From international stages to political arenas, these Torontonians are promising to transform themselves and our city in the year ahead:
At Toronto city hall, where politicians are eagerly anticipating a major influx of federal spending, there is quiet delight over the man chosen to be chief of staff to Amarjeet Sohi, the new Infrastructure Minister.
John Brodhead, 37, is widely seen as well-connected and plugged into urban and transit thinking. His career has included time in the office of then-premier Dalton McGuinty and at Metrolinx during its merger with GO Transit, as well as helping to start CityWorks, which focuses on livable and sustainable cities.
High on the list for Mr. Sohi – tasked with bringing to reality the Liberals’ election campaign pledge to spend $125-billion on infrastructure over the next decade – is working with Canadian cities to determine the framework for how and when the money should flow. It’s a tricky and delicate job likely to put to good use the relationships Mr. Brodhead has built. Expect him to spend plenty of time in Toronto even after moving his family to Ottawa.
As 2015 wound to a close, seven of the top eight songs in the global Billboard Hot 100 belonged to Toronto-region artists, and the freshest face among them is Alessia Cara.
It is a testament to the strength of her debut single, the R&B-laced Here, that its popularity has kept growing since being released in April. The 19-year-old spent much of the past year adjusting to the changes that sudden fame brings – endless media appearances, rushing to follow Here up with both an EP and full-length album – that she barely gets to spend time at home in Brampton any more. “I technically live there, but I’m never really there,” she told The Globe and Mail last fall in her first Canadian print interview.
Ms. Cara’s 2016 will be just as busy as she rides Here’s hype. She will embark on a North American tour in a few weeks to support her new album, Know-It-All, released in November, with stops in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
There’s a new chief on the waterfront. William Fleissig is taking on one of the most important city-building jobs in the country: He will lead Waterfront Toronto, which is tasked with redeveloping nearly 2,000 acres of lakefront land.
Mr. Fleissig, who is moving to Toronto from San Francisco to take up his position as chief executive officer of the public agency, understands what he is getting into. “This is the largest urban redevelopment in North America,” he said last month. “It is one of the more amazing opportunities worldwide to think about how we do urban development projects.”
That means plenty of public consultation, strong design and thoughtful planning, all of which the agency has done well to date. But Fleissig has big files, including rebuilding the mouth of the Don River, rebuilding the eastern part of the Gardiner Expressway and massive development proposals.
A developer, architect and former city planner, he has the right curriculum vitae for the job. “This will be,” he says, seeming to choke up a little, “the capstone of my career.”
In downtown Toronto, you may have noticed small, brightly coloured wooden ramps along the sidewalk. They’re the work of a local business and non-profit organization, the Stopgap Foundation, and they have had a huge impact: They allow people with mobility issues to freely enter stores and restaurants, overcoming barriers that others might not even notice.
This is what Luke Anderson is passionate about. A structural engineer, Mr. Anderson was partly paralyzed by a mountain-bike injury in 2002 and uses a wheelchair; through Stopgap, he works to break down barriers of all kinds. “It’s not just wheelchair users,” he says, “it’s parents with a stroller and people making deliveries. When we start connecting the dots between those people and other people who associate with them, we realize everyone is connected. And everyone is affected by physical barriers.”
This year, Mr. Anderson intends to focus on speaking to young audiences and building awareness about accessibility. “There is a need for empowering language to highlight someone’s ability rather than what they can’t do,” he says. “It’s super-simple; it’s easier than putting a ramp out.”
Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati
Toronto cyclists have enjoyed some recent wins. The bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide saw continued popularity as winter held off and, when snow is here to stay, the city will be plowing some bike routes. But these are just a taste of what is to come.
2016 is a big one for cycling, with council being asked to approve a 10-year plan and a major budget increase. And reaction to a proposed pilot project on Bloor – taking away some parking to make safe space for cyclists – will be an important early test of how the city weighs its priorities.
Although these changes have to be approved by council, the file is being led by Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, manager of cycling infrastructure and programs. She took the job early in 2015, moved to the city from Mississauga in the summer and has been – naturally – riding to work most days since.
“It’s a really great time to be working on cycling on this city,” she said. “There’s a recognition that major urban cities are building [infrastructure] for cycling.”
A descendant of the man who founded Beck Taxi, Kristine Hubbard didn’t want to be “the boss’s daughter” and almost went into law. But the lure of the family business was too strong and she now finds herself an unofficial spokeswoman for the industry as it faces its greatest existential crisis.
