How Olympic gold medalist Natalie Spooner is inspiring the next generation of girls

As a young girl growing up playing hockey, Natalie Spooner felt she didn’t have much to aspire to within the sport of hockey. Now an Olympic gold medalist and Canadian Women’s Hockey League All-Star, she’s inspiring the next generation of girls through initiatives like Project North and Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest.



By Shelley White



In the hamlet of Gjoa Haven, NU, Olympic gold medalist Natalie Spooner was almost 3000 kilometres north of her Toronto home when she got the chance to meet two young girls who reminded her of when she was a hockey-crazed kid.

In collaboration with Scotiabank, Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, the National Hockey League, First Air and Project North, a not-for-profit organization, Natalie experienced the trip of a lifetime in helping bring hockey equipment and inspiration to Canada’s Northern communities.

“The girls’ teacher spoke up and said they were really into hockey and I got to take some pictures with them and speak to them. I could tell they were super excited that we were there and that we brought hockey equipment,” says Natalie, forward for Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) team – and 2014 Clarkson Cup champs – the Toronto Furies.

“It made me think of me when I was little – I also loved the game of hockey and it was my passion, so it was cool to be able to relate to them.”

It was one of many special moments for Natalie and her Project North teammates during their tour of six Nunavut communities in April. In addition to distributing 150 bags of new hockey equipment, the Rumie Initiative, a non-profit that makes access to free digital education possible for underserved communities, donated 150 tablets pre-loaded with educational content in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday. Community members also had the chance to see and touch the hallowed symbol of our country’s beloved sport, the Stanley Cup®, and meet Stanley Cup® champion, Lanny McDonald.

During her whirlwind tour, Natalie says it quickly became clear that hockey is just as popular in the North as it is in Canada’s more southerly locales.

“To meet the people and the kids up there, they might not have all the resources we have, but they love hockey. They have such a passion for the game,” she says.

As a kid growing up in Scarborough, ON, sports were a central focus in Natalie’s life. She says participating in everything from soccer to hockey to field hockey gave her a lot – physically, mentally and emotionally. Being on teams helped develop perseverance and responsibility, and hockey in particular was a great source of joy.

“I was a little bit shy when I was younger, and sports helped me have the confidence to go out there and play hard, and then feel accomplished after, knowing that I helped my team,” she says. “And I still feel like every time I get on the ice, it’s my happy place.”


“I was a little bit shy when I was younger, and sports helped me have the confidence to go out there and play hard, and then feel accomplished after, knowing that I helped my team”


Natalie began participating in organized sports at age four, playing on a boys’ team for one year before joining the Durham West Lightning Girls Hockey Association where she played for 12 seasons. Being a girl in hockey could sometimes be challenging, she says, knowing that she couldn’t aspire to reach the same heights as the boys, simply because a career in the NHL wasn’t available to her.

“I was pretty lucky because I played on a girls’ team growing up, so I was surrounded by a lot of other girls who had the same goals,” says Natalie. “But I also had three older brothers and I wanted to be just like them, and I figured out that I couldn’t exactly follow in their footsteps.”

She considers her gold medal win with Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, to be the pinnacle of her career. And it’s gratifying to know that girls can now aspire to play for the CWHL, says Natalie. She’s proud to think that her example is helping fuel the dreams of young women.

Natalie recently took part in Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest, a free event with the Toronto Maple Leafs aimed at creating a positive hockey experience for girls in the Toronto area. Young hockey fans had the opportunity to meet Natalie, learn some new on-ice techniques and take home a keepsake hockey jersey.

“Just to see all the girls come out to learn some skills – they are super-pumped to be there and they all want to learn,” says Natalie. “It’s inspiring for me, too, to know that I am making a difference to them. They are the future of women’s hockey.”

Even with all the strides women in hockey have made in recent years, it still can be a difficult choice for women to pursue their passion rather than go with a more lucrative profession, says Natalie.

“One of the toughest decisions for me when I came out of university was, ‘Do I continue with hockey or do I go to med school?’ I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make the Olympic team or not,” she says. “But I think it’s getting better, and it’s only going to keep improving if girls keep playing sports and we keep pushing for what we deserve.”


