100 CANADIANS TO WATCH

Going For Broke

To realize life's potential, they are willing to bet it all on themselves

July 1 1997
100 CANADIANS TO WATCH

Going For Broke

To realize life's potential, they are willing to bet it all on themselves

July 1 1997

Going For Broke

100 CANADIANS TO WATCH

The Risk-Takers

To realize life's potential, they are willing to bet it all on themselves

They put their talent, their skills, their intelligence— themselves—on the line. And why? To succeed where others have failed, to beat the odds—and never mind the critics. In business or diplomacy, music or sport, they are afraid only of failing to give it their best. And anyway, they probably don't like to ask why. They prefer a more optimistic question: "Why not?"

Damhnait Doyle

SINGER/SONGWRITER Her discovery has already become a minor Canadian music legend. Back in 1995, Doyle, an arts student at Memorial University in St. John’s, NfId., landed a summer job at a local record distributor. As was her wont, she sang to herself at the office. “I think I was singing Cape St. Mary's,” recalls Doyle, 21, “just to bug one of the guys.” But music producer Graham Stairs, visiting from Toronto, liked what he heard. And the rest is history.

Critics hailed Doyle’s 1996 debut album, Shadows Wake Me, which showcased the vocal range she honed singing for the renowned Holy Heart of Mary Chamber Choir in St. John’s. With its mix of pop, rock, and subtle Celtic influences, the album produced two hit singles in A List of Things and Whatever You Need—and garnered for Doyle a Juno nomination this year for best new solo artist. And if it was luck that propelled her into the spotlight, Doyle is now working—hard—to stay there. “Maybe I’ll take a day off and do nothing,” says Doyle, laughing. “But then Catholic guilt just takes over and I start working again.”

Mark Boswell

HIGH JUMPER In May, before thousands of cheering fans in Philadelphia, Boswell did more than just win the high-school section of the prestigious Penn Relays. After his nearest competitor failed to jump higher than 2.15 m, the 19-year-old from Brampton, Ont., first cleared 2.18 m, then 2.2 and finally broke the meet record with his second attempt at 2.25. The 1996 world junior champion, who emigrated from Jamaica in 1988, has been offered dozens of U.S. college scholarships for next fall. After he chooses, Boswell aims to clear the 2.28-m standard he needs to qualify for the world track and field championships in August. Unfazed by the chaos of a big meet, Boswell has his sights set on the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and Milt Ottey’s Canadian high-jump record (2.33 m)—not necessarily in that order. “I love the competition, being one of the last two guys with the crowd clapping,” he says. “If anything, I’m more focused.” For an aspiring Olympian, that is a good thing.

Eric Dupont

BIOTECHNOLOGIST He is one of those rare creatures, a scientist with a head for business. While completing postdoctoral studies in neuro-endocrinology at Laval University,

Dupont decided that profits were the key to success in the highly competitive world of applied biological research. “The problem with many biotech companies is that they burn their start-up capital and close before achieving any interesting results,” explains Dupont, who was born in La Baie in Quebec’s Lac St-Jean region. He determined to avoid that pitfall when, in 1991, he and his brother founded AEterna Laboratories in Quebec City. He first established two company divisions to provide an instant cash flow, manufacturing nutritional supplements and cosmetic ingredients. The profits were then channelled back into a third company division devoted to discovering therapies for a host of human ailments, cancerous tumors in particular. AEterna is now a publicly traded company, worth an estimated $225 million on the stock market, turning out a line of products that includes a promising treatment for lung, prostate and breast cancers. ‘Trying to improve the quality and expectancy of people’s lives is what drives me,” says Dupont, now 32. “If you do good science, business success will follow.”

Alnoor Sheriff

ENTREPRENEUR Sheriff’s Shikatronics Inc., a La Prairie, Que., company that manufactures and distributes computer memory products, was recently rated the second-fastest growing company in Canada by Profit magazine. In 1996, the firm boasted revenue of almost $42 million, up from $538,000 in 1991. Sheriff, who emigrated as a teenager from Zaire, launched the business in 1990, selling computer memory products out of his apartment. The company, which he now runs with American partner Kurt Tierney, added a manufacturing facility last year and plans to open up a research and development division by year’s end. Says Sheriff, 35, of his progress so far: “I’m happy, but I’m not satisfied.”

