A Cross–Country Look at Some of Canada’s Pandemic Heroes

Being stuck at home didn’t stop us from doing great things. Join us on a countrywide tour, from Abbotsford and Niagara Falls to Whapmagoostui and Whitehorse, to meet just some of the Canadians who used their time in pandemic limbo to make others’ lives better, happier and a little more hopeful.

July 1, 2020


Hayley Wickenheiser: Team Up for Medical Supplies

Hayley Wickenheiser with other volunteers in protective gear and holding hockey sticks
   Photo: Conquer Covid-19

The hockey legend, who is currently in her fourth year of medical school, shares how she helped conquer the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage with the help of a famous friend.

enRoute How did you get started?

Hayley Wickenheiser After medical students got pulled out of hospitals, I was still in touch with doctors across Canada who were telling me stories of not having enough PPE. So, on April 5, I tweeted about acquiring PPE and my friend Ryan Reynolds – we met the night we were inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame – sent me a text saying, “Can I help you amplify that?” Millions of people seeing that really started a movement. About a day later, I partnered with a grassroots group of people in the Toronto area called Conquer COVID–19, and together we were able to create a volunteer effort that went on to raise $2.3 million and purchase millions of PPE items, which are being distributed to every province and territory.

ER As a six–time Olympian, you’ve seen Canada come together before. How does this compare?

HW When you go to the Olympic Games, you are part of a very small team trying to do a great thing – win a gold medal for your country. But with this movement, I felt like I was truly part of a team of 37 million people, trying to win a much bigger prize: saving lives and keeping people healthy.

ER Has this crisis changed your perspective on medical school?

HW It’s actually strengthened why I went into medicine in the first place, which is to help people – it’s why I signed up to do this.


Mandy Stobo: Forward–Facing Fundraising

An illustration of Dr. Bonnie Henry by Mandy Stobo
An illustration of Theresa Tam by Mandy Stobo
   Illustrations: Mandy Stobo

Mandy Stobo, a.k.a. @badportraits on Instagram, is known for her brilliant portraits, which are raw, colourful and downright striking. Since mid–March, Stobo has released daily hero portraits on her feed, starting with Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw. She’s since made that portrait available as a print on her website, with proceeds being donated to Calgary food banks – along with prints of B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and more Canadian health heroines.

Abbotsford, B.C.

Kai Chow: Let the Music Play

16-year-old award-winning violinist Kai Chow
   Photo: VSO

“Back in March, when people were stocking up on toilet paper, there was a feeling that music, which has always played such a big role in our lives, was silenced,” says 16–year–old award–winning violinist Kai Chow. But, thanks to Chow and his cousin Sébastien in Montreal, it wasn’t for long. The duo logged some serious FaceTime hours, uniting 40 young musicians from all 10 provinces and three territories – all of them playing a piece of the second movement from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, which they then pulled together into one single, stirring performance. But why Bach? “The second movement of Bach Double has a beautiful melody that everyone can recognize and enjoy.”


Arc’teryx: From Mountain Gear to Medical Gowns

Medical gowns made by Arc’teryx
A doctor wearing a green Arc’teryx made medical gown
   Photos: James Kim

You have never seen hospital gowns quite like these. That’s because Arc’teryx made them – just three of the 30,000 the B.C.–based outdoor apparel brand produced in response to a call from Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Apparel and Gear Association. With their normal production on hold, engineers, sewers and patternmakers got to work designing and testing a prototype for a waterproof gown that can withstand up to 50 rigorous washes. But what really sets the gowns apart is that they’re made from softshell, a go–to material in the outerwear world that Arc’teryx introduced to the market in 1998. Not only are they breathable, lightweight and soft to the touch, but many were made using brightly coloured material, in green, blue and yellow. “We’re hearing from medical professionals that it’s a deluxe gown – a cut above what they’re normally used to,” says Shirley Chan, senior director for product commercialization and quality for Arc’teryx. While she says the goal was to help with the shortage, they have made the design and technical specifications open–source through the BC Apparel and Gear Association website – so you may be seeing a new pattern in the medical community long after the pandemic has passed.


