If this is your first time reading 29 Powerhouses, our annual celebration of trailblazers and game-changers, here’s a quick refresher: 29 Powerhouses is not a ranking. Nor is it a worthy-under-30 list (because great things can happen after 29). It’s also not a definitive list of the only people making change across the country.
Illustrated by Ashley Floréal
The longtime TV host entered politics barely more than a year ago, compelled to further the work she’d been doing for years. “It's one thing to scream from the mountaintops, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she told Refinery29 last year. “It's another thing to be at a larger table that puts programs and laws in place, and be at that table to tell my story, and tell our stories.” Her 2020 victory made her the sole Black woman MP in the House of Commons; now she’s fast tracked a path into the PM’s cabinet. As Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, Ien will play a key role in setting Canada’s COVID recovery plan, supporting women (and racialized women in particular) who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Her new portfolio also includes the LGBTQ2+ community. Not one to be satisfied with the status quo, Ien was quick to call out her party, the Liberals, on its lack of follow-through when it came to ending the ban on blood donation for gay men. She also plans to address the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence (way up since March 2020) by focusing on perpetrators rather than blaming victims.
Photo: Courtesy of Sgt Mathieu St-Amour, Rideau Hall
Mary May Simon figured she was one of many GG candidates on the shortlist when the government kept calling her about the role. Lucky for us, she was the top candidate and in July, became Canada’s first Inuk Governor General. It’s always tough to be a first, but Simon is up for the challenge, seeing herself as a bridge between the government and Indigenous communities, and ensuring that reconciliation is always a priority. She’s bringing a sense of purpose and change to a role that, until now, has felt, at best, ceremonial and, at worst, superfluous. "My view is that reconciliation is a way of life and requires work every day," Simon emphasized in her installation speech. “I will strive to build bridges across the diverse backgrounds and cultures that reflect our great country’s uniqueness and promise.” She reiterated that during her Speech from the Throne in November, starting with a land acknowledgement that she emphasized was “not a symbolic declaration” but our true history.
Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Ross
When she won her seventh medal in Tokyo last summer, Penny Oleksiak became the most-decorated Olympic athlete in Canadian history. Impressive — obvs — but the 21-year-old’s performance outside of the pool was just as wave-making. Speaking honestly about her struggles (both physical and emotional), Oleksiak joined fellow phenoms like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles in highlighting the pressure of expectation on young women in sports. Her secret (along with taking a break when she needs one) has been leaning — sometimes literally — on the women in her corner. “Trust me at the top it isn’t lonely,” she tweeted after the record-breaking finish that, fittingly, occurred in the 4x100 women’s relay.
Chief Rosanne Casimir
Illustrated by Pernia Jamshed
Last month, Chief Rosanne Casimir was re-elected to a second three-year term as Chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, no big surprise after she led her community through mourning the horrific revelations of this past spring. In May, she found herself in the national spotlight, after survey work led by her First Nation discovered 215 unmarked graves at the former residential school in nearby Kamloops B.C. In September she didn’t mince words, calling out Justin Trudeau for his decision to take a family trip to Tofino rather than attending a ceremony to commemorate the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. When the PM did show up a few weeks later she refused to let him off the hook, using Trudeau’s mea culpa moment as a chance to call for more federal assistance in identifying the missing and supporting survivors.
Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Whiteside/Netflix
It’s always a Sandra Oh year. Since starring as the delightfully cynical Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy (not to mention her iconic role as VP Gupta in The Princess Diaries), Oh has constantly turned out A+ performance after A+ performance. In 2021, she charmed us both in front of and behind the camera, executive producing and starring in Netflix’s The Chair, about a university English chair who bears the burden (and glass cliff) of being the school’s first woman and woman of colour in the role. Off-screen, the Golden Globe-winning Killing Eve star — who turned 50 this year — used her platform to speak out against a rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, giving an impassioned speech at a Pennsylvania protest and urging people to show up for the Asian community. "I will challenge everyone here, if you see something, will you help me? If you see one of our sisters and brothers in need, will you help us?"
