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Decoding Canada's do-gooders Add to ...

Each week over the past three months, I have had the privilege of adding a profile or two - 25, in the end - to the Globe and Mail's Transformational Canadians series. Besides keeping me up every Sunday night until Monday morning, this fascinating assignment has taught me that changing others' lives for the better takes courage and kindness. Playing hardball doesn't hurt, either.

When I talked to John Furlong, chief executive officer of VANOC, he told me of sitting in his office arguing with the team responsible for the 2010 Winter Olympics' torch relay. Mr. Furlong had promised to take the flame to every corner of the country. It was up to these people to figure out the details.

"They'd go down the hall and I would hear them, and they would say, 'That guy's going to kill us - oh my God,'" he recalled. "Today, I think they would say that they're grateful they had this experience of being able to go for 106 straight days, knowing that everything they had to give, they gave."

Mr. Furlong was trying to motivate people to help him achieve something seemingly impossible. In that, he embodied several qualities shared by nearly all of the selected Transformational Canadians. They are Type A overachievers, forcefully pursuing their own agenda with determination and confidence, shrugging off setbacks as they go.

If members of this extraordinarily intelligent group have one common touch, it's that they don't easily tire of talking about themselves, and expect others to do their bidding.

With that in mind, I kept wondering when I'd interview an insufferable egomaniac. Or a real jerk. Would sharp-tongued environmentalist David Suzuki shrug me off as a foot soldier of the corporate media? Would I be forced to debate with ornery Hollywood director James Cameron? How long until McGill neuroscientist Brenda Milner seared me with her Cambridge-educated intellect?

The showdown with Mr. Cameron never materialized: My editor decided that cornering the Avatar auteur by deadline had poorer odds than a Na'vi sighting. And everyone else was on their best behaviour - understandable, perhaps, given the spotlight on their praiseworthy achievements. In fact, I got a friendly e-mail from the travelling Dr. Suzuki, who answered all of my questions at length and brooked criticism that he's a full-time prophet of doom.

As for Dr. Milner, she was in no hurry to hang up the phone. Like the other Transformational Canadians, the 92-year-old is a superb communicator. She's damn good at explaining where she's been, what she's doing and why it's important, with a passion that gets the listener excited, too. Again, like many of the others, Dr. Milner was instantly approachable - as down to earth as a brilliant scientist can be.

If I expected fireworks from anyone it was Clarence Louie, the outspoken chief of the Osoyoos Indian band. I arrived at our Vancouver meeting ready to be told a different side of the story we commonly hear about aboriginal people in Canada.

While Chief Louie did touch on this, he was more congenial than combative, but obviously a man who enjoys being the boss. Then, during a follow-up call a few days later - he'd unexpectedly cut the first interview short - he showed an autocratic side by sounding irritated at times.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who struck me as a sincere and compassionate man, wields his authority with elegance. When we connected at 7 a.m. Vancouver time, the business leader and veteran politician broke the ice in patrician style. "So this is another typical phone call from the east at a very early hour for you guys in B.C.," he said, understandingly. "Your weather is so much better than ours - you've got to pay for it in some way."

With each interview, I tried to understand what drives such high achievers. The best one-liner goes to epidemiologist Prabhat Jha, on why he became a doctor: "Being Indian is part of it," he said, in his gentle baritone. "The Indian definition of abortion is that the fetus isn't an adult until they get into medical school or engineering school."

If the Transformational Canadians share what could politely be described as a competitive streak, they temper it with a genuine desire to make a difference. From gun-control crusader Wendy Cukier to Free the Children co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, I believed them when they said their prime motivator is helping others.

Even if their deeds qualify them for sainthood, though, these PhDs, Rhodes Scholars and all-around superstars can't seem to shake a few unappealing traits. One is a tendency to micromanage. A few winners fussed about their photographs, while others - okay, the same ones - made niggling requests for the inclusion of biographical details.

During these moments, I realized I was a bit player in someone else's movie.

None of this is to make light of someone, like young physician Samantha Nutt, who earned a degree in public health so she could save even more lives abroad. Part of the establishment or not, the Transformational Canadians share a refusal to accept the status quo - and a belief that they can change it.

When you're out to right the world's wrongs, it helps to have a sense of purpose, or even entitlement. "I'm relatively fearless," said Ms. Cukier, also a leading advocate of workplace diversity. "Pick anything that I do - you have to have a hard skin. You have to know what your goals are and move ahead."

In almost every interview, I heard the story of a person who took up a cause bigger than themselves - and persevered in the face of much adversity. Talking to Dr. Jha, who endured ridicule from conservative economists for proposing higher tobacco taxes, I sensed a calm and unshakeable conviction that he was right.

Humanitarian and diplomat Stephen Lewis revealed the same determination. Despite the terrible suffering he has witnessed, and the lack of political will to fight disease and sexual violence in the developing world, Mr. Lewis remains hopeful. Like the rest of the group, he uses his optimism to build support and gather allies.

Coupled with that drive for results is a vision that may take some time for the general public to grasp. In 1995, at the age of 12, Craig Kielburger knew that children could play an important role in bringing about social change. When adults told him otherwise, he went ahead and created Free the Children, a new kind of activist organization.

Nor did most of the 25 have things handed to them early in life. No child of privilege, humanitarian doctor James Orbinski got where he is today through hard work. Inuit climate-change activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier comes from a family that sustained itself by hunting and fishing in Nunavik.

Throughout the series, I was consistently impressed by people's engagement with other cultures. Every Transformational Canadian is a global citizen - often in ways that dissolve the boundaries between Canada and its fellow nations.

Take Kathy Knowles of Winnipeg, whose libraries and literacy programs have done untold good in Africa. A frequent visitor to Ghana, where she lived in the early 1990s, Ms. Knowles sounds like she's still a local. "I feel very free," she said of her stays in Accra, the nation's capital. "I live on the outskirts of this very impoverished area, and I feel completely safe there."

At the same time, there were reminders that Canada is an exceptional place. Vancouver police chief Jim Chu, who was born in China, said he and his family have always felt privileged to live here. An Irish immigrant, VANOC's Mr. Furlong echoed that thought. "I don't know of [another]country," he said, "where a person with a foreign accent could end up doing what I did."

One question I kept asking is what makes an effective leader. Again and again, I was reminded how important it is to listen to those who follow. As he would, wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen compared leadership to a long journey. "It's learning as you go and never thinking that you know it all," Mr. Hansen said. "Because at the end of the day, you've scratched the surface."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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