Gurdeep Pandher: Boosting Spirits with Bhangra

Gurdeep Pandher standing with his arms extended in the air at the edge of a waterfront cliff
   Photo: Mark Kelly

Gurdeep Pandher is a poet, an author, an artist and a dancer. Born in Siahar, a village in India’s Punjab state, he moved to Canada in 2006 and eventually made his home in Whitehorse. To boost spirits during the pandemic, Pandher began posting videos of himself dancing bhangra – a lively folk dance that originated in Punjab – deep in the Yukon wilderness (naturally, they went viral). He also began offering “pay what you can” online classes that have raised more than $3,000 for hospitals, food banks and mental health organizations. We had questions.

enRoute Why did you take bhangra to Twitter?

Gurdeep Pandher My videos are made to share love in local communities – bhangra is the dance of happiness, so it helps people stay positive, especially now. I felt great when people told me that my videos were “the most Canadian thing” they had ever watched; it makes me feel like my work is showing the beautiful side of Canadian multiculturalism. (See the videos at @GurdeepPander.)

ER How do you choose your video locations?

GP I live in a cabin in the wilderness, so I choose them based on natural, raw loveliness.

ER You have travelled widely in Canada – why was that important to you?

GP After I became a Canadian citizen in 2011, I felt a profound urge to discover my newly adopted country. I tried to immerse myself in local cultures. I stayed at people’s homes, I attended their weddings, danced with them the way they danced. When I was in Saskatchewan, I felt like a Saskatchewanian. When I was in Quebec, I felt like a Québécois. When I was in the Yukon, I felt like a Yukoner. I also visited several Indigenous communities and always felt welcomed. I danced bhangra with Indigenous chiefs. I listened to their stories and I shared mine.

ER What is your biggest tip for learning bhangra?

GP So far, 750 students have attended my classes from every corner of Canada and elsewhere. Learning a new dance is like learning a new language – you have to learn fluency in all the moves and then how to put them together, so dedication is the most important thing.

Read more from Gurdeep Pandher.

Toronto via Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Matt Mays: Living Room Sessions

Matt Mays in a white button up shirt
   Photo: Devin McLean

Juno–winning singer–songwriter Matt Mays feels most at home playing live in front of legions of adoring fans. These days, the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, native is at home, literally, doing just that. Live from his living room in his adopted home of Toronto, Mays performs his Mantle Music concert series on YouTube to raise money for those affected by the pandemic. Each week thousands, from North Bay to New Zealand, tune in to catch his signature brand of indie folk rock and so far more than $100,000 in donations have poured in, with proceeds going to organizations important to Mays, including the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia and the SPCA.

Read more from Matt Mays.


Lourdes Juan: Food Mover

Lourdes Juan transporting a box of repurposed bananas

When Lourdes Juan saw food insecurity skyrocket during the pandemic, she mobilized her non–profit Leftovers, which has worked with restaurants, grocers and distributors to repurpose ingredients and redirect them to people in need since 2012. Leftovers gathered thousands of kilograms of food in eight weeks – just over 68,000 meals. “People from different non–profits shared volunteers and resources – seeing the community come together is what has kept me going,” she says.

Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria

Rally Together

A jar of Golden Raw Honey, a jar of Rose Soaking Salts and Three Bears Set of 3 wax wraps
From left to right: Golden Raw Honey; Rose Soaking Salts; Three Bears Set of 3 wax wraps.

Twenty–three small businesses joined forces in support of Food Banks Canada – here are just a few of our favourite products from companies supporting the cause.

Drizzle Honey

Golden Raw Honey ($14)

Well Kept

Rose Soaking Salts (from $20)

Goldilocks Wraps

Three Bears Set of 3 wax wraps ($30)

Use RALLYTOGETHER at checkout.


Julie Nesrallah: Musical Interlude

Julie Nesrallah sitting in a red dress and black boots
   Photo: Catherine Farquharson

“I decided, if I can’t go to Paris then I’m going to sing here, and I chose ‘O Sole Mio’ because it tells the story of how brilliant it is when the sun comes out after a big storm, so there’s an undertone of philosophical hope,” says Julie Nesrallah, the mezzo–soprano and CBC radio host who donned a little black dress and dark red lipstick before belting out the Neapolitan tune from her balcony in March. Her sunset serenade was a gift of hope to her community, and it went viral. “There are still the things that matter most and bring you joy, like picking up a good book, or listening to music. They can replenish something that you’ve lost.”

Read more from Julie Nesrallah.