Photo: Courtesy of Sabrina Craig
If you are a Canadian who found your way through the super-frustrating, deeply demoralizing, occasionally soul-crushing process of getting vaccinated, there’s a good chance you have Craig and her crew of fellow Vaccine Hunters Canada to thank. At a time when politicians and public-health officials didn’t seem to know their asses from their Astrazeneca, the group of internet savvy do-gooders joined forces to track availability, share apolitical, factual info, and tweet out their findings to 250K followers. The only woman on VHC’s founding team, Craig’s day job (she works in finance on Bay Street) made her a natural fit for the director role, liaising with pharmacies and doctors to get the inside scoop on supply. Vaccine Hunters estimates its efforts were responsible for 1.2 million jabs in arms — super impressive but also super modest. Along with booking individual appointments, their work sent a much-needed signal that victory (read: vaccination!) was possible. And now they’re coming out of retirement to help parents book vaxxes for their kids.
Photo: Courtesy of Jason Leduc
Don’t call her Canada’s Greta Thunberg. While 14-year-old Sophia Mathur probably definitely has the fellow teen climate activist’s number, she’s making her name all her own. She has the boasting rights of being the first student outside of Europe to host #FridaysForFuture climate strikes and she also convinced her city council to declare a climate emergency. This fall, the Sudbury-based high-schooler attended her first COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. She’s one of six global climate activists included in a documentary that played there, is co-suing the Ontario government for lowering its climate targets, and is among the 25 youths named to Action For Nature’s 2021 International Young Eco-Hero. And she won’t stop until she saves the world. “We’re going to continue to protest. And we’re going to continue to spread the word about what’s happening and tell them we still want action,” she told Green Energy Futures.
Illustrated by Sara Tanner
When he was nine, Elliot Page cut his long hair short and “felt like a boy,” Page told TIME Magazine this past March. When he was 34, he cut it again, reclaiming his true self for keeps. Last December, the star of Juno, Hard Candy, and Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, shared that he is transgender, speaking to his over five-million social media followers in a heartfelt Instagram post, thanking those who paved the way for him and promising to do the same for others. Since coming out, Page has advocated against anti-trans bills in U.S. states like Florida, Texas, and Alabama that bar transgender youth from playing on sports teams, and going into public washrooms, and even accessing gender-affirming health care. Next up? Season three of The Umbrella Academy, coming next spring. “I’m really excited to act, now that I’m fully who I am, in this body,” Page told TIME. “No matter the challenges and difficult moments of this, nothing amounts to getting to feel how I feel now.”
Photo: Courtesy of Savannah Ré
If she’s not already on your Spotify playlist, it’s time to subscribe to Savannah Ré. Born in Montreal and raised in Scarborough, ON, Ré is bringing a new sound to R&B and 2021 was her year of validation. In June, she became a first-time JUNO award winner when she received the Traditional R&B/Soul Recording of the Year prize for her intimate song “Solid” from her first EP Opia and made Canadian music history as the first artist to ever receive this trophy. (This year, the R&B category was split into traditional and contemporary awards; Ré was nominated for both.) Her music is not only silky smooth, she’s also a fire songwriter having penned tracks with artists like Normani and Daniel Caesar. Oh, and did we mention she’s mentored by Grammy Award-winning producer Boi-1da? Check out her latest single, “24hrs” on all major streaming platforms, and if you’re a music video nerd, you’ll want to peep her ethereal acoustic performance on YouTube.
