Indigenous trailblazers

Learn about inspiring Indigenous peoples who have helped shape Canadian history and continue to impact our nation.

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Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline
Photo credit: Robin Sutherland

Métis author, Cherie Dimaline, is best known for the 2017 bestselling dystopian young adult novel, The Marrow Thieves, which won awards in both Canada and the United States. She was born in 1975 and is a member of the Georgian Bay Métis Nation in Ontario.

Dimaline published her first book, Red Rooms, in 2007. The novel won the Fiction Book of the Year award at the Ankoshk Aboriginal Literature Festival. She went on to publish her next novel, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, in 2013. The following year, she was named the Emerging Artist of the Year at the Ontario Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts and became the first Indigenous Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library. Her short fiction collection, A Gentle Habit, was published in 2016.

The Marrow Thieves is set in a dystopian future, but reflects the destructive impact of Indian Residential Schools on Indigenous peoples in Canada. It won a Governor General's Literary Award for Young People's Literature, the Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature, the Amy Mather's Young Reader's Award and was named the "One Book" for both the cities of Brampton and London, Ontario. It was also a finalist in the 2018 Canada Reads competition on CBC Radio and is the YA selection for the Global Read Aloud program. Vancouver-based Thunderbird Entertainment optioned the book's television rights. She has also been the editor of both FNH Magazine and Muskrat Magazine and is currently part of the editorial team at Theytus Books, Canada's oldest Indigenous publishing house.

Find out more at Quill and Quire's article on Cherie Dimaline.

Jeremy Dutcher

Jeremy Dutcher
Photo credit: Matt Barnes

Jeremy Dutcher is a classically-trained, First Nations tenor, composer, musicologist, performer and actor. His 2018 album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, a tribute to the traditional songs of his people, won both the Polaris Music Prize and a JUNO Award.

Dutcher was born in 1990 and is a Wolastoqiyik (previously known as Maliseet) member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. He studied music and social anthropology at Dalhousie University in Halifax where he began a research project exploring the tonal differences between Western classical music and traditional Wolastoqiyik music.

An interview with traditional Wolastoqiyik song-carrier Maggie Paul led him to study early 20th century wax cylinder recordings of Wolastoqiyik music in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History. He was deeply moved to hear the recordings of his ancestors' songs, which, had been declared illegal and had to be kept alive in secret, like so much of Indigenous spiritual and cultural practices.

Today, Wolostoquey is an endangered language, with fewer than 100 people who speak it fluently. His award-winning album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa intertwines songs he composed and sings with samples of original recordings of traditional songs. Dutcher is devoted to the renaissance in Indigenous languages and cultures.

Find out more at

Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin
Photo credit: Cosmos Image

Alanis Obomsawin is a prominent First Nations documentary filmmaker, singer, artist, storyteller and activist who has focused her work on the struggles of Indigenous peoples and on ensuring their voices are heard.

Obomsawin is a member of the Abenaki Nation, born in August 1932 in New Hampshire on Abenaki territory but grew up on the Odanak Reserve near Sorel, Québec. Her family moved to Trois-Rivières, Québec and it was a difficult time during which she faced bullying, racism and the death of her father from tuberculosis. She moved to Montreal, Québec, in the late 1950s where she became known as a singer and activist, making appearances on reserves, in schools, prisons, at folk festivals and on television.

Obomsawin was hired by the National Film Board of Canada in 1967 and directed her first film which was released in 1971. Since then, she has made many films that focus on issues such as the plight of Indigenous children in foster care, addictions and Indigenous peoples' struggles for their land and resource rights. Her film on the 1990 conflict between the Mohawk and government at Oka, titled Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, was acclaimed nationally and internationally. Obomsawin is an officer of the Order of Canada, a Grand Officer of the Ordre national du Québec, received the Canadian Screen Awards' Humanitarian Award, multiple Governor General's Awards and lifetime achievement awards.

Find out more at The Canadian Encyclopedia, Alanis Obomsawin.


Jesse Cockney

Jesse Cockney
Photo credit: Doug Stephen

Jesse Cockney is an Inuvialuk cross-country skier who competed for Canada at both the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics.

Cockney was born in 1989 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and started skiing when he was 3 years old. Skiing was an integral part of his family's life. His father skied on the national junior team and won 2 Canada Games gold medals. His sister has also skied for Canada in international competitions. When Cockney was 7, his family moved to Canmore, Alberta, where he was able to get involved in competitive cross-country skiing.

In his junior career, Cockney won 3 gold medals at the 2011 Canada Winter Games and finished sixth in the classic sprint at the 2011 FIS World Under-23 Championships. He competed in his first World Cup race in January 2011. In December 2012, he finished ninth in the free sprint. Cockney made his Olympic debut at the 2014 Winter Olympics where he finished 54 in the 50-km free mass start, 11 in the 4x10km relay, and 53 in the sprint free. In 2015, he competed in his first FIS World Championship, and in 2017, he skied as a member of Canada's world team. At the 2018 Winter Olympics test event, he finished 10th in the classic sprint. He also broke into the top 10 of the free sprint at the World Cup Finals in March 2017. In the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, he finished 35 in the sprint classic.