Michael Meiski

PLAYWRIGHT/SCRIPTWRITER

He might well be called a bard for the ’90s, Meiski, 28, made a name for himself last summer when he adapted Hamlet for the innovative young company Shakespeare by the Sea—winning over audiences with a two-hour version of the classic play set amid the wooded terrain of Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park. This year, theatregoers are anxiously awaiting the company’s update of Macbeth, which Meiski promises to

Kyle Shaw and Christine Oreskovich

EDITORS They want it to be The Village Voice of Halifax. And the way things are going, it just might happen. Four years ago, Halifax native Shaw and Oreskovich, raised in Toronto, started a lively Halifax magazine as a summer project. Since then, The Coast has gained a reputation as the city’s best alternative news and culture magazine—even though editors Shaw, 28, and Oreskovich, 25, earned nothing for the first three years. But that all changed in February when they entered a partnership with Catherine Salisbury, publisher of the alternative Montreal Mirror. As of March, The Coast has been operating out of a snazzy new office, and the now-weekly paper has 10 people on staff— mostly those who previously worked for free. “It’s exciting to have a staff who gets paid and is happy to get work,” says Oreskovich. “And no one has to worry about getting their phone cut off.”

be a “potent witch’s brew.” But revamping Shakespeare is only one of the Sydney, N.S., native’s many projects. Meiski, who studied scriptwriting at Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre, wrote this season’s final episode of the popular CBC teen TV series Straight Up. And he is currently writing a pilot for a dramatic series with Alliance and the BBC called Finder. As well, he is writing and producing another play, entitled Caribou—about “two guys on a trip in Cape Breton in a domestic crisis,” he says—which will tour Nova Scotia next year. “I am very, very lucky,” Meiski adds. “A few years ago, I was working out of basements.”

Keith Kocho

NEW MEDIA BUSINESSMAN In the fast changing world of digital technology, he is already something of a grand old man. As president and CEO of Toronto-based Digital Renaissance Inc., Kocho specializes in what he calls “new media engineering.” That means designing and producing multimedia programs for a client list that reads like a who’s who of corporate Canada: NB Tel, Telus Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Microsoft Corp., the Royal Bank and IBM, among others. Kocho’s company also develops software, and TAG—its new multimedia technology that enables the creation of network links in audio and video files—is destined to be a hot release in 1997.

Not bad for a onetime TV cameraman who has no formal computer training. “I get called a lot of things around the office—‘engineer wanna-be,’ ‘sponge,’ ” says Kocho, who grew up in Oshawa, Ont. “That’s OK. I like to work with people who are a lot smarter than me.” Digital Renaissance now employs about 100 people in offices in Toronto, Boston, Ottawa and Saint John, N.B., but Kocho started it up in Toronto in 1991 with an investment of a few hundred (borrowed) dollars and himself as the only employee. “When I was 21,” he says, “I figured, ‘I got a credit card and I’ll go and conquer the world.’ ” Who knows? At the ripe old age of 28, he still has plenty of time.

Talib Rajwani

Martin Philibert

JURIST While completing his studies for a master of laws degree at the University of Montreal, Philibert discovered something about himself. “It suddenly dawned on me that I did not really want a career as much as I wanted to do a whole lot of different things that really interested me,” he recalls. Since graduating, that is precisely what the native of Trois-Rivières, Que., now 28, has done. Politics drew him first, in particular Jean Charest’s Conservatives. “I got into it because of national unity,” he says, “and I happen to think Charest leads the party of reconciliation.” With his blue-ribbon academic background in constitutional law, Philibert soon caught the attention of the PC brass. He helped draft the party’s conciliatory constitutional platform, then entered Charest’s inner circle of advisers, where his long hours led the Tory leader to refer to him as “my night manager.” Shortly before the last election campaign commenced, however, Philibert decided it was time for a change. At the moment, he is in Bosnia, helping to organize municipal elections. “It can get pretty hairy around here,” he says from his makeshift office on the front lines in the war-torn Balkan state. Later this summer, he is scheduled to move on again, this time to Burundi, where he will take up a UN assignment investigating human rights abuses in the central African nation. “Like I said,” Philibert remarks, “I don’t really want a conventional career.”

