Canada has a lively appreciation for South Asian people, cultures, and cuisines. Home to the world’s eighth largest diaspora, it has vibrant South Asian communities all over, especially in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. Many of these were home to some of our favorite desis celebrities – some born there, others the gift of immigration. This is a personal shortlist of really special South Asian Canadian (s)heroes.
Born in Toronto, Ontario in 1956 after her parents migrated from Bangalore, India, Dr. Sheela Basrur was a beloved Canadian physician, the Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Assistant Deputy Minister of Public Health. Dr. Sheela became internationally renowned as “the doctor who guided us through the SARS crisis” during the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Toronto, Canada. Throughout her career, she was awarded many prestigious honors. Most notably, in March 2008, the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion became known as the Sheela Basrur Centre, and in April 2008, she was inducted into the Order of Ontario, the most prestigious honor in the Canadian province of Ontario. Dr. Basrur passed away from cancer in June 2008.
Born in Srinagar, India in 1943, Dr. Syeda Hameed is a tireless women’s rights activist, lecturer, and writer. Immigrating to Alberta, Canada, she earned her Ph.D. in 1972 and progressed to the position of Director of Colleges and Universities at the Alberta Ministry of Advanced Education and Manpower in 1978. Returning to India in 1984, Hameed became the founding trustee of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) and the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation. She was a member of India’s National Commission for Women and the Planning Commission of India. In 2007, India awarded her with the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian honor in that country, for her contributions to Indian society. She is the chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University for women in Hyderabad and sits on The Hunger Project’s global board of directors.
Born in Amritsar, India in 1950, Deepa Mehta is a world-famous film director and screenwriter who migrated with her family to Toronto in 1973. Mehta is hailed for her courageous coverage of India’s controversial social issues in her Elements Trilogy, “Fire” (1996), “Earth” (1998), and “Water” (2005). India submitted “Earth” as its official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1998, and Canada submitted “Water” as its official entry for the same award in 2005. Mehta received a Genie Award in 2003 for her “Bollywood/Hollywood” screenplay and received Canada’s highest honor for the performing arts, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, in May 2012.
Born in Mississauga, Ontario, in December 2001, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is of Tamil Hindu descent from Sri Lanka. She is well known for her lead role as Devi Vishwakuma, a 15-year-old Indian-American high school student in the TV series, “Never Have I Ever.” Ramakrishnan was recently honored by Time magazine in its second annual TIME100 NEXT List, which highlights 100 emerging leaders shaping the future.
Born in Scarborough, Ontario, in 1988, Lilly Singh is a successful YouTuber. Of Punjabi descent, Singh started out as a Bhangra dancer with a Bollywood background, but is now also known also as Superwoman, a world-famous Internet celebrity, comedian, entertainer, and founder of #GirlLove. Her YouTube channel hit 10 million subscribers in 2016. In 2017, Forbes magazine ranked her the #1 Highest Earning Female YouTuber. Also in 2017, Singh’s debut book, “How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life,” hit #1 on The New York Times Best Seller list.