07/05/2014 07:44 EDT | Updated 09/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Are There Mostly White Males on the Canadian Heroes List?

"Society needs heroes to rejuvenate, re-energize and renew itself with visions of the possible. That's what heroes do." -Roberta Bondar, first Canadian woman in space.

Heroes are mirrors. The individuals we choose to place upon pedestals reflect the values we cherish and the people we aspire to become. So what does our latest effort to identify national heroes reflect about Canada?

As an early run-up to our nation's 150th birthday in 2017, Heritage Canada conducted a survey asking citizens to pick the Canadian hero, past or present, whom most inspires them. With Canada Day approaching, they released the list of the top ten choices. It includes Terry Fox, astronaut Chris Hadfield, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, former general and senator Romeo Dallaire, and five politicians spanning our history from Sir John A. MacDonald to Jack Layton. But at position six, it is environmentalist David Suzuki who really stood out. He is the only person in the top ten who is not white. No women even made the list.

Make no mistake, everyone on that list is worthy of inclusion. They all made great contributions to our country and our world. But where are the women and non-whites who have contributed just as much? A pantheon so steadfastly monochromatic and male hardly reflects the diverse and multicultural nation we claim to be.

Women make up half our population, and it's not like we're short of heroic names: the Famous Five, three impressive Governors General, Emily Carr or Lucy Maude Montgomery. Recently we wrote a whole column about some of the great Canadian female pioneers of science and medicine. Hadfield deserves praise for turning the eyes of a new generation back to the stars. What about Roberta Bondar -- Canada's first woman in space -- who showed Canadian girls that the final frontier belongs to them, too?

And where are Canada's aboriginal peoples? Already CBC Aboriginal has launched its own poll, inviting people to submit their indigenous heroes. The emerging list features names like leaders Elijah Harper and Louis Riel, actor and author Chief Dan George, and 12th century nation-builder Hiawatha. Surely someone like Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller deserves a place alongside Wayne Gretzky. Not only has she done Canada proud at the Olympics, she has worked tirelessly to inspire aboriginal youth and build bridges between Canada's aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.

And there are so many others: Hugh Burnett and Viola Desmond, African-Canadians who fought racial segregation in Canada; Olympian Donovan Bailey; jazz musician Oscar Peterson; filmmaker Deepa Mehta; or Masumi Mitsui, rights activist and hero of the World War I battle of Vimy Ridge. We could fill our column for a year profiling people like these and still not run out of names.

But it comes as little surprise that, when asked to choose a hero, our society goes straight for the white guys. It's the message constantly delivered by our culture. A study at the University of California in Los Angeles earlier this year examined 172 Hollywood films and more than 1,000 TV programs from 2011-2012. Visible minority actors captured only 10 per cent of the lead roles on the big screen, and women occupied only 25 per cent of leading roles. And while women fared better on TV with 37 per cent of leading roles, the tube is a wasteland for visible minority actors, where they hold just five per cent of leading roles.

That study examined media dominated by American products, but is Canadian content much better?

Hockey Night in Canada is arguably one of Canada's most treasured cultural icons. Yet when the CBC proudly unveiled their new panel of hockey commentators in March, the closest they came to minority representation was George Stroumboulopoulos. The anchor desks and pundit pulpits of Canada's national news broadcasts are dominated by white faces.

Just look at our currency. Aside from the Queen, it's a procession of white male prime ministers. For a brief period of time the Famous Five graced our $50 bill. But in 2011, they were booted off the banknote in favour of an Arctic icebreaker.

Canadians don't identify with diverse heroes because our culture doesn't tell us they exist. And then, with cultural initiatives like the top ten list, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Across Canada, people will read the list of the top ten Canadian heroes. Teachers and students will use it in the classroom. So a few years down the road when the next poll rolls around, whom are they all going to identify as their heroes? The white male names they're reading about now.

On Canada Day, the heroes we celebrate should reflect the strong diversity of our nation. They're all around us, if we bother to look.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit


Top 10 Canadian Heroes, According To Poll