Canadians under 25: Here are the ones to watch

About the only thing these overachievers can’t do is act their age.

Cheryl Hann & Evany Rosen: Comedy

“I think 25 is kind of old already,” worries Cheryl Hann. “When I think that Julia Roberts was in Pretty Woman when she was 19, or Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein at 20, that makes me feel old at 25, which is ridiculous.” She and Evany Rosen are the youngest members of the Halifax-based comedy troupe Picnicface, and Rosen has a theory about why they’re worthy of being in this issue, and their over-25 colleagues are not. “The number one thing that makes me better than them is that they’re closer to death than I am. I think that gives me a youth and vigour that isn’t influenced by a haunting fear of my own mortality.” And, of course, Rosen adds, young comedians have access to “the wonders of social media,” which only people under 25 can understand. “I don’t even do live stand-up anymore. I just text all my stand-up to older comedians and they can’t even read it, because they’re so unhip.”

Picnicface, specializing in a style of comedy that Rosen describes as “weird and whimsical,” shot to fame when the mock commercial “Powerthirst” went viral on YouTube. “We got lucky,” Hann says of the video, in which announcers hype a made-up energy drink. “Will Ferrell, a famous person, said he liked it, and famous people’s opinions inform other people’s opinions.” Late last year the group expanded its reach with a book, Picnicface’s Canada, a film, Roller Town, and their own sketch show on the Comedy Network, produced by former Kids in the Hall member Mark McKinney, a sort of ceremonial passing of the Canadian comedy torch.

Since the group began when the members were in college, it’s no surprise that Picnicface’s comedy skews young: “We had a brief affair with corporate gigs,” Rosen recalls, and the results were “kind of horrifying.” But actually, Rosen and Hann get more questions about being the only female members of the troupe than about their age; one of Rosen’s videos is about the problems of being a woman in the world of comedy, and features her getting sexually harassed by everyone in the group, including Hann. “Evany and I realized that if we wanted a really good three-dimensional character we would have to write it for ourselves,” Hann says. “That was good for us. It encouraged us to be more creative and productive and get the parts we wanted instead of waiting for a man to write them for us.”

As they wait to see whether the Comedy Network will pick their show up for another season, Hann and Rosen are working on other projects, including their solo stand-up shows. But they hope to go on working together: “We’re about to do a women’s-only show at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival,” Hann says, “and it would be really good to keep performing with her if the worst happens. But it would be fun to keep this job. It would suck to be told, ‘You’re doing it! You’re 25!’ And then, ‘You’re 26, it’s over.’ ” But Rosen sees the bright side of reaching the age of 26 and suddenly becoming uncool. “I have yet to write any ‘kids today, get off my lawn rants,’ but I look forward to that time in my career,” she says. “Just huffin’ and puffin’ about things that are newfangled. The job security that comes with that kind of material!” Jamie Weinman

Beatrice Martin

Denis Beaumont/CP

Béatrice Martin: Music

Béatrice Martin was 17 when she started writing songs. At 18, she was famous.

Today, the heavily tattooed 22-year-old, who sings under the moniker Coeur de Pirate, is an award-winning musician. For the better part of the year, she’s been touring in support of her sophomore album, Blonde, which is influenced by the bouncy French yé-yé pop music of the ’60s. “The Crystals, Tammy Wynette, France Gall—I had to give an importance to the women that sang in that time,” says Martin, who herself sings in a resonant, clear voice that swings between cute sprightliness and breathy power. “They were icons to me, and still are.”

Martin, named francophone artist of the year at the Sirius XM Indie Awards, is an icon in the making. Her self-titled debut album garnered her the Félix (Quebec’s music awards) for best new artist, and a Juno nomination. Before that album dropped in 2008, Martin says she was just a quiet teenager who listened to the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell and the edgier grunge and punk of Hole and Refused.

Growing up in Montreal, she took classical piano lessons at the Conservatoire de musique à Montréal for several years before dropping out at 14. She started playing keys in a post-hard-core band called December Strikes First, but veered toward the softer sound she’s known for today when she joined the indie band Bonjour Brumaire. Soon enough, Eli Bissonnette, president of Montreal’s famed Dare to Care Records, saw Martin perform and asked her to make an album on his label.