Taxi drivers say their earnings have been decimated by Uber’s push into the city. Fear and frustration as they wait for new regulations to be drafted have occasionally turned to rage, with obscenity-chanting protesters blockading Queen and Bay streets for hours in December.
By contrast, Ms. Hubbard offers a spirited, but more polished defence of the industry’s role in society. As she explains it, many cabbies have so lost their faith in the system that they feel it’s useless to speak up. So the dispatcher became a regular voice on social and traditional media as well, trying to raise awareness around accessibility, drivers’ earning power, safety and other issues she fears are being ignored by Uber supporters.
Daniel Debow recently left his job and spent a month mulling over what to do next. That’s usually a sign of big things to come for the serial entrepreneur, who has already sold two tech startups.
His next company will arrive in 2016 with the help of co-founder Farhan Thawar, Mr. Debow says. As with past projects, Rypple and Workbrain, he is focused on the meeting of artificial intelligence and wearable devices, with an eye to incorporating robotics and even genomic science that can help to predict disease.
“Imagine Siri a hundred times better, or a thousand times better,” he says. “Imagine, you know, Google Glass and Apple Watch a hundred times better, and lasting longer, more powerful, aware of our context.”
Details of the new startup are still under wraps, he says, “other than to say that we’re hoping that it’s going to be a very big company, with the opportunity to create thousands of jobs and create a lot of change in the city of Toronto.”
Andre De Grasse
When the world turns its attention to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games, all Canadian eyes will be on Markham, Ont., sprint star Andre De Grasse.
After winning two gold medals at the Pan Am Games and two bronze medals at the world track and field championships, the 21-year-old has emerged as one of the country’s best hopes for the 2016 Games.
This fall, he turned pro, signing a multiyear deal with Puma that his agent says is worth $11.25-million (U.S.). He could earn as much as $30-million with bonuses.
It has been a meteoric rise and, in the words of Globe and Mail sports columnist Cathal Kelly, Mr. De Grasse is “already poised to take a place as the fastest man on Earth. The question has gone from an ‘if’ to a ‘when.’”
He is starting the year with a move to Phoenix to join one of the world’s top track and field training programs. He will be training with legendary Canadian sprinting coach Stuart McMillan at Altis, formerly the World Athletics Center.
To many Torontonians, Andray Domise is the political upstart who challenged Rob Ford for a seat on City Council in 2014.
But that is in the distant past for Mr. Domise. The activist’s latest batch of projects have taken him outside Toronto’s sphere and promise to hit new milestones in the year to come.
In the eight months since he launched a podcast, Canadaland: Commons, he and co-host Desmond Cole have picked up 20,000 regular listeners. He hopes to more than double that number in the next year as the weekly show keeps breaking down Canadian politics with blunt analysis of race and indigenous history.
“I think … a lot of people in Canada find it uncomfortable to discuss race, and especially in Toronto, where we consider ourselves this kind of racial utopia,” he says.
Mr. Domise is also bringing some of his expertise home to Rexdale, where he grew up. He co-founded Techsdale, a program that teaches young people how to make games, apps and software, opening doors in all fields.
Mohamad Fakih intended only to buy a kilogram of baklava when he walked into a struggling Lebanese restaurant and bakery in Mississauga a few years ago. The business was a disaster, but for Mr. Fakih, a successful gemologist from Lebanon, there was no mistaking the talent of its chefs – and the success that a little more ambition might bring.
Eight years later, that humble shop, called Paramount Fine Foods, is an empire of more than two dozen one-stop Middle Eastern specialty markets, fine halal butchers and restaurants across Canada and Florida, with plans to push into Pakistan, Lebanon and Britain, among other places, in 2016.
Mr. Fakih’s stores, with their cool modern decor, wood-burning ovens and service-oriented ethos, have modelled their customer experience on the likes of high-end retailers such as Pusateri’s and Eataly, in many cases at close to fast-food prices.
Perhaps most significant, Mr. Fakih has helped to shift many Torontonians’ perception of shawarma, manakeesh, and labneh with zaatar from “ethnic” to delicious everyday food.
In late November, Michelle Bendeck moved into a new lab at the University of Toronto with seven other researchers. Three are medical scientists studying cardiovascular health, like her. The other four have an engineering background, which makes sense, she says, since much of the fate of a person’s heart and blood vessels comes down to mechanical forces.
