Top 10 Most World Famous Canadians

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Standing in the frigid shadows of a superpower is never easy, but Canadians make it look so.  Of course, part of the reason may be because they’re bigger than we are (barely) and consider themselves part of a worldwide commonwealth, but who knows.  In any case, and despite our miniscule population (about a tenth of that of the U.S.) a few of them have gone on to become quite famous.

So who are these renowned Canadians of whom I speak so glibly?  While determining who among the citizenry of our neighbors to our north deserve to make this list is an exercise in subjectivity (and probably futility) there are a few that stand out above the rest.  While entertainers comprise the bulk of this list, I’ve tried to expand it to include a few names from outside of the entertainment industry as well.  And so, without further ado, here is my list–in no particular order–of the top ten best known Canadians (at least in the United States).

10.  William Shatner, Actor

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No way could a trekkie like myself leave Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise off the list.  Born in Montreal in 1931, “Bill,” as he likes to be called, came to Hollywood in the 1950s and soon made a name for himself appearing in Westerns, detective shows, and just about anything else he could land before finding himself in the captain’s chair.  Though he never achieved super stardom status-except among Trekkies–he’s managed to find work in Hollywood for the better part of sixty years now, which is as big an accomplishment as going where no man has gone before.

Cool fact: It turns out that early in his career, Shatner was fellow Canadian actor Christopher Plummer’s understudy.  He later worked with the man in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country with Plummer-now a Klingon–playing Kirk’s nemesis.

9.  Michael J. Fox, Actor/Activist

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The popular Edmonton-born Fox because best known for his role as Michael Keaton on Family Ties and, later, as Marty McFly in the hugely successful Back To The Future trilogy.  Coming to Hollywood at the tender age of 18, he is the quintessential rags-to-riches story; in this case, an unknown and literally starving actor caught a few lucky breaks and became one of the most popular and well paid actors in Hollywood, practically overnight.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, Fox was forced to semi-retire from acting in 2000, though he has continued to do voice-over work and take on minor roles ever since. He has also become an advocate for stem cell research in the hopes of finding a cure for Parkinson’s.

8.  Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor

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Okay, since he was born and raised in Scotland and didn’t move to Canada until he was in his twenties (along with the fact that he became a naturalized American citizen in 1882), he’s not technically a Canadian, but since he first began working on the telephone while living in Canada and lived there-on and off-until his death in 1922, should at least qualify him as a Canadian emigre who accomplished much.

Though best known for the invention of the telephone (though the debate as to whether he stole the idea from competitor Elisha Gray, whom he beat to the patent office by mere hours, rages on), he was a prolific inventor with hundreds of patents to his credit and a wide range of interests.  He had a hand in developing everything from airplanes and hydrofoils to hearing aids and metal detectors before his death.

7.  Alex Trebek, Game Show Host

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While the veteran game show host is not the most accomplished of Canadians–overseeing contestants trying to answer trivia questions for a half-hour hardly qualifies as a major achievement–it’s hard to argue that he’s not one of the best known Canadians in America.  Coming across as something of a soft intellectual well-versed in foreign dialects (his French is flawless) and, on occasion, passable impressions, the genial host presents a sophistication that speaks well of all Canadians.

Originally a news anchor and sportscaster (with a degree in philosophy no less) before coming to America in 1972, he has been going strong ever since, hosting a number of short-lived but moderately successful game shows before taking the Jeopardy gig in 1984 and running with it ever since.  Now, if we could only get him to grow that moustache back.

6.  Wayne Gretzky, Athlete

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What could be more Canadian than hockey, and who was arguably the most famous and successful hockey player of all time besides Wayne Gretzky?  I know, I could have said Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe or Mario Lemieux (Canadians one and all) but Gretzky beats them all.

How good was he?  Well, he only holds forty regular-season records, fifteen playoff records, and six All-Star records, was the leading point-scorer in NHL history, as well as being the only NHL player to total over 200 points in one season–a feat he accomplished four times–and to tally over 100 points in 16 professional seasons, 14 of them consecutive. Other than that, he didn’t do much.

5.  Pierre Trudeau, Politician

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Most Americans rarely know the leader of their northern neighbor is (nor, the truth be told, do they care) but it could be argued if they remembered any of them, it would be Pierre Trudeau.  This man somehow managed to hold onto the post of Prime Minister for an astonishing fifteen years, longer than any Prime Minister before or since.