It was her big break. In all of 10 days, Martin wrote the songs on Coeur de Pirate. It sold more than 600,000 copies. “I was thrown into a world that I had no understanding of,” Martin recalls. “I grew up fast.”

For her next album, Martin says the songs—replete with guitar hooks, soft piano balladry and words of love and longing—came from her experience entering adulthood at the same time as her fame grew. “Writing Blondehelped me cope,” she says.

Martin’s near future looks to be just as wrought with change: she’s engaged, and in February announced she’s pregnant. Martin won’t shy away from writing songs about it; she loves music for its power to make the personal universal. “I feel blessed to be able to do something that sparks emotion. I like to think I’m helping out somehow.” Alex Ballingall

Sebastien Toutant Bull

Sebastien Toutant: Sports

As a toddler, Sebastien Toutant was an unregenerate jumper, climber, runner and tumbler—the sort who needed an hour to walk a block because the streetscape was his personal jungle gym. By six, he was plying the slopes at Val Saint-Côme, north of Montreal, where fate saw him break a ski one afternoon as he attempted a jump. His parents balked at buying him new equipment—the season was almost over. So Sebastien, then nine, tried out his brother’s snowboard. “I complained a lot on the first day,” he recalls. “I wasn’t very good. But by the second day, I kind of caught on, doing jumps and everything. I never really went skiing again.”

His mom Chantal threw away that busted stave, which is a pity: it might someday merit a home in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. Their shambling hipster of a kid would leave it behind to embrace a new generation of winter sport, which he may yet redefine. At 19, he sits atop the world rankings in slopestyle snowboarding, a judged event in which athletes hurtle off a series of railings and jumps on a steep downhill pitch, performing corkscrew turns and rolls as they go. In Big Air—snowboarding’s answer to skiing’s freestyle aerials—he ranks third. As fellow competitor Tyler Flanagan said last year, after Toutant blew away the field at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo.: “Seb Toots is on another level.”

His timing couldn’t be better. Slopestyle debuts as an Olympic event at Sochi, Russia, in 2014, meaning the youngster from L’Assomption, Que., will get a shot at gold just as he hits his prime. But youth is only part of Toutant’s success formula. At event after event, competitors who match his soaring moves on a technical level find no answer for his athletic poise. The Quebecer isn’t sure where his feathery landings come from. “At school, I was always the guy who had an easy time learning sports,” he says. “Hockey, soccer, whatever.” But he sees it as central to the X Games’ slacker mystique. “That’s what’s great about competing in this sport. The riders are all really tight with each other, and you don’t really feel like you’ve got to fight. The idea is that we’re all having fun and showing the world what we can do.”

A simple search on YouTube provides a sense of his skill set. One promotional video shows him stunting on landmarks around Montreal, from the monoliths of Olympic Park to the steps of Mount Royal. It features a scene of Toutant riding the 30-m length of a park stair railing on his snowboard, finishing on a snow-covered street. He acknowledges the dubious legality of these antics, and remains alive to occupational hazards (unlike many boarders, he always wears a helmet). Still, at this stage of Toutant’s young career, caution clearly takes a back seat to adrenalin. “Every time I compete I feel like I enjoy the sport more,” he enthuses. “I don’t even go out there thinking about winning. Really, it’s just a big show.” Charlie Gillis

Marie-Phillip Poulin

Gene J. Puskar/AP

Marie-Philip Poulin: Hockey

Marie-Philip Poulin is by no means the only hockey player to idolize Sidney Crosby, but she’s definitely one of the few to actually be compared to him. The 21-year-old Team Canada forward from Beauceville, Que., who counts “the kid” among her favourite NHL players, has been dubbed “the Sidney Crosby of women’s hockey.” Not that she’s comfortable with the comparison. “It’s weird to be put in the same category as him,” she says.

