Who is The Greatest Canadian? CBC viewers respond

On April 5, 2004 the polls opened for Canadians to nominate their choice for the man or woman they felt was the best Canadian in history. On October 17 of the same year, CBC announced the results. The top 40 Canadians were counted down in order, followed by a revealation of the top 10.

Unlike the other 40, the popular vote rankings of the top ten Canadians were not revealed on October 17th. The CBC wanted to string out the special by another month so they made us all vote a second time over the course of many weeks and many more specials.

Finally, on November 29 they held the 12th and final Greatest Canadian special to reveal the rankings of the top then.


inventor activist hockey player
politician actor musician
military figure author TV personality

rank Name Profession / reputation Died
Tommy Douglas NDP leader, "founder" of Canadian healthcare system 1986
Terry Fox Cancer activist who died during an attempted cross-country marathon 1981
Pierre Trudeau Liberal Prime Minister of the 70's and 80's 2000
Dr. Frederick Banting inventor of Insulin 1941
David Suzuki CBC nature show host, environmentalist
Lester Pearson Prime Minister, "founder" of modern peacekeeping 1972
Don Cherry CBC hockey commentator
Sir John A. MacDonald Canada's first Prime Minister 1891
Alexander Graham Bell purported inventor of the telephone 1922
Wayne Gretzky hockey player

Here's some interesting statistics for you on the top 10. Three of the top ten (MacDonald, Douglas, and Bell) were born in Scotland. Alexander Graham Bell's status as a Canadian is very debatable, as he only lived a brief portion of his life in Canada, never becoming a permanent resident. His face appears on the Scottish money and it says "citizen of the USA" on his tombstone. I strongly doubt he ever considered himself "Canadian."

Three of the ten are still living. Of the seven dead, four have died in the last 35 years, with three of the four dying in the last 18 years, which means half of the top ten have been alive within my lifetime. John A. is the only member of the list who died in the 19th Century.

The top ten seems to reaffirm the "conventional wisdom" regarding the three things Canadians supposedly love the most. Healthcare, peacekeeping, and the CBC are routinely listed as Canada's proudest accomplishments, and the top ten includes the leading representatives of all three.

Now for the top 50:

rank Name Profession / reputation Died
11 Louis Riel executed Metis rebel leader and politician 1885
12 Jean Vanier founder of international charity for mentally retarded children
13 "Stompin' Tom" Connors country singer
14 Neil Young musician
15 Peter Gzowski radio talk show host 2002
16 Gen. Roméo Dallaire UN Commander of failed peacekeeping mission in Rwanda
17 Stephen Lewis former Ontario NDP leader, poverty activist
18 Shania Twain singer
19 Bobby Orr hockey player
20 Mike Myers comedic actor
21 "The Unknown Soldier" symbolic dead World War I soldier
22 Harold A. Rogers founder of Kin Canada, a secret men's society *.
23 Maurice Richard hockey player 2000
24 Gen. Arthur Currie WWI general, first to independently command Canadian troops 1933
25 Nellie McClung feminist politician, fought for women's suffrage 1951
26 Dr. Norman Bethune Communist surgeon who served in Mao's Red Army 1939
27 Céline Dion singer
28 Sir Isaac Brock British General in War of 1812 1812
29 Jim Carrey comedic actor
30 Rick Hansen parapalegic activist who did a global marathon in his wheelchair
31 Pierre Berton author, historian, CBC host
32 Michael J. Fox comedic actor
33 Gordon Lightfoot musician
34 Hal Anderson DJ from Winnipeg radio station *.
35 Laura Secord British heronie from War of 1812, chocolate company founder 1868
36 "Mr. Dressup" Children's TV show host on CBC 2001
37 Tecumseh Native American leader who led Indian forces against the US in War of 1812 1813
38 Mario Lemieux hockey player
39 Bret "The Hitman" Hart WWF wrestler
40 Avril Lavigne singer
41 John Candy comedic actor 1994
42 Sir Sandford Fleming inventor of universial time zones 1915
43 Wilfrid Laurier First French-Canadian Prime Minister 1919
44 Mary Maxwell Bahai' religious activist, wife of Bahai' leader*.
45 Jean Chrétien recent Prime Minister  
46 Leonard Cohen singer
47 John Diefenbaker Conservative Prime Minister from the 50's 1979
48 Billy Bishop World War I fighter pilot 1956
49 Mackenzie King War War II-era Prime Minister 1950
50 Rick Mercer comedian, actor, CBC TV host