Jesse started an undergrad at the University of Calgary and hopes to graduate with a double bachelor in Kinesiology and Commerce. To stay involved in the community, he is also coaching in Calgary for the Foothills Nordic Ski Club, of which he has been a member since 2008.

Find out more at Canadian Olympic Team, Jesse Cockney.

Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie

Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie
Photo credit: Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie

Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie is a distinguished Métis curler.

She was born in 1963 in Arborg, Manitoba and began curling when she was 11. As a young woman, Darbyshire-McRorie played on a team with her mom. In 1985, they won the Manitoba provincial women's curling tournament and competed in the Canadian women's national Tournament of Hearts in Winnipeg.

She played third for Heather Fowlie at the 2001 Canadian Olympic Curling Trials and second for Renelle Bryden at the Canada Cup in Kamloops, British Columbia in 2003. When she played second for Cheryl Bernard's team starting in the 2005 to 2006 season, the team won two provincial championships (2007 and 2009) and went on to win a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. After Bernard's team disbanded, Darbyshire-McRorie formed her own team in Calgary and played second for Shannon Kleibrink. She later coached Casey Scheidegger's team and in 2018 became head coach for China's National women's curling teams.

Find out more at Canadian Olympic Team, Carolyn Barbyshire.

Activists and advocates

Thelma Chalifoux

Thelma Chalifoux
Photo Credit: Senate of Canada

Thelma Chalifoux was the first Indigenous woman and the first Métis person to be appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Chalifoux was born in 1929 in Calgary, Alberta. She married at a young age, but at a critical point early in her life, her 4 children were taken away from her in 1958 as‎ part of what is now known as the Sixties Scoop. Chalifoux fought to get her children back and did so by 1965 while working two jobs and finishing high school. In the late 1960s, she went to the Edmonton office of the Métis Association of Alberta to update her membership; staff spotted her drive and talent and offered her a job as a fieldworker. Soon after she was responsible for setting up the association's welfare and land departments. Work took her to Slave Lake, Alberta where she co-founded the Native Friendship Centre and ran the first shelter for women fleeing domestic violence. She served in the Company of Young Canadians, working on Indigenous housing and community development. She also hosted a weekly radio show.

In the early 1980s, Chalifoux was part of a Métis delegation in constitutional talks with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, working for recognition of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples as separate and distinct nations. In 1997, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed her to the Senate, where she focused on issues including Métis housing, the environment and relations between pharmaceutical companies and the government. After she retired from the Senate in 2004, she founded the Michif Cultural Institute, now the Michif Cultural Connections, a museum and resource centre dedicated to preserving and promoting Métis culture. She died on September 22, 2017.

Find out more at The Canadian Encyclopedia, Thelma Chalifoux.

Scientists and researchers

Dr. Nadine Caron

Dr. Nadine Caron
Photo credit: Martin Dee

Dr. Nadine Caron, a member of the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation, is Canada's first female First Nations general surgeon. She is also a faculty member in the University of British Columbia's (UBC) Faculty of Medicine and is leading an innovative biobank project located at the University Hospital of Northern British Columbia.

Caron was born and raised in Kamloops, British Columbia. Her Anishnaabe mother grew up on a reserve in Ontario, attended residential school and became a teacher. Inspired by her example, Caron was an excellent student. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in kinesiology at Simon Fraser University in 1993, where she was a star basketball player and a top undergraduate student. She was also a top student as she studied medicine at UBC. Caron earned a Masters degree in public health from Harvard while completing both her surgical residency as well as a postgraduate fellowship at the University of California specializing in endocrine surgical oncology.

She returned to British Columbia in 2005 and began her practice as a general and endocrine surgeon at the Prince George Regional Hospital. Caron is an associate professor in UBC's Northern Medical Program and founding co-director of the UBC Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health. She is also an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins Centre for American Indian Health.

At the University Hospital of Northern British Columbia Caron is spearheading the Northern Biobank Initiative. This initiative will bank tissue from medical procedures to enable northern British Columbians, including members of rural, remote First Nations communities, to have more equitable access to genomic research into diseases such as colorectal, breast and thyroid cancer. Among other partners in the Northern Biobank Initiative is the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority.

Caron received the Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health award from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in 2016.

Find out more at Nadine Caron's profile on The University of British Columbia's website.

Senator Lillian Eva Dyck

Senator Lillian Eva Dyck
Photo credit: Senate of Canada

Trailblazing neuroscientist Senator Lillian Dyck was the first First Nations woman to obtain her PhD in the sciences in Canada. She is also the first female First Nations senator in Canada and the first Canadian-born Chinese senator.