Photo: Courtesy of Sadie-Phoenix
In 2019, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq made history as one of the youngest MPs elected in Canada, breaking barriers, and opening conversations around youth suicide, safe housing, and clean water in the north. This year, she did something equally as groundbreaking: She chose herself. In a mic-drop moment in June, Qaqqaq — who spoke to Refinery29 in February about her burnout and the racism she experienced in Parliament — announced she wouldn’t be seeking re-election, and called out Canada’s racist past and present in a scathing 10-minute speech. The next month, the NDP MP for Nunavut, along with fellow MP Charlie Angus, organized a protest calling for an independent investigation into Canada’s residential schools. Now that she’s no longer in the House, the 28-year-old is focusing on herself and reframing the Mumilaaq people have come to know — on her own terms. “I want to be Mumilaaq the person that wants and has human needs, which are genuine connection and interaction. And you can't find that very much in politics,” she told CBC.
The Western Walkout Committee
Photo: Courtesy of Paula Gomez Ocampo
The whispers first circulated on TikTok: stories about the drugging and assaults of more than a dozen women students at Medway-Sydenham Hall residence during Western University's orientation week. The incident was terrifying, but also just the latest example of sexual violence at a school where a so-called “party” reputation has facilitated rape culture on campus for far too long. The 20 student founders of the Safe Campus Coalition connected on social media and came together to demand change. They chose a walkout because it seemed like the best way to get attention and hoped they might get 500 or maybe 1,000 people to join them. Instead, the event drew 10,000 survivors and allies, dressed in teal (the colour of sexual assault awareness) to form what looked like an actual tidal wave of resistance. Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh, and Andrea Horwath were just some of the high-profile Canadians who shared their support, while other Ontario universities staged marches of support. Since the walkout, the administration has introduced new safety measures, including mandatory sexual violence training for all students and faculty. It's not enough, but pressure isn't letting up and the movement is only growing.
Photo: Courtesy of Sasha Ruddock
From waitressing to winning $100,000 this year for her size-inclusive brand, Flaws of Couture, Sasha Ruddock is HUSTLING. The Toronto-born, Brampton, ON-based designer took home the grand prize at the SHEIN x 100K Challenge this summer, beating out 30 emerging fashion designers from around the world. Ruddock, who was mentored by Khloé Kardashian, designed a complete collection, which included wide-leg pants, a cut-out mesh top, and this colour-blocked statement coat we’re obsessed with. With not one but two lines now available at SHEIN, along with her designs available at Flaws of Couture, Ruddock, 31, is just getting started. When she’s not cheffin it up with her dad on her YouTube channel Deddy’s Kitchen, she’s determined to make the future of fashion more diverse and she’s taking other Canadian emerging creatives along for the ride. “I want to be able to help and really invest in the people who are doing it on their own. And all they need is a little bit of cash to really get that ball rolling,” she told us in October.
Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Wood Photography
“I am a first, and as a first you’re accustomed to fighting,” Annamie Paul told the Toronto Star when she became leader of the Green Party of Canada in 2020. And fight she did — through racism and in-fighting both in her party and from her fellow candidates in this fall’s federal election. She handily won the English-language leaders’ debate: outlining the Greens’ platform calmly and eloquently, thanking the strong women who came before her, and shutting down Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet. She also put politics aside when required, calling for a non-partisan plan to fight climate change. In other words, she gave Canadians a glimpse of a leader we can only hope to have one day. That day won’t be anytime soon, unfortunately. Last month, Paul resigned. “I look forward to serving in new ways,” she tweeted. We can’t wait to see what she does next.
Illustrated by Neha Ray
Actor and playwright Bilal Baig grew up watching Bollywood movies, more familiar with the talents of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol than, say, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. But that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the weight of what it means to see themselves reflected on screen. This year, Baig made history as the first South Asian, queer Muslim actor to star in a Canadian primetime series, with their CBC show Sort Of. (Which was just picked up stateside by HBO Max, btw.) Sort Of’s gender-fluid, South Asian millennial lead Sabi is a big deal for representation, but so is the fact that there’s just as much a diversity of experiences behind the scenes, with Baig co-creating and writing the show. It’s part of what makes Sabi — and their messy, relatable experiences in love and life — so authentic. "I dream about collaboration where I don't have to explain certain things because we will all arrive getting it,” Baig said of diversity during a talk with Didihood. “And I think we're getting there.”
Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Emberley
Devery Jacobs has described herself as “just a kid from the rez who decided to go for it.” The 28-year-old from Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory is breaking boundaries along the way, most notably as Elora Danan on the hit Hulu show Reservation Dogs, which showcases Indigenous life as it is — without resorting to stereotype or trauma porn. The starring role garnered Jacobs a Gotham Award nomination for Outstanding Performance in a New Series and over 200K followers on Instagram and Twitter. And while she hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy — yet — she did present at this year’s ceremony, wearing a dress by fellow former Powerhouse Lesley Hampton. Next up, the actor, filmmaker, and Refinery29 contributor will be working both in front of and behind the camera and as a writer on season 2 of Reservation Dogs, joining an all-Indigenous writer’s room, and has three movies in the works. (FYI, this is your sign to just go for it...whatever it is.)
Photo: Courtesy of Jimmy Fontaine
Born in Morocco and raised in Carmen, Man., Faouzia has been working for this moment her whole life. She learned to play the violin, piano, and guitar as a child and started writing her own songs at the age of six. At 15, she started sharing covers of famous songs on her YouTube channel. And today, at 21, she’s living her best life as an international popstar while also studying engineering at the University of Manitoba. Talk about balance. In January, the music video for her 2020 duet “Minefields” with John Legend dropped; it earned her over 100 million streams and topped the global charts. Her musical style is influenced by Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga, along with Middle-Eastern voices, and her fashion style makes just as much as a statement (she was also named one of Chanel’s newest ambassadors, NBD.) She’s currently working on her debut album. Until then, check out her episode of Refinery29’s Spill It.
Photo: Courtesy of Kate Whyte
Imagine having Kourtney Kardashian as a fan. For 28-year-old Vancouver-based Nisha Grewal, that’s just business as usual. Her skin-care brand, Ambari Beauty, which is inspired by her Indian upbringing, promises cosmetics skin-care-level results from the comfort of your own vanity and has the celeb signoff from Kardashian’s lifestyle brand, Poosh. In an industry that’s saturated with products, what sets Grewal’s brand apart is her formula. Dubbed The Modern Blend, it combines high levels of AHAs and PHAs to exfoliate, adaptogens from mushrooms to help protect from environmental stressors, and CBD. As of this year, Ambari Beauty, (which has been featured in Forbes), is valued at $24 million and is stocked at luxury retailers Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and — for the holidays — at Saks Fifth Avenue. For 2022, Grewal is planning to expand her line to include daytime products. Our faces can’t wait.
Photo: Courtesy of Canada Soccer
Adele. Zendaya. Quinn. The Canadian soccer player joined the mononymous major leagues this year. The one-named midfielder from Toronto played a crucial role in Team Canada’s Olympic run in Tokyo, helping lead the team to clinch the country’s first gold for women’s soccer after a chew-your-nails-off final against Sweden. They are also the first openly transgender and non-binary athlete to medal at the Olympics and among the first to even compete. “The fight isn’t close to over… and I’ll celebrate when we’re all here,” they said on Instagram. And they’ve been putting in the work since. Quinn is an ambassador for non-profit organization Athlete Ally, which fights for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ athletes in sports, and, along with the rest of Team Canada, has spoken out against the culture of abuse in women’s soccer.
Photo: Courtesy of Erin Novakowski
She’ll probably troll us for putting her on this list and, well, it’s not like we weren’t warned. Under her handle @wheelierin, the 19-year-old, Calgary-based TikToker has made it super clear: She is not here to be anybody’s inspiration porn, i.e. after-school-special-style feel-goodery intended to make able-bodied people feel warm and fuzzy. Instead she posts funny, frequently crude content about living with spinal muscular atrophy alongside makeup tutorials and unapologetic thirst traps. Always speaking to her disabled audience first, her most-popular videos include calling out the stupid shit she hears from ableist society. And, yes, her clapbacks are as fierce as her eyeliner.