Janette Bertrand: Write of Passage

A portrait of Janette Bertrand
   Photo: Julien Faugere

Janette Bertrand, a 95–year–old writer and educator, shared her autobiographical expertise during the lockdown to inspire seniors to write about their lives. “Putting your life on paper is like therapy,” she says. “What have we accomplished? By answering that question, we understand the importance of our lives.” Her eight–part video workshop, Écrire sa vie! (Write Your Life!), is free to watch and she’ll release another video in the fall, sharing passages from some of the autobiographies submitted.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

Niagara Hotels: Lighting Up the Night

Hearts light up the buildings of Niagara Falls' skyline
   Photo: Modern Version Photography

Glowing hearts lit up the night skyline in Niagara Falls in March and April as a symbol of support and solidarity from the windows of the city’s hotels and businesses.


Corrina Allen and Lexi McKenna: Pandemic Post

An illustrated postcard from the Project Postcard initiative
Project Postcard.
Illustrated postcards from the series' “Greetings from Toronto” and “Greetings from Quarantine” that can be coloured in
“Greetings from Quarantine” postcards.


Project Postcard

When travel writer Corrina Allen heard how lonely residents in long–term care homes were, she and her coalition of volunteer writers began sending them postcards (@project_travel_postcard on Instagram). Some contain a handwritten anecdote from a past adventure, while others are simply filled with words of support.

Paper & Poste

Graphic designer Lexi McKenna has created four–packs of postcards ($15) for a good cause. (All proceeds are donated to a local charity supporting front–line workers.) Colour in major landmarks in the two “Greetings from Toronto” cards and quirky household items in the two off–the–cuff “Greetings from Quarantine” postcards – stamps included!


Little Ox Film Company: Screen Saviours

While physical distancing helped flatten the curve, it isolated a large number of seniors. Enter Little Ox Film Company, stage right. They launched the Messenger Ox Project to send short films free of charge to residents in seniors’ homes from their loved ones, ensuring minimal tech savviness was required. (Simply record a video message, e–mail it to the company along with the address of the care home and a volunteer ensures it gets delivered.) Five stars.

Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver

Mask Makers

Three face masks by Frank and Oak, Bather and Glasnost
Canadian brands design stylish masks that give back: Frank and Oak (left); Bather (centre); Glasnost (right).

Frank and Oak

Profits from the masks ($24 per set of two) – made from upcycled shirts – go to Moisson Montréal, which distributes food donations throughout the city.


For every graphic mask ($15) the swim–trunks company sells, one is donated to a Toronto food bank.


One dollar from the sale of every Japanese cotton mask (from $16) goes to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.

Check out more Canadian–made masks.


Kim Briscoe and More: Street Smarts

Will Phillips in front of his mural of a healthcare worker with angel wings
Will Phillips painted his mural on a boarded–up storefront at 965 Granville Street in downtown Vancouver.     Photo: Shaelin Fritzsch
Murals painted onto the boarded up windows of Kimprints in Gastown, Vancouver
Kimprints, Gastown, British Columbia.     Photo: Erich Saide

Kim Briscoe saw the boarded–up storefront of Kimprints, her picture–framing store in Gastown, as an opportunity for art. “I slept on it, and by the next morning I knew exactly what I was going to do,” she says. She called a few local artists and they got to work, painting murals on walls to reflect what was happening in the news.

Word caught on. “Gastown became completely filled up with art within two weeks,” says Breece Austin, a contributing artist whose mural on the Kimprints store paid tribute to Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. More than 50 other artists participated, including Izzie Cheung, a respiratory therapist whose mural honours three colleagues. “I wanted respiratory therapists in Canada and around the world to know that there is somebody outwardly appreciating them,” she says.

The grassroots effort motivated the Vancouver Mural Festival to mobilize artists like Will Phillips to paint other parts of downtown (with support from the City of Vancouver). Phillips’ artwork was inspired by Allied WWII propaganda posters. “It was a way to show support for healthcare workers, while adding a splash of colour to the street.”

Brooklyn via Toronto

Gail Simmons: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Gail Simmons holding a bowl of pasta
   Photo: Guerin Blask

The TV presenter and cookbook author shares why she got behind #TakeOutHate to help fight discrimination against Asian restaurants.

enRoute On top of the crisis all restaurants are facing, Asian restaurants are suffering from pandemic–driven discrimination. How did you get involved?

Gail Simmons I’ve spent the last few months watching my industry in turmoil. As someone who is a cheerleader for this community, I was outraged by the added layer of suffering that Asian restaurants are facing. It is within our ability to change this, and I felt lending my voice to the #TakeOutHate campaign was a way to help.