* three of the above top 50 Canadians won their spots as the result of carefully orchestrated mass e-mailing campaigns amongst their followers. No one has ever heard of Harold Rogers, Hal Anderson, or Mary Maxwell before, and I don't consider them legitimate members of this list any more than I would consider "Principal McDurmon Sucks!" a legitimate candidate in a student council election. As a result, I'm excluding them from my tallies.

Some interesting observations:

48% of the top 50 Canadians are still alive.

There are only four women in the top 50, and three of them are pop stars. There are only three non-whites. Avril Lavigne is by far the youngest living member of the list.

"Stompin' Tom" Connors is considered to be in the elite top 15% of great Canadians, and is more popular than the unknown soldier and five prime ministers.

Almost all of the movie stars and singers listed no longer live in Canada. Many of them now have American citizenship, in fact. Many more of the above can similarly not be really be considered "Canadians," as they lived long before Canada ever became a nation, let alone before Canadian citizenship was created. As much as many Canadians would like to pretend otherwise, the 1812 war was not a Canadian war, and the leading players were not Canadians. Laura Secord and Sir Isaac Brock were both staunch British loyalists and would never have considered themselves as anything else. The Indian leader Tecumseh didn't even live on Canadian soil. Apparently simply opposing the US in a war makes you an instant Canadian in our minds. That says a lot about the Canadian identity.

Alright. So of the top 50, the totals are:

inventors (3) activists (4) hockey players (3)
politicians (9) actors / TV figures (8) musicians (7)
military figures (7) authors (1) radio personalities (1)

I counted Pierre Burton as an author, but considering he spent about as much time on CBC as he did writing books, it may be more fair to count him as TV personality. If that was the case then TV personalities and actors comprise the majority of popular Canadians, followed by politicians, with military figures and musicians tied for third place.

Seven of the nine politicians are Prime Ministers. Chretien was the only living PM chosen.

All of the actors are comedians, which I suppose is consistent with Canada's self-proclaimed status as the world's funniest nation.

Interestingly enough, five of the 50 are affiliated with the CBC in some way. The number expands if you count the actors who had brief roles on CBC programs of the past, ie: John Candy.

But how about the rest of the list, the people that CBC didn't include in the TV special? CBC revealed the next 50 greatest Canadians on their website the day after.

I needed to create some new categories for this one:

athlete astronaut artist geologist / surveyor


rank Name Profession / reputation Died
51 Pamela Anderson actress
52 Craig Kielburger Teenage human-rights activist
53 Gordie Howe hockey player
54 William "Intrepid" Stephenson British spy during World War II 1989
55 Glenn Gould pianist 1982
56 William Shatner actor
57 Lucy Maud Montgomery author of "Anne of Green Gables" series 1942
58 Paul Henderson hocky player, scored winning goal against USSR in 1972
59 Tim Horton hockey player, founder of donut shop chain 1974
60 Stan Rogers folk singer 1983
61 William Edmond Logan early Canadian geologist 1875
62 Marshall McLuhan professor of media studies 1980
63 Roberta Bondar first Canadian woman in space
64 Brian Mulroney Conservative Prime Minister
65 Burton Cummings Rock musician, lead singer of "The Guess Who"
66 Sheila Fraser current Auditor General of Canada. In 2002, she blew the whistle on high-profile money laundering scandal within current Liberal government.
67 Patrick Roy hockey player
68 Jean Béliveau hockey player
69 René Lévesque First separatist Premier of Quebec 1987
70 James Naismith inventor of basketball 1939
71 Margaret Atwood feminist author  
72 Anne C. Cools first black woman appointed to the Senate of Canada  
73 David Thompson map-maker, explorer 1857
74 Emily Murphy judge, argued women had the right to be appointed as senators 1933
75 Sarah McLachlan musician
76 John McCrae World War I military surgeon, wrote "In Flander's Fields" 1918
77 Dr. Charles Best scientist, partner of Frederick Banting 1978
78 Robert Munsch children's author
79 Ed Belfour hockey player
70 "Chief" Dan George Native American actor 1981
81 Sandra Schmirler gold-medal winning curler
82 Dan Aykroyd comedic actor
83 Elijah Harper Native politician who defeated the Meech Lake accord through filibustering
84 Kurt Browning figure skater  
85 Emily Carr painter 1945
86 Mike Weir PGA golfer
87 Dr. Henry Morgantaler pro-abortion activist responsible for making the practice legal in Canada
88 Farley Mowat author of stories about wolves
89 Donovan Bailey gold-medal winning sprinter, "The World's Fastest Man"
90 Bryan Adams singer
91 Preston Manning founder and leader of Reform Party
92 John Molson founder of "Molson Canadian" beer company 1836
93 Joni Mitchell singer
94 Anne Murray singer
95 Lord Stanley British Governor General, creator of the Stanley Cup 1908
96 Geddy Lee rock musician from the Band "Rush"  
97 Louise Arbour Supreme Court Judge, current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
98 Mordecai Richler author 2001
99 Sam Steele North West Mounted Police officer who quelled last Native uprisings 1919
100 J. S. Woodsworth founder and leader of the CCF / NDP party 1942

It doesn't appear that anyone in the bottom 50 got in as a result of a mass-mailing campaign. The only possible case for suspicion would be Shelia Fraser, who may have been chosen as the result of a "protest vote" by anti-Liberals.

I think if one clear message can be drawn from these results it's that French Canadians barely participated in the CBC's poll. When Canadian polling firms do national surveys on the "greatest Canadian" Rene Levesque is usually winds up in the top three. In this special, he only earned enough votes to place 69th, behind a bunch of Anglo generals and hated Prime Ministers. I've heard that the CBC didn't run this special on their French-language channel, which if true would obviously have been a key factor in the poor showing of Francophones.

Other notable Canadians not on the list include
-Alanis Morissette
-Robert Borden
-Raymond Collishaw
-Georges Vanier
-Georges Cartier
-Louis-Joseph Papineau
-William Lyon Mackenzie

So overall, whom do Canadians love the most?

politicians (18)
Tommy Douglas
singers (15)
"Stompin' Tom" Connors
military figures (11)
Gen. Roméo Dallaire
hockey players (11)
Wayne Gretzky
actors (9)
Mike Myers
activists (7)
Terry Fox
authors (6)
Pierre Berton
inventors (6)
Frederick Banting
athletes (4)
Sandra Schmirler
TV personalities (3)
David Suzuki
others (10)

I realize that some of my categories may be a little vague, and there is certainly more than a few cases in which one person may qualify for many categories. "Activist" for example is a very broad category, as is "TV personality."

It's clear however that Canadians love their politicians most of all. It makes sense in my opinion as I think Canada is a fundamentally political nation. Singers are the second most popular group, and if we were to combine them, along with actors and TV personalities into one "celebrities" category then it would be the most popular group of all, capturing 28% of the list. The famed Canadian love of hockey remains well reflected in the list, with hockey players more popular among Canadians than their artists, inventors, authors, and explorers.

Because I like politics, let's see who the most popular Prime Ministers are:

overall rank original rank
Pierre Trudeau 2
Lester Pearson 6
John A. MacDonald 8
Wilfrid Laurier 43
Jean Chrétien 45
John Diefenbaker 47
Mackenzie King 49
Brian Mulroney 64


Do we confuse fame with greatness?