“It’s getting better, and it’s only going to keep improving if girls keep playing sports and we keep pushing for what we deserve.”


Natalie says she and her colleagues in the CWHL hope the sport will grow to the point that women can make a living playing hockey full-time, and that’s part of the reason they are more than willing to take part in charitable and promotional activities that will help grow the game.

“We love hockey and we’re passionate about it,” she says. “We know there’s a long way to go still to get to the level we want the game to be at, but hopefully by the time those little girls grow up, they can make a living by playing hockey. As long as we’re doing our part, it’s going to get there eventually.”



Photo Credit: MIV Photography
NHL and the NHL Shield and the word mark and image of the Stanley Cup are registered trademarks of the National Hockey League. © NHL 2017. All Rights Reserved.


Meet Sandra Longo, a Woman Bringing Newfound Mobility to Those Who are Wheelchair-Bound

Sandra Longo was young when she became committed and passionate about disabled individuals who live their lives wheelchair-bound — when she was only 9 years old, her mother became a complete Paraplegic as a result of a spinal cord injury. With encouragement from family, friends and neighbours, Sandra started Navy Street Charity for Persons with Disabilities in 2016, a charity which donates portable wheelchair ramps to individuals in need. Learn more about what inspired her current endeavour, and how she stays motivated for the future.



My first job ever was… At a large Garden Center/Craft and Hobby Store.  This job began to open my young and narrow views of the world. I enjoyed the idea that people were all different, and each individual who came into the store, came because they had different crafts and or hobbies that they were working on.


I started my venture because… I wanted to help people who were disabled and who used wheelchairs. When I was a young child my mother became a paraplegic and suddenly had to live life from a wheelchair. I learned first-hand what the consequences were when an individual was not free to live how they wanted to, especially when they were not included due to limited accessibility options.  It creates an emotional scar that never goes away. I wanted to help stop the emotional pain for these individuals.   


My proudest accomplishment is… My very first Race, a 10 kilometer race. That was easily one of the best moments of my life, because I never thought of myself as a trail blazer and this race was my very first personal achievement. When I crossed the finish line at that race, I cried like I had never cried before. You know the moment — that moment when you just realized that you exceeded your own expectations! That race changed who I told myself I was.


My boldest move to date was… Deciding that I was going to start a charity, when I didn’t have the slightest clue of how I was going to it but doing it anyway because it’s what I believe I was born to do.  


I surprise people when I tell them… The experience my family has had with a slew of family tragedies, including when my mother became paralyzed in 1984, while giving birth to my youngest sister. In the decades that followed, it was these experiences that created my empathy for others, and inspired me to give back in some way. These events enabled me to gain a better understanding and to identify with with people who live with disabilities.  


My best advice to people starting out in business is… Promise yourself that you’re never going to settle for less than you can be, do, give, give or create.  


My best advice from a mentor was… Success leaves clues. Go figure out what someone who was successful did, and model it. Improve upon it, but learn their steps. They have knowledge, then it’s up to you to become resourceful and to take massive action.


“Promise yourself that you’re never going to settle for less than you can be, do, give, give or create.”  


My biggest setback was… Breaking my own limitations of what I thought was possible for me to achieve. These thoughts were based on old restrictive beliefs, and the boundaries of what others thought I could achieve.


I overcame it by… Changing my focus. I realized that there is a powerful strength inside of me and every other human being, and I decided to focus on that instead.


Work/life balance is… Getting up early. I have realized how to maximize my day by making the most of the hours I have in a day.  


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I love green smoothies, for their ability to be so nutrient dense. They help fuel my body with nutrients, they help my skin glow, my eyes to be brighter, and they give me continuous resilient energy.


I stay inspired by… Being mindful of what I focus on.  


The future excites me because… I am so excited about the future of Navy Street Charity for Persons with Disabilities.  


My next step is… Growing awareness for Navy Street Charity, donating portable wheelchair ramps to individuals who are disabled and wheelchair bound throughout Ontario; and on a personal endeavour, a book is in the pipeline…stay tuned.



Meet Stephanie Boyd, another Canadian woman with a deep passion for bringing those who are disadvantaged to the top of our minds  and hearts.