Dyck was born in 1945 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Her father, Quan Leen Yok, had immigrated to Canada from China. Her mother, Eva Quan (McNab), was Cree and a member of the Gordon First Nation. However, her mother's Indian status was revoked because she married Quan, a non-status man. Her mother had attended an Indian Residential School where she learned to be ashamed of her Cree identity. She told Dyck and her brother to pretend they were just Chinese, so they would face less racism. After her death when Dyck was still a young girl, she and her brother helped their father run his cafés as they moved around small towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Dyck was always an excellent student, and she earned three degrees from the University of Saskatchewan, culminating in a PhD in biological psychiatry in 1981. She was a full professor in the Neuropsychiatry Research Unit, Department of Psychiatry and associate dean in the College of Graduate Studies and Research at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2005, she was appointed to the Senate and is the Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Her areas of work in the senate include Chinese Canadians, women in science and post-secondary education. She has been particularly focused on the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, such as proposing bill S-215 to address violence against them.

Find out more at the Senate of Canada, Senator Lillian Eva Dyck.

Louie Kamookak

Louie Kamookak
Photo Credit: Jason Fulford/ Canadian Geographic

Inuit Elder, educator and historian, Louie Kamookak, is best known for his extensive research into the lost Franklin expedition that was essential for the discovery of the HMS Erebus shipwreck in 2014.

Kamookak was born in 1959 at a seal-hunting camp on the Boothia Peninsula near Taloyoak, Nunavut. He learned hunting and fishing skills out on the land with his father and grandfather and began to attend school when he was 12. Lessons about the ill-fated 1845 Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin sparked his life-long interest in the mystery. He remembered his great-grandmother's stories of finding artifacts such as forks and spoons on the north shore of King William Island. He became a schoolteacher, working with youth in his hometown of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut and passing on traditional knowledge.

Kamookak continued to look for clues about Franklin and his crew, interviewing many Inuit in his area over decades. He assisted various searches and in 2008 began working with the Parks Canada team that found the shipwrecks in 2014 in the area that the Inuit stories had pointed to all along.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society made Kamookak an honorary vice-president in 2016. He also received a Governor-General's Polar Medal, the Inuit Heritage Trust Recognition award and in 2017 he was invested as a member of the Order of Nunavut and the Order of Canada.

Find out more at Remembering Inuit oral historian Louie Kamookak.

Dr. Stanley Vollant

Dr. Stanley Vollant
Photo Credit: Rodolphe Beaulieu

Dr. Stanley Vollant, the first Innu surgeon in Quebec, has worked to inspire and help Indigenous youth to fulfill their dreams, including embarking on a 6,000 km walk to bring Indigenous peoples together and foster cross-cultural understanding in Canada.

Vollant was born in 1965 in Québec City and raised by his grandparents in the village of Pessamit in the North Shore region of Québec. He spoke Innu and learned a love of the land from his trapper grandfather. He learned French when he started school and excelled in his studies and sports. He studied medicine at the Université de Montréal and finished his residency in general surgery in 1994. He began his work at the regional hospital in Baie-Comeau, Québec where he became known for his innovative work, particularly with laparoscopic surgery and lectured in many schools.

In 2001, he was elected president of the Québec Medical Association, the first Indigenous person to head a medical association in North America. After moving to Ottawa, he served as director of the Aboriginal program at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine.

Despite his professional success, Vollant fell into a deep depression. He eventually found a remedy in reconnecting with the Earth while traveling in New Zealand. In 2008, while walking the famous Santiago de Compostela route in Spain, he had a dream of his grandfather telling him to start a similar walk in Canada to help connect Indigenous communities and inspire Indigenous youth. In 2010, he began his 6,000 km Innu Meshkenu (My Innu Path) from Labrador through Québec and Ontario, speaking at schools and bringing Elders and youth together along the way. In 2016, he founded the Puamun Meshkenu (path of a thousand dreams), a non-profit organization with the goal of inspiring and supporting Indigenous individuals on their way to developing their full mental, spiritual, physical and emotional potential.

Find out more at The Canadian Encyclopedia, Stanley Vollant.

More trailblazers

Indigenous veterans

Video catalogue from Veterans Affairs Canada showcasing First Nations, Inuit and Métis involvement in major Canadian conflicts.

Indigenous heroes

A resource about Indigenous sports heroes that includes various educational activities for students from kindergarten to grade 12.

Indigenous women activists in Canada

Learn about some of the many Indigenous women activists and the important causes they advocated for.

Timeline of influential Indigenous women

A timeline of over 150 influential First Nations, Inuit and Métis women from 1600 to today.

Influential Indigenous musicians in Canada

Through their crafts, these popular Indigenous musicians celebrate their cultures and shines a light on important issues for First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Remarkable Indigenous scientists and researchers in Canada

Indigenous individuals who have excelled in the areas of science, research and related fields.

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