Susie Moloney

WRITER She lives on Manitoulin Island, a tranquil haven that the 35-year-old transplanted Winipegger describes as “magic.” Not only has the move cured her once-chronic headaches; it may have helped to make her wealthy. The island is where she found the time to write her second novel,

A Dry Spell, the mystical tale of a rainmaker in a drought-stricken midwestern town, due out this September.

Industry sources claim the novel earned a combined advance of more than $1 million for American publication and film rights.

When asked to confirm the figure, Moloney coyly answers: “Lots.”

But she acknowledges that the deal is the “best news I’ve had since 1995, when my second son was born, my first novel (Bastion Falls) published and my column won an award from the Ontario Community Newspaper Association.” “Funny Girl” is the name of the column she has penned weekly for four Northern Ontario newspapers for the past three years. “It’s supposed to be humorous,” says Moloney. “My books, on the other hand, are deadly serious.”

Richard Van Camp

WRITER He lives alone in a 20-metre-long, four-metre-wide trailer in Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, writing tales about what he knows best. “Northerners are my subject matter,” says Van Camp, “romantic, rowdy, raunchy people; people who have chosen the North as a home; people, in fact, much like me.” The 25-year-old Dene, a member of the Dogrib nation, has been documenting the trials and tribulations of the northland’s inhabitants since he was 19—in newspaper columns, songs, poems, short stories, novels and on CBC television’s No0i of 60, where he works as a script consultant He first caught national attention three years ago with Lovesong, a short story, then cemented his reputation this spring when his first published novel, The Lesser Blessed, won the Canadian Authors’ Association’s Air Canada Award, presented annually to young writers of “outstanding promise.” A children’s book, A Man Called Raven, came out this year, and two other completed works are due next spring. Van Camp says it was his mother who inspired his career by telling him “books are good friends who tell you great secrets.”

Keith Martin

POLITICIAN He was 19 when he visited his first penitentiary—in search of a summer job as a prison guard. Although he confesses that he initially found working alongside convicted murderers to be a jarring experience, he needed to finance his medical studies at the University of Toronto. Now, the 37-year-old Martin, who was born in England and grew up in Toronto, occasionally visits prisons in two different capacities: as a doctor, and to study penal conditions in his role as the Reform party member of Parliament for British Columbia’s Esquimalt/Juan de Fuca riding. Since first elected in 1993, Martin has won a reputation as one of the most socially concerned MPs, focusing on such issues as human rights, health, environment and foreign aid. His goal in the new Parliament, he says, “is to see if we can re-democratize the place, and get all parties and backbenchers working together more often.” When Parliament is not in session, Martin spends part of each summer working on native reserves in northern British Columbia. In the past, Martin has also served as a field worker in Africa and organized clothing programs for refugees. Despite his enthusiasm for politics, he already plans for something else. “Canada,” he says, “is uniquely placed to bring countries together on the international stage.” Ten years from now, Martin says, “I’d love to help make that happen.”

Ron Sexsmith

SINGER/SONGWRITER He has shared the stage with Irish icons The Chieftains and British pop star Elvis Costello—who called the St. Catharines, Ont., native’s self-titled 1995 album “a modest and elegant gem.” And yet most Canadians probably do not know who Sexsmith is. “I think it’s the same story for a lot of Canadian artists,” says the quiet songsmith, 33. “Often you have to get outside and have a bit of success before it comes back on you here.” Now, his recently released second album, Other Songs, could change all that for Sexsmith—who opened for Costello last year during the latter's U.S. and Japan tours. With a fragile yet soulful voice and lyrical guitar work, Sexsmith has a pop style all his own, but is clearly inspired by such other balladeers as Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. “It is important to me to raise my profile here,” acknowledges the father of two. “My favorite songwriters are all Canadian, and everywhere I go I’m proud of that troubadour tradition.”

