Among the 91 people on the Order of Canada honours list released Sunday, a slate that swells twice a year, once at the new year and once around Canada Day, there are a few big names: Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, hockey player Paul Henderson, Montreal Canadiens legend and former MP Ken Dryden. But many more won’t be familiar to most Canadians; these otherwise everyday people who have had an important impact on their country in fields as diverse as the arts, athletics and academia. From a world-traveller who has developed programs to deliver nutrients to children in the Third World to a Nova Scotian sculptor tethered to traditional techniques, here are five of them.
Jane Coop, pianist
In her career as a pianist, Jane Coop has performed in 28 countries around the world, playing in such storied locales as St. Petersburg’s ornate concert hall. But ask about her favourite venues and one of the first she will name is a house in Snow Lake, Manitoba, where an arts enthusiast invited her to perform last October.
Despite Snow Lake’s location (deep in the forest, eight hours northwest of Winnipeg), population (about 700) and demographic make-up (miners), she found an enthusiastic reception.
“I played a very serious, challenging program – not easy listening – and the audience was absolutely still,” she said. “Afterwards, they asked interesting questions, I had discussions with some of them about counterpoint, technical things in the music.”
That concert was emblematic, in a way, of her life’s work, spreading music far and wide. She has been playing since childhood, winning CBC Radio’s national competition at the age of 19.
Since then, she’s performed countless live shows and on radio, recorded her work and taught at both the University of British Columbia and a camp in Whistler, B.C.
Julie M. Cruikshank, aboriginal tradition-keeper
Since she was a child, Julie M. Cruikshank has enjoyed listening to stories. Growing up near Wingham, Ont., she said, she was babysat by Alice Munro, who lived on the next farm over.
Years later, fresh out of the University of Toronto, she took a job with the Canadian Research Centre for Anthropology, which sent her to the Yukon to collect oral histories for the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Save for short stints in Alaska and Vancouver, the territory became Ms. Cruikshank’s home for the next 15 years.
Aboriginal women wanted their culture and stories – both personal tales and foundational narratives – recorded, to be passed on to the next generation. Ms. Cruikshank was eager to help. She started by compiling her research into small books for individual families. The work soon caught the attention of the government, which had the books placed in schools.
“It was a remarkable experience working with these women – there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about something one of them has said,” she recalled.
And in documenting the past, she has found threads that connect it to the future: One of her most recent works explores aboriginal stories of glaciers during the Little Ice Age, providing valuable insights into climate conditions and the environment in a changing region of our rapidly warming world.
Leo MacNeil, classical craftsman
When he was tasked with re-constructing historic furniture for the Fortress of Louisbourg, Cape Breton woodworker Leo MacNeil not only researched the techniques used by his 18th-century forebears but even copied their tools, so determined was he to produce accurate replicas for the National Historic Site.
Mr. MacNeil’s work on the project, which occupied him on-and-off for more than two decades, is but one example of his steadfast dedication to the craft, and to keeping alive classic techniques.
The son of a mechanic, he was born in 1928 and built models of boats and planes as a child. When he grew older, he trained in sculpting and learned to be a millwright. Working with wood, stone and metal, he creates pieces on commission – including larger-than-life statues – and has designed church sanctuaries.
He also runs a program to train others in traditional methods.
“These are things that just come naturally to me; I don’t know why,” he said during a telephone interview from his home. He reacted to his induction to the Order of Canada with a modesty befitting a craftsman.
“Let me put it in one word: shock,” he said. “This came right out of the blue, as they say.”
Hiroshi Nakamura, Judo dreamer
In 1964, the Olympics came to Tokyo and judo fighters from around the world visited the fabled Kodokan Institute to train. Hiroshi Nakamura, who lived nearby, was already an accomplished judoka – he took up the sport at age 12 to compete with his five brothers, winning a district tournament at 18 – and befriended many of the foreign athletes.
Among them were several Canadians, including Doug Rogers, who brought home a silver medal. They told Mr. Nakamura that Canada needed judo teachers so, in 1968, he packed his bags and headed to Montreal.
Over the next four decades, Mr. Nakamura devoted his life to teaching his adoptive country to embrace the sport. He instructed at various schools, opened an academy of his own and worked for Judo’s governing body in Quebec.
He’s also coached the Canadian national team through five Olympic games. One of his pupils, Nicolas Gill, took home a silver in Sydney in 2000, the nation’s best result since Mr. Rogers wowed the young Mr. Nakamura in Tokyo.
The sport, he says, has grown tremendously, from a niche activity to a pastime with a presence across the country. There are 22,000 judokas registered with Judo Canada, and he estimates there could be as many as 40,000 overall.
For all this, the affable 70-year-old has one more goal in mind: “Make judo as popular as hockey – I could still achieve that,” he laughs.
M.G. Venkatesh Mannar, nutrient sower
For six generations, M.G. Venkatesh Mannar’s family worked in India’s salt processing industry and, after post-graduate studies in chemical engineering, he took up a post at the family firm.
“I was always looking for something innovative and new and, of course, salt is a traditional item … there’s only so much you can do,” he said. “So, I was looking for other ways to make it more useful.”
He found his answer in iodization. While the concept – adding the element to the common food item to improve nutrition – was nothing new, much of the developing world did not have access to it. He brought his industry knowledge to work for the World Health Organization and the UN, helping to spread iodized salt internationally.
Mr. Mannar moved to Canada in 1990 and, four years later, became head of the Micronutrient Initiative, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit organization set up by the Canadian International Development Agency. He has worked to have vitamin A capsules distributed to children around the world and helped governments set up programs to make zinc tablets available to treat diarrhea.
His interest in salt, meanwhile, remains: With the help of Professor Levente Diosady at the University of Toronto, Mr. Mannar has created a method of adding iron as well as iodine.