The ones to watch

There’s no shortage of promise among these 11 young Canadians

If Malcolm Gladwell is right, and it really takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft, the following 11 Canadians—all of whom are younger than 25—have been incredibly busy. Among this gifted bunch is a 13-year-old figure skater who recently became the youngest junior men’s champion in the nation’s history, a 15-year-old whose research could change how autistic children are educated, a multi-award-winning film director who’s only 16, and a 23-year-old small-town mayor with some big ideas—and a day job.

And while these phenoms aren’t household names, this won’t be the last you hear of them. In January 2000, Maclean’s named a young guy from Burnaby, B.C., one of the “faces of the future.” At the time, the 24-year-old had just landed a gig as the opening act for Dionne Warwick, and told the magazine that if he ever became rich and famous he’d take his parents to Paris and buy his grandfather season tickets to the Vancouver Canucks. That young singer’s name was Michael Bublé.

Lea Clermont Dion

Photograph by Richmond Lam

Léa Clermont-Dion – Activism

“I’m not an activist.” These aren’t words you’d expect to hear from Léa Clermont-Dion. After all, the 20-year-old native of Gore, Que., has dedicated herself to the issues of body acceptance, gender equality and the portrayal of women in the fashion world for much of her life. At 14, she organized a university conference bringing together Quebec’s best-known feminists. In 2007, at 16, Clermont-Dion, who suffered from anorexia herself in her early teens, and Jacinthe Veillette started a petition calling for the promotion of healthy body image and an end to the “hypersexualization” of women, particularly in the fashion world. The petition, which proposed a seven-point charter, garnered 20,000 signatures; Clermont-Dion lobbied the Association of Canadian Advertisers, which along with several other media, fashion and education groups endorsed the charter’s principles. Her initiative also caught the eye of Christine St-Pierre, the province’s culture minister, and in 2010, the Quebec government adopted la Charte de l’image corporelle saine et diversifiée (the charter for a healthy and diverse body image), which seeks to lessen the instances of body issues among women and men. It is a first of its kind in North America.

Although she concedes that a major breakthrough is “going to take a long time,” there’s been some real progress: several Quebec fashion magazines have also endorsed the charter in their pages, while Festival Mode et Design, Montreal’s annual fashion to-do, has a show featuring “diverse” models. Globally, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty features what Clermont-Dion calls “normal” women. More recently, Clermont-Dion coordinated a program in Burkina Faso, teaching radio programming and journalism, and is now producing a documentary about young people and body image. “We need to focus on the catwalk,” she says. “People don’t see themselves in what they see there.” Martin Patriquin

Andrew Wiggins – Sports

Somewhere along the way, Andrew Wiggins earned the nickname “Great Canadian Hope.” Which is not very creative, considering that another Canuck—Steve Nash, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player—has already proven that his citizenry belongs on a professional basketball court. (We did invent the game, after all.)

But ignore the unfortunate moniker, and everything else about Wiggins—the hype, the headlines, the jaw-dropping talent—is legit. The six-foot-seven Ontario teenager is a bona fide basketball prodigy, and just might be the best 16-year-old hoopster on either side of the border. “He has size and athleticism that most people would kill for,” says Leo Rautins, head coach of the Canadian men’s basketball team. “He has a world of potential in front of him, and could be a spectacular player.”

Wiggins certainly has the genes to succeed. His father, Mitch, is a former Houston Rocket who battled Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals. His mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, was a Canadian track star who won two silver medals at the 1984 Olympic Summer Games. By the age of 13, their high-flying son was dunking and dominating—and starring in a YouTube clip that made him an instant Internet sensation (at last count, the video has been viewed nearly 2.6 million times). Wiggins was such a wonder at such a young age that U.S. colleges, including Duke and North Carolina, began pursuing him while he was still in elementary school.

Now in Grade 10 at Vaughan Secondary, just north of Toronto, Wiggins led his team to a provincial title in March. In the championship game, he poured in 25 points, snagged 14 rebounds and was named tournament MVP. He then promptly announced that he will play his final two years of high school ball in the United States. “He wants to go to where the competition is,” his father told one reporter. “He’s ready.”