Chris Delaney

ATHLETE Delaney, an aspiring young athlete from Burlington, Ont., had his sights set on a career in professional football when his vision began to fail four years ago. “I was no longer able to see the blackboard,” says Delaney, then a 22-year-old student at Ohio’s Bowling Green University. “I found myself moving up in the lecture halls, my glasses were getting thicker, and then one day I couldn’t see myself in the mirror.” In 1994, doctors declared him legally blind. The diagnosis: a form of retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited eye disease that causes the optic nerve to degenerate, for which there is no known cure. In fact, 600,000 Canadians are currently losing their sight to the disease. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he recalls. “It took away everything I was passionate about—I was devastated.”

But Delaney emerged with an ambitious new goal: to help find a cure for the disease. Inspired by Terry Fox and Rick Hansen, Delaney—who still has limited peripheral vision— decided that he would raise money by riding across the country on a tandem bicycle, guided by alternating cycling partners in the driver’s position. On Canada Day, Delaney will begin his Vision Tour, a challenging 7,000-km trek designed to take him from Victoria to Charlottetown by mid-October. “I was never a cyclist but I was a very good athlete and I know I have the ability to do it,” he declares. The hard part, he adds, is dealing with skeptics. “I heard so many can’ts,” says Delaney. ‘You’re disabled—you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” Delaney hopes that, after the Vision Tour, doubters will start to focus “on people’s abilities—not disabilities.”

François Girard

FILM-MAKER As a child growing up in the Lac St-Jean region of Quebec, he learned about the power of dreams from his grandfather, a retired lumberjack who realized his artistic ambitions late in life by sculpting massive horses out of concrete. But the film-maker started young: he began directing art videos in Montreal and, by the age of 21, had his own production company. And he has collaborated with such visionaries as Robert Lepage and Peter Gabriel. In 1993, Girard made the dazzling Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould—a contrapuntal dance between drama and documentary that has the haunting quality of a posthumous self-portrait. “When you’re really young, you have these pure dreams about devoting your life to art,” says Girard, now 34. ‘To me, Glenn Gould is the purest example of that radical devotion.” Although Girard’s film makes no commercial compromises, “it opened up a lot of Hollywood offers,” adds Girard, “but I never managed to say yes.”

Instead, he is directing Oedipus Rex for the Canadian Opera Company. And he is now in Shanghai shooting The Red Violin, a $ 13-million co-production that he scripted with Gould co-writer Don McKellar. Hie story, tracking a violin through four centuries, is being filmed in five countries and five languages. “Again we’re not conforming to a commercial model,” Girard shrugs. “But you don’t define a film based on that. You get passionate about an idea, then you work for years to give it life. And you just follow it.”

Kaja Blackley

CARTOONIST “I knew from the time I was 4 that I’d be an artist,” he declares. “I knew when I was 14 that I would have my own company and write and draw.” Two years ago, Vancouver-born Blackley did just that, starting up his own comic-book studio, Mad Monkey Press, in Toronto—and then producing some of the most innovative and high-quality strips in North America. Blackley, 32, tries to create comics that appeal to all ages. “Our philosophy is to evolve comics," he says. “We’re trying to get the word out that there is an alternative, something you can pick up and enjoy as you would a normal book or a movie.” In March, Henry Selick, director of the Hollywood animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas, bought the film and TV rights to Blackley’s Darktown, a disturbing tale of imagination and death. In May, Toronto-based Little Big Wig Entertainment bought the rights to two other Mad Monkey productions: Magicians' Village, a surreal homage to New York City (where Blackley grew up) and C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, and Singapore Sam, his tribute to the comics of the 1930s. All that rights-buying has left Blackley, well, gratified—although he isn't saying exactly how gratified.

“I usually just say,” he grins, "that I have lunch money.”