Something of an intellectual, he was both praised and vilified during his tenure.  Lauded for preserving national unity against Quebec separatists, successfully suppressing a violent uprising, and establishing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms within Canada’s constitution, he was also criticized for being arrogant, a ham-handed economist, and a big-time federalist who believed in a big central government over the rights of the provinces to do their own thing.

4.  John Kenneth Galbraith, Economist

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While probably not a household name in either the United States or Canadian, the Ontario-born economist was one of the leading intellectual driving forces behind much of our modern economic theories.  Also, at 6’8″, he may also hold the record as being the tallest Canadian ever.

A champion of the left for his advocacy of big government and central planning and one of the driving forces behind numerous government entitlement programs, it is hard to argue that without Galbraith’s influence, Canada would look quite a bit different today.  Whether it would be better or worse is a matter for debate, but what can’t be debated is the effect the man had on this country and continues to have on it still, six years after his death.

3. James Cameron, Director

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When the average person is asked to name the most famous directors, three names are usually mentioned: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Canadian-born James Cameron, director of the blockbusters Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and the two top-grossing movies ever, Titanic and Avatar.  Not bad for a college dropout and one-time truck driver who basically taught himself cinematography.

Though he has lived in the United States since 1971, he remains a card-carrying Canadian.  Not all about him is money and smooth sailing, however; married and divorced five times, Cameron has a reputation for being difficult to work with and somewhat cavalier when it comes to ensuring safe working conditions for his cast and crew.

2. Neil Young, Singer/Songwriter

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Toronto-born Neil Young is widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians of his generation.  Young began performing as a solo artist in Canada in 1960, before moving to California in 1966, where he co-founded Buffalo Springfield before later joining Crosby, Stills & Nash as a fourth member in 1969.  He also forged a successful and acclaimed solo career, beginning a career spanning over 50 years and 34 studio albums.

Not that there hasn’t been lean times as well; during the eighties he practically vanished (this was his “experimental” decade) but by the nineties had reemerged.  So how does a sixties-era Woodstock rocker manage to keep it going for better than half a century?  By continually trying new things to prevent his music from becoming dated…and by smoking a lot of pot, one would imagine.

1.  Shania Twain, Singer/Songwriter

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Who says all country singers must come from the Deep South?  The Canadian born singer/songwriter Shania Twain broke this stereotype when she emerged on the world stage in the mid-nineties, only to go on to produce became the best-selling album of all time by a female in any genre, and the best-selling country album of all time (try over 40 million copies worldwide and you get the idea.)

Not only that, but in the short time she’s been out there she’s won five Grammy Awards and 27 BMI Songwriter awards.  Only fellow Canadian singer Céline Dion is more popular in her native Canada, but that’s like comparing apples to oranges since Dion isn’t exactly known for her country music.

Other famous Canadians: Jim Carrey, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell, k.d. Lang, Keanu Reeves, Peter Jennings, Pamela Anderson, Dan Akroyd, and Gordon Lightfoot. Not bad, eh?

Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.   


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53 Comments

  1. Celine Dion, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Justin Bieber, Pamela Anderson, Howie Mandel, Joni Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland, Avril Lavigne, Nelly Furtado, Bryan Adams, etc….

  2. There are way too many “pop culture icons” for my taste on this list. Seven of the ten are “pop culture icons”. I think you need more historic figures in your list. I would like to see more people like Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre Trudeau, and John Kenneth Galbraith. Maybe you should break this up into two lists. One dedicated to historic figures and the other to “pop culture icons”. That is my suggestion.

      • I don’t your comment brian. The three people I mentioned ARE on the list. The point I was trying to make is in my opinion there are too few historic figures on the list for my liking. I think this list should be split into two. One list with just historic figures like the people I mentioned and other list with just “pop culture icons”. This is purely my opinion of course.

  3. I agree that Mike Myers and Jim Carrey should be on here above Shania Twain, but so far all the other suggestions aren’t really more famous the who is here, in my humble opinion. Remember this is based on how famous or well known the person is, which is subjective to a point.