Andrew thinks so, too. On his Twitter page, beside a photo of himself finishing a two-handed dunk, he wrote: “Gunna be the best everr.” Michael Friscolanti

Brian Wong

Photographs by Andrew Tolson

Brian Wong – Business

Roughly a year ago, Brian Wong, then 19, was laid off from Digg, a struggling San Francisco-based social networking company, after just a few months on the job. He calls it the “best decision I never made.” Wong, a native of Vancouver, decided to travel and soon saw that everywhere he went people were tapping away at games on their smartphones. But he also realized advertisers were missing out on the lucrative mobile gaming market because of their reliance on dull and annoying banner ads to get their message across.

Wong’s answer is Kiip (pronounced keep). The upstart company offers real-world rewards, furnished by advertisers, to players who clear difficult levels or reach high scores in mobile games. The offers allow brands to connect with players when they’re riding high after some hard-fought achievement. Kiip has already partnered with advertisers such as 1-800-FLOWERS, Carl’s Jr., Dr. Pepper and Sony.

Wong isn’t new to entrepreneurship. After he graduated with a business degree from the University of British Columbia in 2009, the job market was bleak. So he launched a Web design company. Kiip was a much bigger venture, though, and it took all his savings to develop the prototype. Then, last fall, Wong landed a meeting with the venture capital partners at True Ventures and came away with a US$300,000 investment. The popular tech blog Techcrunch called him the youngest person to ever receive VC funding. “As a 19-year-old you think that’s the most money you’ll ever see,” he recalls. “Then you realize quickly it’s not a lot when you’re building a business.”

Kiip has since raised another US$4 million. The company now employs 12 people at offices in both New York and San Francisco. “People in the industry are looking for something new,” he says, “and not just a rehash of old solutions.” And with huge potential for Kiip’s unique advertising model far beyond the mobile gaming world, Wong is just getting started. Jason Kirby

Adelina Corina Cozma – Science

For the past few years, Adelina Corina Cozma has been volunteering in a special-education classroom, working with autistic students who have “difficulties processing speech and emotion,” she says. Inspired by this work, the lifelong science buff designed a state-of-the-art audio-visual system to help them better communicate. This work, which earned several awards at last month’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, including first prize from the American Psychological Association, could revolutionize classrooms. All this, and Cozma is still just 15 years old.

As part of a science fair project, the teenager used interactive games to measure the response times and accuracy of responses to speech-like sounds of a group of typically developing children, and another of high-functioning autistic kids. Each individual had a different optimal speech rate, and “autistic subjects needed a longer amount of time to process these sounds,” says Cozma, now in Grade 10 at Bayview Secondary School in Richmond Hill, Ont. So Cozma paired up with local companies and developed a system that can capture sound and images, and “personalize it based on each individual’s specific needs,” she says. A teacher’s lesson, for instance, could be broadcast to each student individually, on a laptop, processed according to how they’d best understand it.

Cozma, who hopes the prototype will one day become cost-effective enough that it can be rolled out in classrooms, has since developed the system for other applications—it could be used to screen medical patients, says Cozma, who aspires to become a neuroscientist. And though she hasn’t yet decided on the topic of her next big discovery, she’s already set aside her summer to work on it. Kate Lunau

Thomas Sierzycki – Politics

Thomas Sierzycki is talking about La Ronge’s new water treatment plant and housing starts and downtown revitalization. And if there is anything particularly remarkable about any of this, it’s that the voice talking about these things does not sound as deep or weathered as you might otherwise expect.

La Ronge is a town of 3,500 in northern Saskatchewan. Sierzycki is its mayor. And he is 23 years old. “I like to see myself as a mayor who happens to be young,” he says. “Obviously people see me as a young mayor. So be it. I think it’s important to get the information across that young people should be contributing to civil service.”

