their designer dresses, the BFF business partners realized their destiny was in short-term shopping ops. These days they are turning rent-a-frock into the hottest fashion trend, shipping pieces for the Grammys, the Oscars, and outfitting Toronto’s glitter girls for all the big galas, where “Find a Fitzroy” is the new Where’s Waldo. Clients, including Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy, save cash and closet space, while supporting sustainability and scoring access to rare finds by Rachel Zoe and For Love & Lemons. For winter they’re adding (faux) fur outerwear to their stock — because the perfect dress requires a Meghan Markle–worthy power coat.
Photo: Mark Horton/Getty Images.
20. Celina Caesar-Chavannes, politician, Ottawa
To those inclined to lump white privilege and systemic racism in with magic beans and the Easter Bunny, the MP from Whitby, ON, has proven a powerful and irrepressible foe, unafraid to talk about our country’s very real racial inequalities, even if it gets her labelled a self-serving racist in her own right (yes, seriously). But if her tendency towards telling it like it is has summoned some extreme internet vitriol, Celina Caesar-Chavannes has also earned the respect and admiration of hundreds of Canadians who got behind the #HereForCelina hashtag following her Twitter smack down with the alt-right’s new golden boy Maxime Bernier, a group that included PM Justin Trudeau.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Adam Moco.
21. Jen Lee Koss, retailer/philanthropist, Toronto
If you’re a Canadian arts institution in need of a little extra scratch, look no further than the preposterously well-connected gala whisperer, Jen Lee Koss. The founder of Brika (an odds-defying online artisanal boutique that became so popular it opened a brick-and-mortar shop) and close personal friend/former roommate of Chelsea Clinton has spearheaded two substantial 2018 fundraising efforts: crowd-sourcing $100,000 towards a permanent Kusama exhibit at the AGO, and bringing in $2-million for the National Ballet, as co-chair of this year’s Mad Hot Gala. Speaking of mad hot, she is also married to a former Olympic speed skater.
Photo: Courtesy of Jason Le Cras.
22. Dr. Jen Gunter, vagina doctor/Paltrow dissenter, San Francisco
Since first calling out Goop on vaginal steaming back in 2015, Winnipeg-bred, San Fran-based OBGYN Jen Gunter, 52, has emerged as the loudest, smartest, and most hilarious voice of the celebrity pseudo-science resistance — known for her fondness of fact-based medicine and four-letter words. Earlier this year when Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop agreed to pay a $145,000 USD settlement based on “misleading” information around the efficacy of jade hoo-ha eggs, Gunter would have been justified in a few self-congratulatory fist pumps. Instead she produced a peer-reviewed paper on the same topic. XOXO, Science.
Photo: Vanessa Heins.
23. Lauren Toyota, vegan evangelist, Toronto
Championing recipes like dairy-free nacho cheese sauce and Southern fried cauliflower, the 36-year-old host of the hot for food YouTube channel is fighting back against the notion that vegans are a bunch of health-obsessed killjoys and doing for plant-based diets what Gordon Ramsay did for four-letter words. Lauren Toyota’s new cookbook Vegan Comfort Classics hit the bestseller list earlier this year, and last month she headlined the first-ever Vegan Sweets Con in Long Beach, CA. Because in health and wellness-obsessed La La Land, Canada’s vegan queen is next-level cool.
Advertisement
Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage.
24. Hayley Wickenheiser, NHL coach, Calgary, AB
Hayley Wickenheiser has gone from crushing the competition to breaking up the brass as the new assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The four-time Olympic medal winner isn’t the first woman to be part of an NHL coaching staff, but her strategic role makes her the first in a position that could eventually lead to head coaching duties. And it’s not just on home turf where Wickenheiser is promoting diversity and inclusion in Canada’s good old game: A month after the Pyeongchang Olympics she travelled to North Korea to work with the nation’s newly amalgamated women’s hockey team. And just last month, India’s first-ever female team came to Alberta to participate in the annual Wickfest women’s hockey charity tournament.