Meet Caroline Riseboro, a CEO With a Plan for Women and Girls

Caroline Riseboro leads Plan International Canada’s operations as President and CEO. Previously she held roles at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation, as well as World Vision Canada, where she was the first and youngest woman in the agency’s history to serve in the SVP role. Her volunteer leadership positions span across numerous boards and task forces including Imagine Canada, and she has been credited as an innovator and champion of ground-breaking and award-winning campaigns that have engaged Canadians in new ways on some of the world’s toughest issues. Here she reveals the driving force behind some of her gutsiest career moves, and why she’s extremely hopeful for the future of women and girls.



My first job ever was… Walking race horses when I was 12-years old. It was interesting because I worked only with men, and it was the first time I experienced and understood a male-dominated environment. I had no idea how well that would serve me later in my life and career.


I decided to enter the non-profit world because… My first job after university was in advertising. It struck me early on in the role that I was working hard to create more profit for sugary drinks, fast food and telecoms companies. At the same time, as I walked to work I would pass people suffering from homelessness, poverty, mental illness and addiction. The answer was staring me in the face: I have to make sure I am using my talents to make this world a better place.  


I hope to make a positive impact by… Forging a path where there traditionally hasn’t been a path for younger, ambitious women. I want to show everyone that it’s possible to make your dreams a reality. I also want to make a positive impact by living and working in a way that transforms social norms that face women. I want to show young women leaders that it is okay to be different, and in fact, that’s what the world needs from us right now.


“I want to show young women leaders that it is okay to be different, and in fact, that’s what the world needs from us right now.”


My proudest accomplishment is… Different from what most people would expect. I think most people would expect that my proudest accomplishment was becoming President  & CEO of Plan International Canada at age 38, and being a trailblazer and breaking the glass ceiling. But in reality, my proudest accomplishment is that I haven’t given up yet. A lot of being successful is grit, even if it feels like the task at hand is too difficult.


My boldest move to date was… Having a very senior role at a large organization I had worked at for almost 15 years, and leaving to pursue a role at a much smaller one. I realized that while I was contributing, the only way to grow was to venture out of my comfort zone. My other bold move happens on a daily basis, when I constantly try to be authentic and vulnerable. Being a CEO, I think it is important to open up and show women that it is not always easy, but we can push through.


I surprise people when I tell them… That I am more hopeful than ever that women can assume positions of leadership and break glass ceilings. This is because we have finally acknowledged the challenges women face. I believe that we have this powerful, educated group of girls and women growing up as leaders to join the ranks of other women.


My best advice to people who want to make a difference is… To know that we can impact much more change than we realize. If we dream it first, and then put the dream into action by being bold, we can achieve anything.


My best advice from a mentor was… Do it afraid anyway.


“We can impact much more change than we realize. If we dream it first, and then put the dream into action by being bold, we can achieve anything.”


My biggest setback was… Listening to that critical voice in my own mind. It’s that whole notion of ‘can I really do this?’


I overcame it by… Doing it afraid. And I say that because often we don’t realize we have everything we need within us to succeed. And if we don’t, we can build the skills along the way. That is how everyone successful has succeeded. Women often feel they need to be 100% ready, but you’re more ready than you think. The only way forward is to do it.


Work/life balance is… A myth. It is a question that I don’t even want to answer yet again. It puts pressure on women, with this perception of how women should be leading their lives. The better question is do I feel whole in my life and as a person?


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I have an intensely needy creative side that I need to nurture. So much of my work is cerebral and is focused on tackling the toughest global issues.  Creativity is the outlet that I have to explore the ethereal.


I stay inspired by… The people around me. I am inspired by the talent and human potential I am surrounded by that has yet to be unleashed. This is particularly true of the talented team I lead at Plan International.


The future excites me because… We can truly make a positive difference. It will take time. It will take energy. It will take perseverance. It’s taken my nearly 40 years to realize this, but really anything is possible.



Learn more about Plan Canada and Caroline’s work.

Meet Stephanie Boyd, a Canadian Filmmaker Advocating for those Without a Voice

Stephanie Boyd filming

Stephanie Boyd has spent the past 20 years living and working in Peru as a filmmaker and journalist. She has produced and directed three award-winning feature documentaries, and her 2016 short film, Parana -The River was recently given an award for best short film from Cusco from Peru’s Ministry for Culture.

