CBC’s ‘We Are Canada’ series looks at innovators

Finding the next generation of innovators who are shaping Canada’s future is not that different than discovering hockey talent, says former NHL goaltender Ken Dryden.

They are out there, you just have to look for them.

Some of them will be presented on “We Are Canada,” a six-part television series narrated by actress Sarah Polley that debuts Sunday night on CBC. Dryden is co-creator and co-executive producer of the show. A version in French is set to air this summer on Radio-Canada.

The series features Canadians who are doing remarkable new things in areas as diverse as health care, space travel, agriculture and feeding the poor.

“One of the wonderful things about hockey in this country is that, if you’re good at it, people are going to see it,” Dryden said in a recent interview. “Those scouts, they’re everywhere. You’re not going to get missed.

“Now if you’re doing some other activity, there aren’t the same scouts around. You might absolutely get missed. That’s not right. You’re doing fabulous stuff. What some of these people are doing is unbelievable.”

Each one-hour episode looks at three people, sometimes two together, doing groundbreaking things. Maayan Ziv in Toronto has created an app that rates businesses on how accessible they are to handicapped people. Mohamed Hage and Lauren Rathmell are building rooftop farms — not gardens — in Montreal. Two friends in Calgary have a unique program raising money for food banks.

The show ties into Canada’s 150th anniversary, but with a difference. This one looks at the country’s future, not its past.

“The default position in a milestone year is always to look back because it seems like the right thing to do, and that it seems like you’re ungrateful if you don’t look back,” Dryden said. “To see where you are and what you have become from all those people who came before you, what right have you not to look back and thank them?

“But then say, ‘No, that’s not how the best kind of commemoration works.’ It’s the future that really gives meaning to the past.”

Dryden has never been only a hockey personality. He skipped a season with the Montreal Canadiens in 1973-74 to do articling at a Toronto firm towards completing his law degree. After retiring as a player in 1979 with six Stanley Cups on his resume, he became an author, worked as Ontario’s youth commissioner, sat as a Liberal member of Parliament from 2004 to 2011, and worked as an executive for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Since 2012, he has been a special adviser to the Institute for the Study of Canada at his alma mater, McGill University. That’s where the germ of “We Are Canada” was planted.

Dryden started a course at McGill that asked students to look at where they are and what kind of world they hope to see in the future. Two years later, the course was taught simultaneously with the University of Calgary. Then the University of Saskatchewan and Ryerson University in Toronto were added.

At Ryerson, a contest was held to identify the most significant and interesting new innovators. The search for new ideas had begun.

“Everyone knows somebody that is doing something amazing, and almost every one of those people is little known except to a few people,” said Dryden. “The challenge is to make everybody in the country a scout and tell us about these remarkable people you’ve come across.”

Including the Radio-Canada episodes, about 30 people from across Canada are profiled on the show.

Dryden said that is the tip of the iceberg.

“The only thing that limits the numbers is getting access to your scouts and giving them a place,” he said, before continuing the hockey analogy. “Just as people love what Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are doing, these are the Connor McDavids and Auston Matthews of their own areas.

“And they’re just as interesting, just as remarkable, just as worthy of attention and just as inspirational. And they pull it off in exactly the same way.”

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