But it’s easy to see why people might place her there. Not only is Poulin one of Canadian hockey’s most viscerally exciting female players, her resumé to date would be impressive for a veteran, let alone for someone who just turned 21. She managed, at the ripe old age of 18, to score both goals in Team Canada’s 2-0 gold medal win against the U.S. at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. However, she wasn’t always destined for hockey glory. “I actually started figure skating—I only did one year,” she says. “I didn’t like it.” Poulin’s older brother Pier-Alexandre was instrumental in her decision to switch to hockey. Pier-Alexandre, who plays at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick, has always been a mentor on the ice. “We still play together at Christmas,” she says.

Right now, Poulin is on a hockey scholarship at Boston University, where in addition to already having broken the school record for most points in a single season, she’s working toward an undergraduate degree in psychology. (“It’s my favourite subject after hockey.”) Her goals for the next few years reflect her aspirations in her two favourite subjects. “I’d like to graduate with a good degree,” she says. “And qualify for Sochi in 2014.” Emma Teitel

Hannah Taylor

Bryan Sanders

Hannah Taylor: Activism

When Hannah Taylor was five, one winter night in her native Winnipeg she saw a man eating from a dumpster. “Why is he doing that?” she asked her parents. For the next year, Hannah peppered her parents with questions about homelessness and the man she’d seen. Finally, her mom Colleen asked Hannah if she would like to do something to help him. The conversation sparked another, the following day, between Hannah and her teacher, Cori Hildebrand, about raising money for a homeless shelter. “She took me seriously,” says Hannah, now 16, crediting her Grade 1 teacher for inspiring what would become a lifelong passion.

Hannah went on to organize a fundraiser for Winnipeg’s Siloam Mission, the first of many, and collected money at school, home and in her community in jars she painted to look like ladybugs. Soon, she began visiting shelters, talking to street youth, learning first-hand about the issue.

So far, Hannah’s Ladybug Foundation has raised $3 million for homeless people across the country. Her parents take no credit for her success. “We were passengers on this,” says her dad Bruce. “We were just supportive of Hannah doing what she wanted to do.” Much can be learned from Hannah’s approach to the issue, says Floyd Perras, Siloam’s executive director, adding, “What didn’t happen to Hannah was that she became disillusioned.” It’s easy to get discouraged when you understand the magnitude of the issue.

Hannah’s approach is simply to see homeless people for who they are: “Everyone,” she says, “is somebody’s somebody.” Her friend Rick Adams, a former homeless man in his fifties whom she met when she was seven, has been Hannah’s anchor to that world. “He’s my mooshum,” she says, using the word for “grandpa” in Adams’s Ojibwa language. “He’s my somebody.” Through Adams, who has a home and a job now, but has battled his share of demons, Hannah has learned the painful aspects of homelessness, including addiction and mental illness. None of it has scared her off.

His story is what keeps Hannah committed. An engaging speaker, she has given speeches on homelessness with students, politicians and business leaders. And she’s already met Stephen Harper twice. “You’re a little taller than the last time we met,” the Prime Minister joked when he awarded her the Diamond Jubilee Medal for the spirit of service earlier this year.

All the while, Hannah tries to live a normal teen life. She’s a giddy girl who loves horseback riding and dogsledding. “I love the Arctic,” she says. “Running a dog team in the Iditarod one day is a huge dream for me.” Her dream is to become “a National Geographic photographer and journalist.” Gabriela Perdomo

Danny Luong & Alexandre Allard: Science

When Danny Luong and Alexandre Allard were 18, they visited the local polystyrene foam landfill in Quebec City. “We had boots and a shovel,” recalls Luong. “The Styrofoam was piled one metre high. It was white and dirty—it shocked us.” The material had been accumulating for years, a landfill worker said. “And nobody was doing anything about it.”

Until then. Allard and Luong, whose friendship emerged from a shared “passion for science,” were there that day in 2009 to collect a soil sample to try to invent a way to biodegrade polystyrene foam, which takes up to a century to decompose naturally, releasing toxins as it breaks down. The pair figured that if the material could emit toxic molecules on its own over a long period of time, there must be a way to accelerate that process and make it less hazardous.

Luong and Allard dug up a kilogram of soil that had polystyrene foam—“and millions of bacteria”—in it and brought it to their school lab to test their hypothesis. Over the next 13 weeks, they incubated the soil and added incrementally more polystyrene foam to their sample and less “bacteria food.” Essentially, says Luong, “we forced the bacteria to eat Styrofoam or die.” Only three bacteria managed to survive.