Stephanie is currently working on a feature documentary about the Karuara, spiritual beings that live in the Amazons’ rivers, and an indigenous community’s struggle to save these sacred water guardians. The film will follow Mariluz, a brave Kukama grandmother, and her community in a remarkable quest to save their river and the Karuara spirits. Here, get to know where Stephanie began her film making journey, and how she’s persevered over the decades to create a career characterized by radical empathy and a devotion to providing a platform for the voiceless to be heard.



My first job ever was…working as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at City of Oshawa pools.


I decided to become a filmmaker because…I wanted to help people who are ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream media to tell their own stories in their own voices.


My proudest accomplishment was…when my film, The Devil Operation, was used as evidence in a legal case that won compensation for more than 20 Andean farmers and journalists who were tortured by Peruvian police and private security forces from a British-owned mine. Two of the victims were women who were also sexually abused. One of the women came to our screening of the film in her home town and stood up to company officials who accused her of lying with eloquence and dignity. I was proud to have been part of her story.


My boldest move to date was… moving to Kenya at the tender age of 22 (23 years ago!) to work as a volunteer human rights journalist. This was before the internet, cell phones or Facebook and I felt like an alien on another planet, covering civil wars, the refugee crisis, and female genital mutilation. It was a different world from the safe bubble I grew up in.


I surprise people when I tell them… that I have a terrible sense of direction and ended up in Peru because I was trying to get back to Africa. (Actually, Cuso International, a Canadian development organization, sent me to Peru to work as a human rights journalist. But I really was looking for a job in Africa — thankfully Cuso took a chance on me and sent me to Peru, even though I didn’t speak Spanish at the time).

Steph&Mariluz barco copy


My best advice to people starting out in film making is…to pick a subject that you love because you’re going to be living, breathing and sleeping with your project for months or even years. Don’t go into film making because you want to be rich or famous or end up with a pension plan. Do it because there’s something inside of you that won’t be satisfied until the film is done: it’s a long ride and you need to be driven to make it to the finish line.


My best advice from a mentor was…“Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds.”


My biggest setback…happened a decade ago when my co-director and life partner and I separated while we were finishing a movie.


“Don’t go into film making because you want to be rich or famous or end up with a pension plan. Do it because there’s something inside of you that won’t be satisfied until the film is done: it’s a long ride and you need to be driven to make it to the finish line.”


I overcame it by…realizing that the story we were telling was more important than our problems, and that we had to heal our relationship by finishing the film together. We are still friends and support each other’s work from afar. My ex helped me set up my own non-profit film association and was a consulting editor on my first solo-directed film.


Work/life balance is…understanding that “work” includes keeping oneself healthy, sane and happy. It revolutionized my life once I realized that part of my job is to take care of myself, so that I have the energy and drive necessary for my creative work.


To me, empowering women is…an important first step. But we need to go further and realize that we, as women, are mirror images of Mother Earth and must do everything we can to protect her. We have always had the power to give birth, to create new life and must use our newfound powers in business, politics, media and the arts to act as guardians of our communities and environment.


Stephanie Boyd filming

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know…my top-secret alias. Or that I’m addicted to chocolate.


I stay inspired by…remembering the protagonists of my films and how they confront dangers and obstacles far greater than any I’ve encountered with courage, grace and strength. And by climbing mountains, even when I feel like I’ll never make it to the top.


The future excites me because…there are still many mountains left to climb, even though the glaciers are melting.


My next step is…to finish a film about a brave Kukama woman and her community in Peru’s Amazon who are using ancient legends, art and music to protect their sacred rivers. I’ve come full circle and will be working as a Cuso International volunteer again this year. I’ll be directing an animation course in the jungle with an indigenous painting school. The students will help us create animations about the magical spirit world beneath their river for the film.


To help support Stephanie’s film-making efforts, donate now (American donations can be made here) or reach out to her directly


Advice from the Social Change Award Finalists: 2016 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards

The Social Change Award celebrates an exceptional leader of a not-for-profit or charitable organization that is dedicated to helping others help themselves. These leaders assist in social change and improving the quality of lives around us, not to mention garnering extraordinary support from the community by championing philanthropy and volunteerism in Canada.