  4. David Sazuki anyone? and Sandra Bullock is definitly not canadian. but Ryan Renyolds, Ryan Gosling, Ellen Paige, Michael Cera, Rachel Mcadams, K’NAAN, Gary Carter, Seth Rogen, Lorne Michaels (creator of snl), the Ashmore twins, Steve Nash, k-os, Tommy Douglas, Drake, Russel Peters, Jann Arden, Stan Rogers, Adam Beach, James Naismith (invented basketball), there all canadian.
    good list except,
    WHERE IS TERRY FOX?!

    • wait. i take that back. i completely understand that if this is written by an American, there idea of famous Canadans is very different from who is actually famous in Canada. Of course these people are famous canadians in America. i dont mean that to sound rude at all, it just completely changes the perspective. in canada the “most famous people” look very different. but there fame doesnt always extend over the border lol 🙂

  5. Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, who comprise the rock group RUSH. They are the leading exponents of music in Canada, have the greatest drummer on Earth (Neil Peart). Have 24 Gold Albums of which 14 are either platinum or multi-platinum to their name. They call Toronto as their home base. Another serious omission is of Glenn Gould, the internationally famous Pianist also from Toronto. Though he was very eccentric and a hypochondriac, he has been considered the greatest interpreter of the Piano Music of Bach with his renditions of The Goldberg Variations, The Art of The Fugue and The Well Tempered Clavier. He died tragically young at the age of 50.

  6. Two omissions. The Rock Group RUSH who are Canada’s leading exponent of music out of Canada with 24 Gold and 14 Platinum albums. And Glenn Gould, the Internationally known Pianist who many regard as the greatest interpreter of the Piano Music of Bach. Both are from Toronto.

  7. Last line of intro says this is list of most famous Canadians in United States. I think a lot of people might know Tommy Douglas now (created Canadian health care system), but Brent Butt, creator and star of the funniest tv show in Canadian history, doesn’t qualify.

  8. Mordecai Richler (world famous writer) and Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens (regarded as the Babe Ruth Of Hockey

  9. Don’t forget about Jann Arden an amazing muscian.
    Also on a lighter note I know personally three Canadians that are over 6’8 including 7’1 and 7’4 lol

  10. Three names that are missing that are just insanely obvious (listed smallest to biggest name):

    – Drake – – has gone beyond superstar status as a protege of arguably one of the biggest artists/superstars of our time in Lil Wayne

    – Steve Nash – – back to back MVP winner in a predominantly American-Dominated NBA

    – SIDNEY CROSBY…ARE YOU GUYS EVEN GOOGLING FAMOUS CANADIANS BEFORE PUTTING THIS LIST TOGETHER?! HE HELPED THE PENS WIN A STANLEY CUP AND IS THE FACE OF ONE OF THE BIGGEST, GLOBAL, PROFESSIONAL SPORTS LEAGUES IN THE NHL.

    • Forest Fleury on

      Ikr Sidney Crosby is way more well known than Gretzky like I probably wouldn’t know who he was if I wasn’t a hockey fan and basically everyone I know has heard of Sydney Crosby so I personally this Crosby should be on the list instead of Gretzky (and I’m not saying this because im a Pittsburgh fan)

  11. Who can forget the Canadian who is probably the Greatest Hockey Player whoever lived…….BOBBY ORR !!…… He won 3 scoring titles…….as a DEFENSEMAN !!!……..C”MON GUYS, LET’S WAKE UP !!!!

    • Never heard of him, I watch some hockey – couple reg. season games and playoffs. But seriously lacking in NHL history knowledge. Hockey is a small sibling to the NFL and NBA. A 70 year old player is not going to be super recognizable no matter how famous. I thought Pele was known to everyone but still find many who have never heard of him.

  12. umm what about Mark Rowswell ( Dàsh?n – ?? )

    The most famous Canadian in China, and probably the most well known Canadian outside of Canada.

    • Peter Boucher on

      RUSH……God Bless Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and the World’s best drummer Neil Peart. I’m going on 35 years as them being my favorite group. I can also add these rock groups from Canada. TRIUMPH, LOVERBOY, FRANK MARINO & MAHOGANY RUSH, MAX WEBSTER, THE GUESS WHO.