That trio, pseudomonas fluorescens, pseudomonas putida, and streptomyces griseus, had happily consumed polystyrene foam, explains Allard, who now studies medicine at McGill. For the following two weeks, they applied the three bacteria to new and used polystyrene foam to verify how much degradation would occur over time, testing variables such as sample size and temperature.

“At the end of two weeks,” says Luong, a biology student at Concordia, “we had 70 per cent degradation.” Even better, the only toxic chemical released was CO2. “We were surprised,” Luong recalls, and “the lab techs even more so. I don’t think they expected students to do that.” Since then, they have presented their findings at international symposiusms, entered provincial and national science competitions—and won the prestigious 2010 Stockholm Junior Water Prize.

Now the duo is being courted by polystyrene foam companies. But neither is rushing to patent their work or make deals. They want to test ways to make this viable on an industrial scale. Big science might one day mean big business. Cathy Gulli

Asad Muhammad and Mathew Ho

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

Asad Muhammad & Mathew Ho: Science

Last September, Mathew Ho buttonholed fellow student Asad Muhammad at Agincourt Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, Ont., and held up a crude drawing of a balloon, a box and a parachute. “I’m sending cameras into space,” Ho told Muhammad. “Are you in?” “We basically started the same day,” Muhammad says. Both were 17 and in Grade 12, but beyond that the similarities ended. Ho is fast-talking, hard-driving, a bit impetuous; Muhammad, who grew up in Pakistan and didn’t speak any English when he arrived in Canada in 2006, is soft-spoken, cautious, shy. But together they would send a Lego man into near space, capture awe-inspiring photos, and become two of the most famous high school seniors in Canada.

First, though, they had a lot of work to do. Ho had already assembled a Styrofoam box he designed to carry four point-and-shoot cameras into the stratosphere under a huge weather balloon. He tapped Muhammad because he knew his old pal had a passion for aviation and a work ethic that, in just five years, had won him near-perfect English. Together they carved Ho’s box into a meticulously fitted puzzle of compartments—one to carry a GPS-equipped cellphone, another to secure the cameras, a third to contain the parts and buffer them against falls. Everything was wrapped in light, water-resistant tape pilfered from Ho’s father David, a custom-home builder. “The living room was scattered with this project for months—the house was a mess,” David says.

They did it for under $500, sourcing cameras on Kijiji, ordering a high-altitude balloon online and making a parachute using a sewing machine borrowed from Muhammad’s mom. The Lego man, holding a Canadian flag, was nearly an afterthought: Muhammad fretted the figurine wouldn’t survive the high winds; Ho believed it would “bring people back to their childhoods” and capture imaginations. It was a good instinct. On Jan. 7, once they’d determined wind conditions were right—that their capsule wouldn’t perish in Lake Ontario after falling from the heavens—they dragooned David Ho into helping them launch. The balloon vanished in the clouds, then the GPS signal did too; an hour later it returned. When they recovered the box they couldn’t believe the footage: the Lego man had climbed 80,000 feet, under a balloon that in the thin air of near space grew to the size of a house. “When I saw the blackness and the curvature of the Earth I was like—aaaahhh!” says Ho. Their Lego Man has now been viewed online millions of times. Nicholas Kohler

Luke Strimbold: Politics

It was Friday night, Jan. 20; they were going bowling. Luke Strimbold—21 years old and less than two months since his election as mayor of Burns Lake, B.C.—was down in the Lower Mainland, visiting his mother Shelley Strimbold, a business student at Kwantlen University. It was a rare chance to get his three siblings and mother together. Luke was on Facebook just after 8 p.m. when he saw the first posts of an explosion up north in Burns Lake. He got on the phone.

The news got worse. The explosion levelled much of the Babine Forest Products sawmill, the area’s major employer. Fire consumed the rest. Men ran from the disaster with hard hats melted to their heads: 19 were injured, two men were missing and later confirmed dead. Listening to the anguish over the phone was horrible, he said. “It was hard for me not to be here.” He grabbed the first available flight back, and hasn’t stopped running since.