We asked this year’s winner and finalists for their best advice for other entrepreneurs:



Finalist: Dianne Fehr, Immigrant Access Fund

Each year, thousands of internationally-trained immigrants arrive in Canada with dreams of building a successful life for themselves and their families. Often, they arrive with excellent skills, education and experience, but face barriers to securing employment in their field and languish in unemployment or “survival” jobs. A significant barrier for many lack of funds to pay for the Canadian licensing/training they need to work in their field. IAF removes that financial barrier through a character-based micro loan program, with the vision of skilled immigrants being equitably integrated into the workforce and contributing their expertise to Canada’s economic and social success.



Finalist: Patricia Pottie, Strongest Families Institute

Strongest Families Institute is a federally incorporated not-for-profit institute that delivers evidence-based mental health programs to children, youth and families from a distance. Dr. Patricia Lingley-Pottie, President and CEO, is a passionate academic and professional who has dedicated her career to improving the lives of children and families through innovation. SFI’s groundbreaking distance-delivery system removes barriers that prevent families from accessing traditional mental health services. It provides, effective evidence-based and cost-efficient programs, when and where families need help. It achieves consistently strong clinical outcomes and high levels of family satisfaction.




Winner: Jennifer Flanagan, Actua

Actua is Canada’s largest science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education outreach organization engaging 250,000 youth each year in transformational experiences that help them achieve their potential. Actua’s delivery model includes a network of 34 university and college based STEM outreach organizations and its own outreach team, together delivering programming in 500 communities across every province and territory. Actua’s focus at the national level is on engaging Canada’s most underserved youth populations with the most innovative content in order to contribute to the diversity that is needed to drive social and economic innovation in Canada.



The collective impact of our country’s female entrepreneurs cannot be overstated. The RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards is the premier national awards program celebrating the achievements of the most successful in this inspiring group. Now in its 24th year, over 120 women have been recognized for demonstrating excellence—from economic growth to social change, from local to global reach, across multiple sectors. We’re honoured to shine a spotlight on them.


How one man and thousands of fish are helping improve women’s health worldwide

Gavin Armstrong in India

Solving one of the world’s most common women’s health problems may be as simple as dropping a fish in water. Gavin Armstrong, Founder, President and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish, tells us how.

By Teresa Harris

Iron deficiency is the world’s most common micro-nutrient issue, and has a disproportionate negative impact on women and children. Instances are increasing, as the traditional method of combating iron deficiency via pill supplements is expensive, inaccessible to many, and simply not very effective. In short, worldwide we’re spending more on a problem that’s just getting worse.

Introducing Lucky Iron Fish, a sustainable solution to iron deficiency in the form of a simple cooking tool. When added to a cooking pot and boiled for ten minutes, the small, fish-shaped piece of iron can fortify your food with enough iron to noticeably alleviate symptoms of extreme iron deficiency.


The founder of Lucky Iron Fish is Gavin Armstrong, a University of Guelph graduate who has dedicated his career to the improving the health of individuals — primarily women and children — around the world.

Gavin realized an imminent need for a focus on micro-nutrient deficiency related health problems following a volunteer trip to a refugee camp in Northern Kenya, where he witnessed communities in dire need of proper nutrition.

“There is a ‘hidden hunger’ that often goes unrecognized, as the supplies food banks have to give usually don’t address micro-nutrient deficiencies. Thus we’re failing to address the questions of: What is the long term impact of a diet consisting solely on non-nutritious food, like beans and rice? And how does it affect these people’s development?”

Signs of iron deficiency range from dizziness to fatigue, and can even cause hemorrhaging and spells. Pregnant mothers are particularly vulnerable, as nearly every pregnant woman suffers from iron deficiency during and post pregnancy, and if untreated, their unborn child is at risk of its own associated health issues, including limited cognitive development.

“We’re failing to address the questions of: What is the long term impact of a diet consisting solely on non-nutritious food, like beans and rice? And how does it affect these people’s development?”