Tika The Iggy
Photo: Courtesy of Tika The Iggy
In 2021, joy on the TL came in the form of an Italian greyhound. Tika The Iggy, is more fashionable than us — and celebrities like Lizzo, Jennifer Aniston, and Priyanka Chopra are obsessed. After the viral “loved it, couldn’t wear it” video (which Sofia Vergara recreated) came out at the end of last year, the Montreal-based fashion dog hit 1.7 million followers on TikTok and has since been featured in Vogue, made her virtual “Paris Fashion Week debut,” and was even a guest on The Drew Barrymore Show. She also had a red carpet moment most of us could only dream of when fashion designer Christian Siriano made her a custom purple tulle gown for the Oscars. As a self-proclaimed gay icon, she’s using her internet fame to give back to the LGBTQ+ community as an ambassador for Rainbow Railroad. All of this and she still manages to get 22 hours of beauty rest a day!
Photo: Courtesy of Karolina Turek
Malia Baker grew up surrounded by whiteness so she knows what it’s like to not see yourself represented at school, on the playground, or on TV. That’s one of the reasons why she was so drawn to the role of Mary Anne Spier in The Baby-Sitters Club reboot. “I feel like now there are a lot of young BIPOC girls who can now look at us and say, ‘oh, she acts like me and she looks like me,” she told Refinery29 earlier this year of the show, which is now in its second season. But her activism doesn’t end on-screen. Baker is using her platform IRL too, including speaking at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Vancouver. Last April, the 14-year-old (yes, she’s only 14!) launched @hashtagsand alongside her mom. The IG account provides young people with the tools to get involved with social issues beyond just using hashtags and black squares on social media. Mary Anne could never.
Photo: Courtesy of Rechie Valdez
Canada’s first Filipina MP might be one of the newest members sitting in the House, but you’ve seen her face before. Prior to cooking up change in Parliament, the rookie politician was a banker and the host of the TV show Fearlessly Creative. She’s also a self-taught baker, competed on Food Network Canada’s competition series The Big Bake, and ran her own bakery Chietopia, in Mississauga-Streetsville, the riding she now represents. Top of mind for the multi-hyphenate MP in 2022 is housing affordability and climate change. And she’s bringing the same energy and enthusiasm to her constituents’ needs that she brought to her side hustles. “I’ve gone through so much transition and change,” she told CTV News. “I've pivoted from corporate banking to owning a small business, so this is no different.”
Erica Ifill and Erin Gee
Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade
Erica Ifill and Erin Gee have been doing the work. Before the pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd, and before white people woke the hell up to the realities of racism globally, Ifill and Gee were having some of the only conversations around race in Canadian media, writing about politics from an intersectional perspective, and just generally pushing against the status quo with their Bad + Bitchy podcast. During the 2021 federal election, their coverage was the sole bright spot in a sea of political sameness. And in 2020, they also built on their brand, with Ifill launching a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) company (think your smart BFF who tells it like it is — and always knows best) that uses training to help businesses and organizations become more equitable and inclusive in order to build what they call "The New Normal," in workspaces.
Illustrated by Jesseca Buizon
On a Saturday afternoon in early September, Canada was collectively glued to our screens watching Leylah Fernandez take on Brit Emma Raducanu in the 2021 U.S. Open final. For those of us who’d just hopped on the tennis bandwagon, the 19-year-old phenom from Montreal seemingly came out of nowhere, but she’d been hustling toward this moment since she was five, coached by her soccer-player dad. Fernandez may not have taken home the $2.5 million USD prize money that day, but it’s pretty clear that she won Canada's heart (sorry, we had to do it) and has a long career ahead: After climbing to a ranking of number 24 in the world this year, Fernandez is back at work training for the Australian Open in January 2022. We’ll definitely be watching.