ER Where did the idea for #TakeOutHate come from?

GS #TakeOutHate came from a Japanese company called Ajinomoto that I’ve worked with over the last year. We produced a video featuring funny non–food people, including Margaret Cho, Harry Shum Jr. and Jenny Yang, putting a comedic but purposeful spin on how important it is to support Asian businesses. We must all actively play a role in fighting racism, and as a white person I’m very conscious of the privileged position I’m in.

ER How can we all help?

GS Get takeout from your local Asian restaurant. Buy a gift certificate. Make a donation to a restaurant relief fund. It isn’t only Asian restaurants, it’s all minority–owned, small–scale restaurants. All you have to do is order takeout to help them survive.

Read more from Gail Simmons.


Amy Burstyn Fritz: Flower Power

Bouquets of pink flowers strewn across a sign
   Photo: Storey Wilkins

Inspired by other acts of everyday kindness, Toronto PR pro Amy Burstyn Fritz launched Feel Good Flowers, a grassroots initiative that collaborates with florists to create elaborate installations filled with peonies, roses and other fresh blooms outside of the city’s hospitals. “Our mission is to touch as many lives as possible by bringing beauty and gratitude to those who are working on the front lines of our healthcare system, as well as those who are benefiting from their care,” she says. Fifteen lush displays have been installed, and the initiative is also raising money for Toronto hospitals.


Sarah London: Just For Laughs

A portrait of Sarah London in front of a wall of flowers
   Photo: Haley Charney

When her performances were cancelled in early March, comedian Sarah London started her own live comedy shows on social media to put smiles back on people’s faces. Starting @comedy_open_mic and #Covid19OnlineComedyOpenMic on Instagram was a way for London to share jokes and connect with over 65 other comedians from across Canada. The best part? You can watch her highlight reel to see the range of household items she uses for a microphone.


Patsy Van Roost: Signs For the Times

Patsy Van Roost strings a sign across her balcony in Montreal's Mile End
   Photo: Mikaël Theimer

“It’s by working – by doing – that I’m able to keep the doom and gloom of the crisis at bay. Taking care of others is what keeps me alive.”


Artist Patsy Van Roost, a.k.a. the Mile End Fairy (she earned the nickname for her projects aimed at strengthening relationships in her Montreal neighbourhood), is taking her message to balconies around town. Since March, she’s made some 200 banners designed to spark joy. It all began when friends asked her to create a sign expressing their gratitude toward their neighbours. The French message, roughly translated, read: “Couldn’t be happier to be confined with you.” Requests began flowing in. For those who can’t go out, Van Roost has created a Google Maps page showing the location of her banners with a yellow icon, like “little bursts of sunlight,” allowing them to take a virtual stroll from one balcony bearing the message “Take care of the present, reimagine the future” to another.


Esie Mensah: Dancing Queen

Esie Mensah posing in a dance formation against a yellow background
   Photo: Asiko Photography

“I wanted to see what I could do to get people up and moving and happy again,” says Esie Mensah, a dancer, choreographer, model and movement director who has danced on tour with Arcade Fire and in Drake and Rihanna’s Work video (“I’m the one wearing a silvery shirt, dead centre!”) and whose production Shades tackles the issue of shadeism in the Black community. Mensah has been teaching Afro–fusion dance for about a decade and she says putting her classes on Instagram (@esiemensah) was a way to give back while also bringing people together. “I felt unsure at first, and thought ‘will people like this?’” They did. “It is a wonderful feeling connecting with people you would never have had contact with otherwise.”

Edmonton, Toronto, Whapmagoostui

Classes In Session

Ballerina Jurgita Dronina posing in a green leotard and white skirt
Ballerina Jurgita Dronina.   Photo: Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada

Tune in to artists and performers sharing their talents from home.


Professional artists across the country host weekly live tutorials on Facebook, from abstract florals with Amy Dixon to chalk lettering with Justine Ma, through Edmonton–based initiative Canadians Create.


Some of the Toronto–based National Ballet of Canada’s dancers, including Jurgita Dronina, Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden, have been leading free ballet classes and participating in barre–side chats on the company’s Instagram, @nationalballet.


Whapmagoostui, Quebec–based artist Nalakwsis teaches you how to make everything from beaded hoops to fringe earrings in their live workshops on Instagram, @nalakwsis.