“When a mother is iron deficient, she can be so ill that she may miss work.” Gavin explains. Mothers in Cambodia lose approximately two weeks of work due to iron-deficiency related sickness. “When you consider their already meager income — about 70-80 cents per day — that’s a substantial loss.”

Upon returning to Canada, Gavin decided to set out on solving this issue.

Gavin Armstrong in IndiaWith an undergraduate degree in commerce, a masters in rural planning and development, and a PhD in biomedical science, Gavin is the first to admit that his academic path has been what many would call “non-traditional.” But he appreciates that this unique path brought him to exactly where he needed to be, allowing him to recognize that in order for his solution to micro-nutrient deficiency to be successful, it needed to be sustainable.

The primary recipients of donated fish are nonprofits and clinics and organizations that are focused on women’s health and nutrition. These include food banks, First Nations organizations here in Canada, as well as nonprofit organizations in Cambodia and India, which allows Lucky Iron Fish to distribute as many fish as possible to the pots of families in need.

Yet, Gavin admits he’s made his share of mistakes. “I won’t say I’m infallible,” he concedes, having learned through trial and error that cultural differences play a huge role in how readily accepted new innovations will be. “I think that abroad, dispelling taboos and myths was our biggest challenge. ‘Deficiency’ is not a term that’s understood, so instead we began to talk about the signs and symptoms and how using Lucky Iron Fish could help alleviate things like fatigue and headaches and make people stronger.” As they worked to educate women, dispelling false myths such as if you’re menstruating in Cambodia you’re not supposed to eat meat, Lucky Iron Fish was more readily adopted.

And in the parts of the world where iron deficiency is most common, it’s most important that women are on board.

“In traditional communities like Cambodia or India, the head of the household is typically the matriarch, and she prepares every meal. Gavin with woman in IndiaWhen she uses Lucky Iron Fish, she is empowered, knowing she is having a direct and positive impact on her family’s well-being.”

Gavin is a deep believer that when you empower women, you’re empowering the future. “Women hold the key to the success of the future. Children are the next generation and they believe in and learn so much from their mothers. Especially in Cambodia and India, when the values of the household are situated around the mother, you see the power she has in influencing her children to make healthy choices as they grow.”

And it’s working. Quantitative clinical data revealed consistent use of Lucky Iron Fish resulted in healthier hemoglobin levels, and mothers reported less fainting, as well as associated physical and mental improvements in their children.

“Women hold the key to the success of the future. Children are the next generation and they believe in and learn so much from their mothers.”

But the work of dispelling taboos and myths associated with women’s health is not limited to developing nations. “Here in Canada, we shy away from talking directly about women’s health, which is a problem when the female body, especially during reproductive age, has an incredibly unique need for nutrients.” When it comes to women’s health, experience is needed to add depth to the conversation around innovation, and by taking women’s perspectives so closely into consideration, Lucky Iron Fish addresses a need in a way that may have otherwise gone overlooked.

“One of the best parts of Lucky Iron Fish is the buy one get one program, which draws a direct connection between the women in North America and the women in developing nations who are both benefiting from the exact same technology,” Gavin explains. Unlike programs that donate money after a Western consumer buys a product, creating a hierarchy of “saviour vs saved,” when you put this fish in your pot, someone around the world is doing the same, proving that in spite of the racial, geographical and cultural divides, iron is equally important to everyone. To date, 80,000 Lucky Iron Fish have been sold, and 80,000 fish have been given away for free.

In terms of career role models, Gavin has always looked up to leaders who’ve defied the odds or done things differently in the fields of business, society, and politics. “I believe in the outsider, and the idea that you don’t have to conform to be successful,” he says. “Look at Hillary Clinton. She is someone who persevered and turned that perseverance into something impactful.”

Gavin also wants to show how being financially successful and socially responsible are not mutually exclusive. “If I can prove through Lucky Iron Fish that social enterprises are profitable, sustainable, and effecting global change, I consider that a success.”

Learn more about the impact Lucky Iron Fish has had in developing communities, their awards and accolades, and how you can get your own.