After serving as a volunteer firefighter and emergency responder in high school, he successfully ran for town council in 2006 at the age of 18. As the end of his first term neared he began to consider his options elsewhere, but when his late mother became sick with cancer, family became his priority. And if he was going to be in La Ronge, he wanted to make the “biggest difference” possible. “The rest,” he says, “is history.” He received nearly 70 per cent of the vote in October 2009—becoming, at 21, one of the youngest Canadian mayors on record. He is eager, he says, to win over those who question his age and readily seeks out advice from those who may know better. “The biggest thing is identifying your weaknesses and going out and trying to have people help you out with those weaknesses,” says Sierzycki, who completed an education degree last year and maintains a day job with a uranium mining company.

He has volunteered for federal campaigns and might pursue higher office someday, but for now he is focused on his mayoral agenda. Infrastructure is a concern and he’d like to see a public pool built. He’s also working to garner support for a new bike helmet bylaw. “I don’t see age when I’m talking to him,” says Doreen Polischuk, the 56-year-old deputy mayor. “He’s the mayor.” Aaron Wherry

Joseph Procopio- Film

On the second day of shooting his 11th short film, Joseph Procopio had a crisis. His lead actress walked on set, hiding her face. “Her eye was the size of a baseball,” he laughs. “And we were doing her close-ups that day. I just started laughing. Panicking and laughing. We were shooting in two hours. So we did a Benadryl run and got the makeup crew to double-cake it. We had to redo our storyboard on the spot. In the end, I don’t think you can even tell.”

Speaking from his dad’s office in Woodbridge, Ont., the 16-year-old is talking about his most recent project—a 12-minute short film shot over five days in March at his high school. The ambitious teen wrote, directed, and co-edited the movie, a modern love story about a boy who discovers letter-writing in the age of obsessive texting. On set, Procopio managed a crew of 30 and a cast of nine. “I’m quoting Steven Spielberg here, but the hardest thing for a director is knowing what he wants,” he says. “When I walked onto the set, I knew what I wanted.”

It’s a skill that comes naturally to Procopio. Since the age of nine, his writing, directing, co-editing and producing has earned him 36 awards at 108 film festivals across North America, Europe, and Asia. His first film won top prize at the 2004 Toronto Sprockets International Film Festival for Children when he was nine. “I couldn’t hold the trophy,” he says. “It was too heavy for me.”

Procopio recalls recreating chase sequences when he was seven, using toy cars, his sisters’ Barbie dolls, and his dad’s Sony Handycam. Raised on DVD bonus features and 10-hour movie marathons (“My parents thought my eyes were going to melt”), Procopio imitated angles and styles as he saw them on the screen. By nine, he was knocking elbows with Jamie Foxx at a party at the Palm Springs Film Festival, after screening his first short film, 9×8, to an audience of 200. “I couldn’t talk to anybody—I didn’t even have the vocabulary,” he says. “I was talking to their kids.”

Procopio now boasts a cinematic vocabulary that would rival the industry’s most knowledgeable. On the top of his list of directorial heroes is Paul Haggis, the Canadian writer-director of Crash. “It’s just absolutely amazing how he conveys his characters,” says Procopio, who is currently in pre-production of his first feature-length screenplay. That includes applying for funding and distributors—when he’s not cramming in his schoolwork. “I’ve got a short film coming up this summer, so I’ll do the feature next summer. Or maybe next March break.” Claire Ward

Jan Lisiecki – Music

Jan Lisiecki takes things fast. The 16-year-old Calgary-born pianist, who made his orchestral debut at the age of nine, has already earned global recognition and a concert at Carnegie Hall; Fanfare magazine called him a “mop-headed, smooth-faced kid” who “plays the piano like macho man.” Academically, he hasn’t wasted any time either, skipping several grades and finishing high school in January. As for the time spent perfecting his piano skills, Lisiecki can’t say exactly how much practice it takes to become a prodigy. “It’s not about the amount of hours that you spend at the piano,” he says, “it’s more the concentration and focus.”