  13. Canada has only two real exports: Beavers, which come in pelts; and Biebers, whom we’d all LIKE to pelt. (P.S. Seeing “Rush” here makes me laugh. Yes, they belong. But, seriously…the most rabid fans on the planet.)

  14. Hahaha… it’s amazing, how when I’m stateside and ask “Who is PM of Canada?” folks STILL answer “Pierre Elliot Trudeau”… odd, considering he passed away 12 years ago…

    In most nations around the world, even the least educated know who’s head of government in their AND their neighbour’s countries… Only the USAnians have the ignorance and arrogance to declare, “Most Americans rarely know the leader of their northern neighbor is (nor, the truth be told, do they care)” – Hey, there, “WE, the People”… get an education AND a life! (No wonder Canadians come across as intellectuals in the world… and USAnians as Goofy!)

    Regards to President Osama…
    (ROFLMFAO)

    • As an American (or, rather USAnian), I totally agree with you, Dulci. When Quebec threatened succession, and it went to vote, most Americans didn’t know (or care). And we lived just NORTH of Windsor — in Detroit! My sister married a Canadian and now lives near Niagara Falls. Canadians know more about the U.S. system of government, and our political leaders, than do most Americans. It’s very sad — but telling. We’ve earned the reputation we have around the world as egocentric and arrogant.

      • Well, now, dear Newave, not all USAnians suffer under ignorance and apathy (the “I don’t know and I don’t care”-illness). Folks like the delightful Michael Moore, who is constantly declaring his LOVE for Canada (“Bowling for Columbine”, “Sicko”) show that SOME people can dress down, but think up… as opposed to politicians, who dress up but think down – if at all.
        And THAT goes for BOTH sides of the border!

        (Actually, the latter applies to most of the world, oddly enough…)
        😉

  15. Peter Boucher on

    For both Newave and Dulci. I was born into a very French-Canadian family. My Grandparents were in Thetford-Mines, Quebec (my Grandfather) and the town of Beauce (my Grandmother). They eventually retired at a house in a small village called Scott-Jonction. All are a 30-40 minute drive to Quebec City. I have been there hundreds of times and the people their were always cordial, helpful and very friendly (if you go to Paris, France that’s a whole different story as they seem to be NOT fond of Americans). So instead of me rambling on, I will say this. It will take many years or even centuries before a law is passed that will have Quebec secede from Canada despite that its been going on for decades. Personally, I love Canada and I just happen to live in Arizona, the complete opposite as far as weather is concerned. Especially The Winter Carnival every February is an outrageous blast of fun

  16. Trudeau was actually not the longest serving Prime Minister, just so you know! 🙂
    The longest serving was William Lyon McKenzie,King closely followed by John A. McDonald (first PM, WOO!) and then Trudeau. He was also tied with Wilfred Laurier- our first French speaking prime minister. That’s what happens when you don’t have term limits.
    McKenzie King was quite the character too! He established much of the welfare state in Canada and is often cited as the most influential PM we’ve ever had. However, he also regularly communed with spirits, and his dead pets, and was known for his kooky beliefs in spiritualism. So… yeah. Win some, lose some, haha.

    • Peter Boucher on

      @ Katie, I am of Canadian ancestry but American born (My ancestors came from Quebec City). There is only one thing about Pierre Trudeau that still baffles me to this day. How in the world did he get married to Mick Jagger’s ex-wife Bianca Jagger. That’s almost like a teenage boy being married to Zsa Zsa Gabor !!!???

  17. Celine Dion should have the top spot on this chart, and it shouldn’t even be up for debate – The only thing Shania has on her is looks – So if you’re talking about the best looking female artist in Canadian history Twain’s got it, but as far as talent, sales, fortune, influence and worldwide recognition is concerned Celine blows her away – And where is Shania now anyway ? . . . Her star has definitely fallen while Celine’s has remained strong – C’mon buddy give your head a shake and do the right thing – DD

  18. Shanias in Vegas which is what Celine has been doing 🙂 it’s doing very well too! It just got extended!

  19. John Joseph D. Montegrejo on

    Celine dion is the most successful artist in canada.she is the only artist can lineup to whitney and mariah…one of the greatest icon of pop music,she should put in number 1 then shania is at number 5 because she is just a ant compare to QUEEN CELINE DION OF QUEBEC CANADA……

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