“Your heart beats 80, 100 times a minute, thousands and millions and billions of times in your lifetime,” she says. “And that’s an enormous physical force on the cells and tissues that make up the heart.”
It’s only recently that the two fields have started joining forces, and Ms. Bendeck says her lab is collaborating on some promising projects on how to manage hardened arteries, including whether plaque can be stopped from breaking off and migrating within them.
“We’ve got some pretty solid, pretty exciting evidence from preliminary experiments,” she says.
“When I got sick, I had a huge sense of urgency to make the most of what I’ve got left. And I remind myself as much as I can that time is precious.”
In April, 2016, the artist and beam of light Teva Harrison will publish her debut graphic novel, In-Between Days. The book collects, expands upon and contextualizes her cartoons in The Walrus magazine that deal with her battle with metastatic breast cancer.
Ms. Harrison hopes that the book will continue to do what the soulful comics have already done, which is to help start conversations and offer truth to fellow sufferers and anyone affected by severe illness or chronic conditions.
She is passionate about talking to others about the value of time, sending more than a few of her listeners away contemplating their lives. “You have all the time you need.”
Ms. Harrison has already sent everything to her publisher, House of Anansi Press, and now she is looking for a fresh project. “I need to make new things,” she says.
Lifeline Syria was founded three months before toddler Alan Kurdi drowned in Turkish seas, setting off a wave of sympathy for refugees, and five months before a new federal government committed to bringing 25,000 Syrians to Canada.
When Ratna Omidvar co-founded the group, hoping to persuade more Canadians to sponsor refugees, she didn’t know that she would soon be attending “endless meetings” with top officials as they planned a national resettlement project.
But Ms. Omidvar, a Ryerson University professor, says she is uniquely prepared to weather the storm of the coming year: She was once a refugee herself, from Iran.
“I’ve tried really hard to overcome the experience of displacement and to be included, and I think maybe inadvertently I’ve pushed that experience of displacement to the back,” she said. “But 2015, it came back full circle.”
In the coming months, the main task will be “to focus on keeping Canadians onside,” Ms. Omidvar says. “… This should not be a short-lived flame. It should be a slow, steady fire that burns.”
Toronto was calling, but Chantal Pontbriand didn’t recognize the return number.
In 2015, after 10 years away from Canada, the renowned art-world figure made it known that she would return from Paris to her home city of Montreal. But then she was hired to head Demo-Graphics, a new biennial art event for the Greater Toronto Area set for 2017.
In reading about the GTA, the 64-year-old dynamo became enthused about its diversity. “Over the last 20 or 30 years, there have been incredible changes in the makeup of the population,” Ms. Pontbriand says.
Soon after that appointment, she was chosen as the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art’s first-ever chief executive officer. She will oversee the museum’s move to the renovated Tower Automotive Building, where the migrating MOCCA will open its doors later this year or in early 2017.
“The building is so inspiring,” Ms. Pontbriand says, “and so full of potential.”
If his first year was a warm-up, Toronto Mayor John Tory is ready to start running.
With his approval ratings still high at 75 per cent, according to the latest Forum poll, Mr. Tory is starting his second year with big ambitions. First up are budget deliberations, and the mayor needs to pull city council onside with his plan for a special levy to target transit and housing infrastructure.
He will also push on with his SmartTrack plan as staff start to return with more concrete information about how the proposal would work and, perhaps more important, how much it would cost.
Taxpayers want “tangible, concrete results,” Mr. Tory said during a recent meeting with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, and he is aiming to deliver in 2016. Among his priorities is improving traffic congestion, investing in transit and speeding up repairs to city housing.
Mr. Tory vows that the city will see noticeable change in 12 months.
Ryan Merkley is explaining why he still lives in Toronto over the phone from the West Coast. He travels a lot as the CEO of Creative Commons, a non-profit that helps people license and share their work online. The company is based in Mountain View, Calif., and has affiliates in 85 countries.
But Toronto is home, he says, and staying here was a condition of accepting the idealistic tech company’s top job.
Mr. Merkley, who led the open government data initiative of former Toronto mayor David Miller, sees his decision to stay in Toronto and his work at Creative Commons in similar terms – by collaborating with other techies in the city rather than taking off for Silicon Valley, he’s enriching the commons.
Now that the company has amassed 1.1 billion licensed works, Mr. Merkley’s project for 2016 is not growing the charity’s archive, but “lighting it up” with tools for more collaboration. He’s working on an app that would allow users to request photos on demand from around the world.