Though he’s been a soloist more than 50 times in his career, Lisiecki really grabbed the international spotlight last year after two of his Chopin concerts in his parents’ native Poland were combined into a CD. Critics went wild over the inexpensively produced disc, proclaiming him the natural successor to other wunderkind pianists like Lang Lang; John Allison of BBC Music Magazine called him “the most complete pianist of his age.” The CBC has described him as “one of the most sensational young artists to emerge in Canada in the past decade.”

Good reviews and healthy sales helped earn the Calgary-born Lisiecki a five-CD contract with Deutsche Grammophon, the world’s biggest classical music label, whose roster of artists includes Placido Domingo and Ben Heppner. Lisiecki’s first album with the venerable label will be released this fall, soon after he opens the season with France’s prestigious Orchestre De Paris.

But Lisiecki has managers to worry about scheduling. He prefers to focus on playing, and “the feeling that I’m touching something much greater than myself. Music expresses everything that can’t be said, and is something that cannot be fully comprehended by human beings.” Jaime J. Weinman

Ben Gulak – Business

On a recent afternoon, Ben Gulak visited SpaceX, the California-based space transport company created by Elon Musk, who is also the CEO of electric-car company Tesla Motors and a co-founder of PayPal. “He’s a big inspiration to me and is doing some amazing work,” says Gulak, 22, a budding inventor and entrepreneur in his own right. Though he says that he’s not angling to embark on an otherworldly project with SpaceX, at least not yet, he can scarcely hide his enthusiasm for Musk’s big-picture thinking. “He’s someone who is going to change the world.”

It was a similarly bold idea that first launched Gulak into the spotlight five years ago when he was still a high school student in Milton, Ont. As a science fair project, Gulak conceived of a one-wheeled electric motorcycle that used a gyroscope system to maintain its balance—similar to how a Segway operates. He came up with the concept after a family trip to China, where he was struck by the need for a compact vehicle that could be stored in a small apartment. The Uno found its way onto the cover of Popular Science magazine, and Gulak appeared on the hit CBC-TV show Dragon’s Den in 2008, where he rustled up $1.25 million to further develop the concept (he only ended up with a portion of the promised cash after the rest of the Dragons pulled out in the wake of the recession). Now he lives in Boston and heads up BPG Motors, a company that is trying to bring to market the latest version of the Uno, which morphs into a two-wheeled bike at higher speeds. Gulak, who studied mechanical engineering at MIT, has also invented an off-road vehicle called the DTV Shredder. The Shredder looks like a burly push scooter with motorized tracks and has piqued the interest of the U.S. military, which is keen to use it as a medevac vehicle on the battlefield. He has another vehicle on the drawing board, too, which he describes as “a new take on an ATV.”

Gulak never imagined that the Shredder, conceived as a recreational vehicle, would position him as a potential defence contractor. “What I hope will happen is to follow in the footsteps of Bombardier,” he says, referring to the Montreal-based aerospace giant. “They started with a snowmobile.” Chris Sorensen

Nam Nguyen – Sports

At six, he landed his first single axel, and within a year Nam Nguyen was turning doubles. The next revolution was longer in the making—elite skaters are typically in their teens before they complete a three-turn jump. But Nguyen nailed a triple Salchow when he was nine, just in time for the 2008 national figure skating championships in Ottawa. “We added it to my program,” he laughs from his home in Burnaby, B.C. “That’s how I won my second title.”

For half his young life, Nguyen has been notching career milestones like a kid punching a day pass at an amusement park, charting course for the top echelon of his sport. He was the youngest competitor to win national titles in the juvenile, pre-novice and novice levels. In January, at the age of 12, he became the youngest ever Canadian junior men’s champion, nudging out skaters four years his senior. In his mind’s eye, this breathtaking trajectory ends on an Olympic podium, where he’d be proud to wear the maple leaf. That’s getting ahead of himself, but not by much.