Photo: Courtesy of THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kayle Neis
Debbie Baptiste is a name that we shouldn’t know. If we didn’t know her name, it would mean her son, Colten Boushie, was still alive, and that she wouldn’t know what it feels like to be dehumanized by the people and systems meant to protect her in her most devastating moment. But she does. Five years after her son was shot and killed in Saskatchewan by Gerald Stanley (Stanley was found not-guilty of second-degree murder), Baptiste continues to fight for change in the justice system, calling for an apology from the RCMP for its racist mistreatment of her in the aftermath of her son’s death, as well as its handling of the investigation into his shooting. Last March, the Civilian and Review Complaints Commission ruled that Baptiste had faced racial discrimination when RCMP officers informed her of her son’s death. Still, Baptiste continues the fight for an apology. Only then can she start her own healing.
Photo: Courtesy of Elene Lam
Last March, a white man killed six Asian women in Atlanta-area massage parlours, a horrific punctuation point in a pandemic year that saw a rise in anti-Asian hate. Across the world, people were heartbroken. Elene Lam was one of them, but she wasn’t shocked. The founder and executive director of Butterfly, a Toronto-based grassroots group that advocates for Asian and migrant sex workers, she’s been working since 2014 to combat this violence — one that all sex workers, but especially racialized minorities who may be fearful of deportation, are susceptible. “We know that this is not a faraway problem. This also happens in Canada,” the PhD candidate at McMaster University’s School of Social Work, said in a recent interview.
Photo: Courtesy of Sam Howden
At some point in the next few months the institution formerly known as Ryerson will have a new name. Until then though, it’s known as X University — a placeholder, yes, but also a powerful denunciation that came about thanks to the efforts of Sam Howden and their fellow student activists. In March, they co-founded Wreckonciliation, an Indigenous-led student group intent on reframing the debate around the school’s colonial history in general and problematic namesake in particular. Their position — that the renaming could not be a question of “if,” but how and when — was supported by thousands of students and faculty. When 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children were discovered in Kamloops B.C. a few weeks later, Howden and her team hosted a sit-in at the foot of the Ryerson statue, which has since been toppled. (If only legacies of colonialism and genocide were as easy to dismantle.)
Photo: Courtesy of Lise Birikundavyi
As the first Black woman to lead a venture capital fund in Canada, Lise Birikundavyi is poised to upend Bay Street’s rich white guy paradigm. The $10 million dollar Black Innovation Fund will invest in tech companies founded by Black entrepreneurs — a group that faces significant barriers when it comes to raising capital and mentorship opportunities. Before this latest venture, Montreal-raised, Toronto-based Birikundavyi spent several years living and working in West Africa where she witnessed the impact of economic empowerment — creating wealth that can be reinvested in underserved communities.
Photo: Courtesy of Samantha Yammine
We could tell you that Samantha Yammine has a gift for conveying complicated, academic information in super-relatable terms. Or you could just watch the TikTok where she explains the long-term safety of vaccines using a hangover analogy (viewed more than 650K times across channels). Or the one where she dunks on a Guelph University prof spreading lies about vaccines and toxicity. Yammine, a neuroscientist, started her account before the pandemic with no idea that her passion for science communication would turn her into a must-follow. With reels devoted to popular and/or particularly thorny topics (Delta, fertility, blood clots), @ScienceSam never misses an opportunity to educate the public. That included overcoming her needle phobia to get her vax on camera (while singing Beyoncé).
Chief Rosanne Casimir
The Western Walkout Committee
Tika The Iggy
Erica Ifill and Erin Gee
WRITTEN BY: Nadia Ebrahim, Katherine Singh, Courtney Shea & Kelly Boutsalis
ILLUSTRATIONS: Ashley Floreal; Pernia Jamshed; Sara Tanner; Neha Ray; Jesseca Buizon. ART DIRECTION: Yazmin Bucther; DESIGN: Yazmin Butcher; Built by R29 Product & Engineering.