Photo: Shannon VanRaes/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
25. Viola Desmond, civil rights icon, Halifax
Her career — providing cosmetics and hair products to women of colour — was an important statement on gender and racial equality. But it was her refusal to leave the “whites only” section of a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre in 1946 that turned the successful entrepreneur into a civil rights icon — one who got her due this year as the first-ever female face on a regularly distributed Canadian currency (the Queen notwithstanding). Often referred to as Canada’s “Rosa Parks” based on the similar narratives, it’s worth noting that Desmond’s “I’m not going anywhere” moment happened nine years before the famous American bus protest, which means (with all due respect), Parks is America’s Viola Desmond.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Mark Sommerfeld.
26. Rebecca Belmore, visual artist, Toronto
To say Rebecca Belmore’s work gets to the injustice at the heart of Canada would be an understatement. The 58-year-old has built a dual reputation over decades as one of the country’s most celebrated visual artists and one of our most potent moral compasses. This year marked another career peak with Facing the Monumental, a powerful 30-year retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Belmore’s installations are sensuous, unnerving, and uncompromising: She wrapped an Indigenous woman in brown paper at Queen's Park to represent the effect of colonization; created a largescale waterfall installation, onto which a video of her splashing the camera with blood is projected; and, perhaps most famously, built sister installations where people must either speak to, or crouch down and listen to, the Canadian landscape. Belmore employs aesthetic beauty to examine violence against women and Indigenous people, land rights, water rights, and her own identity. “As an Indigenous woman, people don’t think I know what I’m doing,” she recently told Canadian Art. Her body of work proves them criminally wrong.
Photo: Courtesy of Louisa Nicolaou.
27. Devin Connell, food influencer, Toronto
When people refer to Devin Connell as Canada’s Gwyneth Paltrow it’s not because of her easy-chic wardrobe or her beachy blond waves — though the whole effortlessly elegant thing doesn’t hurt. With her newly launched food and lifestyle brand, Crumb, the 36-year-old restaurateur and Toronto food-scene scion (her parents are Ace Bakery) is poised for Goop-like supremacy, though she’s more accessible recipes and restaurant tips than sex dust and vagina eggs. A mom of two, Connell is passionate about bringing fun and spontaneity into the kitchen, and Crumb is an unfussed (but Insta-worthy) celebration of food and eating. High-profile fans like Claire Danes and Daphne Oz are taking notice. With a Crumb cookbook coming out next year and plans to delve into e-commerce, the future is looking Lark-filter bright.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Devon Little.
28. Charlotte Day Wilson, musician, Toronto
The video for Charlotte Day Wilson’s soulful single “Work” is a powerful representation of inclusiveness. It features just one shot of a diverse group of women, gender queer, and transgender individuals riding down an escalator, one in a “The Future Is Female” top. Identifying as queer, 25-year-old Wilson is already an advocate for young women breaking into music, and speaks out about the industry’s “boys club.” After the video for “Work” won the 2018 Prism Prize, Wilson put her money where her mouth is and announced she was using her winnings to create a $10,000 grant program for emerging female and gender non-binary music video directors. And in February, Wilson dropped her self-produced second EP, Stone Woman, without a label, making it clear that her voice has only begun making waves.
Photo: Courtesy of Asalah Youssef.
29. Alia Youssef, photographer, Toronto
For her thesis project, 23-year-old Ryerson photography student Alia Youseff set out to combat what she calls “invisible representation,” wherein the dominant image of Muslim women in the mainstream (the voiceless, oppressed, hijab-wearing stereotype) becomes a damaging visual shorthand for all members of the community. “The Sisters Project” is a series of 180 portraits of Muslim women from across the country: a flag football coach from Quebec, a cop from Ottawa, a mental health professional from Victoria. The images — 16 of which were recently exhibited at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto — are shot horizontally to highlight the diverse environments in which the subjects feel at home and are accompanied by a short Q&A, in which the subjects name their proudest accomplishment. For the photography student from Toronto, the answer feels obvious.

More from Entertainment