Nguyen’s aptitude for skating was beyond preternatural, say his parents Sony and Thu, Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the country in 1979. They signed him up for hockey when Nam was five. But one day after a game in Richmond, B.C., a group of figure skaters on an adjacent ice surface caught his eye. “I liked the way they jumped,” he says. “After his first lesson,” recalls his father, Sony, “the coach came to me and said, ‘I want to keep this boy in figure skating.’ ”

Nguyen, who recently turned 13, is now coached by Joanne McLeod, who has worked with Canadian stars like Emanuel Sandhu and Kevin Reynolds. He idolizes fellow Canadian and current world champion Patrick Chan, whose recent routines have established a new standard of flawlessness. How one improves on perfection is hard to say. If anyone can, it’s probably Nguyen. Charlie Gillis

Rui Song

Sean Kilpatrick/CPPress

Rui Song – Science

Students usually look forward to escaping school in the summer. But not Saskatoon native Rui Song. In fact, the 15-year-old recently talked the faculty at the University of Saskatchewan into letting her on campus, where she plans to embark on her latest research into the surprisingly complex topic of lentils. “I’d like to be at the lab every day,” she says. “The more hours I spend there, the more experience and knowledge I gain.”

It’s that determination and enthusiasm that has propelled Song to the top ranks of student scientists from around the world. Last month, she won second place and $1,500 at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in the plant sciences category, for her research that identified a genetic method to differentiate between two fungi that attack and destroy lentil yields by as much as half. Song’s work could help farmers better determine the risk of the fungi infecting their crops. This same research earned Song first place and $5,000 at last year’s Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge—she is the youngest winner of that prize ever. In fact, Song is a trailblazer: her celebrated lentil research, which was described by one judge as “groundbreaking,” is the first time this type of genetic screening has ever been done.

Eventually, she wants to be a life sciences researcher, though she hasn’t decided on a specialty. For now, it’s lentils. As part of her upcoming project, she will examine ways of using the antioxidant-rich lentils to improve the health of individuals in developing countries. Song, who notes that her home province produces one-third of the world’s lentils, says her work has given her a greater appreciation of the pulse’s importance. “I liked lentils before, but my main exposure was eating them. Yay, lentil soup!” jokes Song. “Now I like them even more.”  CathyGulli

Alaina Podmorrow – Activism

When Alaina Podmorrow hits the soccer fields around her hometown of Lake Country, B.C., north of Kelowna, the 14-year-old is transformed—competitive, driven, she’s got a knack for putting the ball into the net. Perhaps due to her easy grin, that fire on the field tends to surprise. It shouldn’t. With similar grit she’s raised more than $300,000 over the past five years to help educate girls in Afghanistan, where less than a third of eligible girls go to school.

It began when Podmorrow was nine years old and her mother Jamie, then a dental assistant, brought her to hear journalist Sally Armstrong give a talk on the plight of Afghan women. The presentation had a profound effect, in particular the tale of Luna, a young woman forced to look after her siblings when both her parents died. “If I have free time, I either hang out with my friends or go to the movies or the mall,” says Alaina. “Luna would go to the cemetery and sit underneath a tree and talk to her parents about how her life is and how she really wanted to go to school. It was just a pivotal moment for me.”

Podmorrow persuaded a group of friends to help raise $750, enough to hire one Afghan teacher for a year. Through a combination of bake sales, car washes and a silent auction, they ended up raising enough for five teachers. Podmorrow went on to found Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan and has since fundraised enough to help its sister organization, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, build a school, train hundreds of teachers and launch a project that will see mobile libraries and science kits travel across Afghanistan. Little Women now has a dozen chapters—they prefer to call themselves teams—across North America, and Alaina’s mother has left her dental assistant job to run the organization full time.

For Podmorrow, money’s just the beginning—last year she travelled across Canada and the U.S. delivering between 30 and 40 talks about her work (Aberdeen Hall Preparatory School, the private school she attends on scholarship, makes special arrangements to deal with all the schoolwork she’s missed). Sometime within the next year, she hopes to visit Afghanistan herself for the first time. Later, she plans on becoming an international human rights lawyer. Her drive comes from an insight into the world that could only come from her activism championing Afghan girls. “I feel like we’re not so different from them because even though we’re living a world apart,” she says, “we’re just kids.” Nicholas Köhler

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