He called a meeting that Saturday of elected members, senior staff and representatives of all six neighbouring First Nations. “I promoted the message that we need to stand united. None of us is going to go through it alone.” Apart from the human toll, in proportional terms, the loss of the mill is the economic equivalent of Victoria losing its public service. It’s still not certain the owners will invest the $100 million needed to rebuild.

It would be a massive challenge for anyone, but the people of Burns Lake hadn’t elected the youngest mayor in Canada on a whim. He’s been in leadership roles in school and the community most of his young life. His election to council at 20, and as mayor at 21, seemed a natural progression.

Strimbold credits a resilient community spirit for the village’s unified response thus far. There was a successful jobs fair. The village is fast-tracking a tourism strategy, and is leveraging all available grants for economic development projects. It staged a Healing our Hearts benefit concert and other morale boosters. The mayor and council delivered a zero per cent tax increase, and rolled back their own pay. He earns $15,000 a year, and all the worry he can handle.

Shelley recalls watching him that frantic Friday and realizing only later she never once doubted her young son can shoulder this burden. “I believe absolutely he is in the right place at the right time,” she says. “He is meant to be mayor of Burns Lake.” Ken MacQueen

Ted Livingston


Ted Livingston: Business

With his grey hoodie and shaggy hair, Ted Livingston came across as a friendlier, less intense version of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a recent appearance at South by Southwest, the annual music film and technology bash in Austin. The 25-year-old university dropout was in Texas to promote his latest mobile application, called Clik, after striking it big a few years ago with Kik Messenger, a free smartphone instant messaging app.

Though Clik itself seems like a bit of a novelty—it effectively turns a smartphone into a sort of remote control with the power to stream content over any Web-connected screen, be it an iPad or 55-inch flat-panel TV—it’s Livingston’s vision for the technology that makes a comparison with Zuckerberg seem fitting. Just as the Facebook founder foresaw an online world glued together by people’s social connections, Livingston is betting smartphones will eventually come to be viewed as the centre of people’s computing experience. Everything else will simply be seen as a peripheral device. No longer will you plug your iPhone into your laptop for updates or to download music. Instead you will hook your laptop to your smartphone so you can watch movies, YouTube videos or play games on a bigger screen. It’s a subtle, but potentially profound shift in emphasis. “Smartphones are going to change the world more than the PC and the Internet combined,” Livingston wrote in an email to Maclean’s. He politely declined to be interviewed. “I just want everything to be about Kik/Clik, rather than about me.”

It might sound like false modesty, but Livingston has already developed a reputation for putting others first. Last year, he donated $1 million to the University of Waterloo’s VeloCity Residence, a mobile and digital incubator for start-ups, where the concept for Kik was conceived. Even more impressive, according to the blog TechCrunch, was that the money came after Livingston sold some of his personal shares following an US$8-million round of venture capital financing for Kik. The blog called Livingston’s approach an “inspiring move.”

Livingston’s sudden rise from student to CEO began two years ago. That’s when he launched the free Kik Messenger app and watched as it was downloaded one million times in just over two weeks.

But Livingston’s success hasn’t been without its critics. He is being sued by Research In Motion Ltd., which claims Livingston borrowed ideas for Kik from the popular BlackBerry Messenger product during a series of co-op placements in 2008. Livingston has denied the allegations.

It’s too soon to tell whether Livingston’s meteoric rise will continue in the fickle world of tech. But the fact that he’s already been targeted with lawsuits, just as Zuckerberg was when Facebook’s popularity first skyrocketed, suggests he’s already well on his way. Chris Sorensen

Marshall Zhang: Science

The summer after Grade 10, Marshall Zhang participated in Shad Valley, a summer enrichment program at Newfoundland’s Memorial University. Spending the month with other high school students, he met someone who spent his spare time working in a university lab. “I’d always liked science,” says Zhang, now 17, and a student at Bayview Secondary School in Richmond Hill, outside Toronto. “But going to school and just memorizing facts wasn’t so interesting.” Working in a lab alongside researchers, he thought, sounded exciting.

Back home, Zhang was determined to find lab work. He contacted universities around Toronto, with no luck—most were unwilling to take on a high school student—until he met Dr. Christine Bear. Now co-chair of the Cystic Fibrosis Centre at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Bear accepted his offer of help. Over the coming months, Zhang went on to discover a new drug cocktail that could one day help treat cystic fibrosis, the most common fatal genetic disease affecting Canadian children and young adults. It has no cure.

In his free time, Zhang carried out simulations on SciNet, a supercomputing network, to predict how two drug-like compounds might work on the body. “He used these tools to predict that the two drugs bound to two different sites—raising the possibility that, if added together, they would be particularly effective,” says Bear. Zhang spent his Grade 11 March break testing this prediction on live cells in the lab. He found the combination treatment had an effect “almost double that of compounds available to labs today,” he says, just like the computer model had predicted.

Zhang entered his findings in science fairs and went on to win some big awards, including first place in the 2011 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada and a gold medal at the Canada Wide Science Fair, and raised $5,000 for research into cystic fibrosis. Zhang spent this past summer working as a full-time research student at SickKids, and plans to continue to work on the disease at university next year (Zhang’s now choosing between Harvard and Yale; both have accepted him).

For Zhang, the best part hasn’t been the research. “I’d been really involved with the science,” Zhang says, “but not so much with the human side of the disease.” After last year’s wave of publicity following his success, he heard from CF patients “literally all over the world, saying thanks for giving them hope. I was like, ‘Whoa, me, some Grade 11 kid?’” He adds, “I can safely say [this work] has changed my life.” Kate Lunau

Eden Full: Business

At three, Calgary native Eden Full had already made her career choice: she knew she wanted to be a scientist. It took a few more years, however, to pin down just what kind of scientist—until, that is, she built her first solar-powered car at age nine. A few years and many science scholarships later, the now-20-year-old may have designed solar energy’s holy grail: a solar panel cheap enough to be both commercially viable in the developing world and efficient enough to provide a reliable source of energy.

While a mechanical engineering student at Princeton University in New Jersey, Full built a rotator that allows solar panels to track the sun’s movements without using electricity. The $10 device, made of coils of steel and aluminum that expand and contract with the sun’s heat, increases energy output by up to 40 per cent. Two years ago, two prototypes were deployed to Kenya. Seeing people “using my stuff,” she says, “made things real.”

Full incorporated her own company, Roseicollis Technologies Inc., in Alberta earlier this year and is currently splitting her time between Calgary and San Francisco as she takes a two-year break from Princeton to hone her entrepreneurial skills. She has every intention of going back to New Jersey, to get the college degree her parents never had a chance to earn, she says. But for now, she’s soaking up everything Silicon Valley has to teach. Lesson number one, it seems, was that entrepreneurship, especially at 20, can be lonely. But “being the first one at doing something different is always going to be hard,” she says. Erica Alini

Jessie Legaree: Politics

As an undergraduate at Trinity Western University, Jessie Legaree’s favourite course concerned the development of the Canadian Constitution. “There were seven students and maybe three of us showed up regularly,” she says. “So, I mean, I recognize my passions are not very common.” However uncommon, they have positioned her well for a future in politics and public policy. And at 23, she is already a veteran of this stuff. Legaree currently works in the Langley, B.C., constituency office of Conservative MP Mark Warawa, and up until recently she was a member of the board with not one, but two Conservative riding associations. For five weeks last spring she put her master’s studies on hold—she’s due to graduate this spring with an M.A. in Canadian political philosophy—to work as the assistant to the Conservative party’s lead organizer in B.C. Despite coming from a family of British Columbia New Democrats, Legaree found herself coming down on the Conservative side of issues—on crime policy, for instance—but says she is not “hyper-partisan.” In Ottawa, she might be surrounded by similar twentysomethings—the dutiful aides who trail every minister and backbencher—but at the riding level a 23-year-old is rarer. “I’ve been the youngest person on every board that I’ve joined. And then I’ve tried to transform it,” she says. “Any board I’ve left there have been at least two people younger than me when I leave. Young people tend to attract other young people.” She says she’s been asked about running as a candidate, or running a campaign, but for now she’s focused on law school at the University of Toronto in the fall. Aaron Wherry

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