Marci Ien and Katie Taylor Agree: The Kids Are Not Alright

Canada is the 5th most prosperous nation, so why is it ranked 17th for children’s wellbeing and 27th for child health and safety? A group of influencers are teaming up through a new non-profit, Children First Canada, not just to answer that question, but to mobilize Canadians to improve the lives of children.

By Hailey Eisen

Canada is the fifth most prosperous nation in the world, but according to Sara Austin, founder of Children First Canada, we’re falling way behind when it comes to the protection and care of our children. “There is a big disconnect between what we perceive to be the case when it comes to the wellbeing of kids in Canada and what’s actually going on,” says Austin, a lifelong advocate for the rights of children internationally. “While we assume Canadian children are well cared and provided for, child poverty and suffering has reached epidemic levels in cities and towns across the country.”

Armed with this understanding, Sara recently stepped down from a senior leadership position with the President’s Office of World Vision Canada to found Children First Canada, motivated by a strong desire to put her extensive international experience to work closer to home. She saw an opportunity to unite existing children’s charities, kids hospitals, research centres, and corporations that donate to children’s causes, around a common vision and goal—to make Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up. The organization’s mandate is simple: it will be a strong, independent voice for all of our country’s children.

With the official launch of Children First Canada this month, Sara is committed to building a national movement to engage Canadians and influence the government to drive positive change for Canada’s children. And, she has brought together an impressive group of leaders from Canada’s top charities, corporations, and media to help drive her mandate forward.

“I hope to leverage the collective strength and influence of these women and men to push the dial on an issue that absolutely requires our attention,” she says. “Children are our greatest asset, but those words are meaningless unless we build a concrete plan to improve the lives of our youngest citizens.”

Katie Taylor

That’s the very reason Kathleen (Katie) Taylor is lending her name and expertise to Children First. Most well-known for her title of first woman to lead the board of a major Canadian bank, Katie serves as the Chair of the Board of RBC and the Chair of Sick Kids Foundation. She believes children are the least advantaged when it comes to having a political voice or the ability to organize, and as such, it’s the responsibility of adults to advocate and act on their behalf. Katie was brought on board by Children First Canada to be part of their Council of Champions, a group of 20 influential and experienced leaders tasked with providing guidance on the strategic direction and key priorities for Children First, and to using their collective influence to drive change for Canada’s children.

“We are going to work to create a network of like-minded individuals across the country who can bring some semblance of organization and connection to the variety of children’s issues we face,” she explains. “These span from issues at birth that need to be dealt with through the acute care system, through to child poverty and access to facilities and quality education in early years. We know from the science that the first five years of life are the most critical to a healthy, happy, productive life—so there’s really no better place for us to be spending our time.”

“We are going to work to create a network of like-minded individuals across the country who can bring some semblance of organization and connection to the variety of children’s issues we face”

marci ien

Marci Ien, Canadian broadcast journalist, former host of CTV’s Canada AM, and Guest Co-Host of CTV’s The Social, has also joined the Council of Champions, lending her influence and passion to a cause she’s dedicated most of her career to championing.

“I really do believe that a country is measured by how well it treats its kids—and we’re lacking sorely,” says Marci. “What I like about Children First Canada is we’re bringing so many other children’s groups and charities into the fold and working together.”

This collaborative effort will extend beyond adults to bring youth voices forward in the form of a Youth Ambassador Program, to empower kids with the knowledge and skills to advocate for themselves.

“I have seen, up close and personal, what giving kids the skills and the confidence they need—telling them they can—can do for them in later life. But it takes time,” says Marci. “We see these kids grow up to become teens and young adults, they become leaders—they can change the course of our country.”

Heading into Canada’s 150th year, it’s that change Sara Austin is working diligently to achieve. “I’m ready to harness the sense of goodwill and pride Canadians have for this country and transform it into real change for the children who need it the most.”

To lend your support to improve the lives of Canada’s children, take the pledge to put Children First: raise your hand to volunteer, raise your voice to spread awareness, and raise funds to help children’s charities.


Taking the Leap

Sara is a passionate champion for the rights of women and children, with nearly 20 years of experience as a senior leader in the non-profit sector. She is the founder and President/CEO of Children First Canada, a new national non-profit organization working to make this the best place in the world for kids to grow up.

By Sara L. Austin, Founder and President/CEO, Children First Canada

I began my career in the late 90’s, with a passion to change the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children. Starting out on the streets of Bangkok helping child labourers and victims of trafficking, my work has since taken me around the world and into the top circles of power—from the United Nations, to government corridors, and to corporate boardrooms. In the Spring of 2015, after spending 17 years with one of Canada’s largest charitable organizations, I resigned from my job.  

I had recently relocated with my family from Toronto to Calgary, and was ready to embrace a new chapter of life. Making the decision to move and to leave my job was difficult. I had to face my own fears, as well as all of the external noise from concerned colleagues or friends. I was at a career peak when all of this happened—I’d recently won a Top 25 Women of Influence award, and various other accolades—but I knew in my bones that it was time for change, even if I didn’t know exactly what it would be. Some have called it crazy, others called it courageous.

In my moments of fear, I’ve leaned on my experience of the flying trapeze, where the hardest part is climbing the ladder and standing on the platform. Once you take the leap, you’re flying. All of the fear is in your head, there’s always a safety net below you. The worst you can do is fall and get back up again.  

So I resigned from my job, and gave myself a couple of months to figure things out. I was itching to do something different, but rather than jumping immediately into a new full-time job, I deliberately pressed the “pause” button. I began meeting with leaders across the country, seeking advice on what the biggest needs were for kids in our country, and how I could use my skills and experience to have the greatest impact.

I knew I wanted to focus on improving the lives of kids in Canada.

While most Canadians tend to think of this as being one of the best places in the world for children to grow up, that simply isn’t true. Canada ranks as the 5th most prosperous nation, but when it comes to the wellbeing of children, we drop to 17th place. On key measures for child health and safety we rank 27th. As an advocate for children and as the mother of a 6-year-old boy, it makes me angry that a country as wealthy as ours is letting kids fall through the cracks. We can and must do better.

There are lots of great charities delivering programs to kids, but we haven’t seen progress on Canada’s child wellbeing ranking for over a decade. So I sought advice from the major children’s charities, formed an advisory board, developed a plan of action, and launched Children First Canada, a new national non-profit with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up.

I’ve learned a lot on my journey so far. If you’re interested in a similar path—whether that means starting a non-profit, or making a major life change—these five lessons could help you along the way:

Be bold and unique. It’s hard to set yourself apart in a very crowded and competitive landscape. Rather than compete with existing children’s charities, I’m working in partnership with them to build awareness and mobilize Canadians to get involved in making a difference for kids. Working together, we can achieve so much more for children. I’ve focused on building a brand that is bold and unique, and which adds value to the broader sector. Picture the children’s charities as the lifeboats that are keeping kids afloat, and Children First Canada as the tide that will lift all boats.

Embrace the mindset of a social entrepreneur. Rather than using traditional approaches, I’ve created a new social enterprise, Children First Canada, which is small, nimble, and able to take more risks. It has been a major adjustment going from working in a very large, well established charity to running this new enterprise on my own. I’m on a steep learning curve, and am learning to operate at a strategic level to set the vision and strategy, whilst being tactical and doing the hands-on work of fundraising, research, media and PR, and so on.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not alone—I’ve got an incredible advisory board, I’ve got great partners to work with, and there is no shortage of people willing to step up and help.  

Understand the nature of the journey. The task ahead is monumental and it will take years before we see widespread change, but this needs to be balanced with creating a sense of urgency to affect change for children today. I have to set short- and long-term milestones and persistently driving change day by day. Children’s lives are at stake, and we can’t afford to be incremental in our approach.  

Don’t let fear stop you.  I’ve come to embrace the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

If you had asked me a few years ago whether I’d be leading my own organization, I would have laughed – it simply wasn’t on my horizon. There are days when this role is incredibly daunting—tackling this big, hairy, audacious goal with a very small start-up organization—but it’s also incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. It’s much more than a job, it’s become my life’s mission.  

Children First Canada is a new national non-profit with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up. We are partnering with some of Canada’s leading children’s charities, corporations, and community leaders, with the aim of getting these issues on the public’s radar, and building a national movement that will drive change for children. To learn more about Children First Canada and get involved, go to: