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Power people

These diverse professionals are thriving in their chosen fields and shaping Halifax’s future

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André Bernard Photo: Michelle Doucette Photography

André Bernard Photo: Michelle Doucette Photography

These diverse professionals are thriving in their chosen fields and shaping Halifax’s future.

Plenty of people talk about how Halifax could be a better city, but few dedicate their lives to making it happen. If Halifax is to become a city we can be proud to leave to our grandchildren, it’ll take hard work and bold vision.

Halifax Magazine is highlighting five emerging leaders in medicine, education, charity, business and technology. They’re a diverse group of people pursuing their passions—and taking Halifax along with them.

André Bernard spends his days as a busy doctor at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, but that’s just the start of it. His deep and abiding commitment to global justice drives him to work overtime to share some of Canada’s wealth with people around the world.

Cheryl Stewart left Nova Scotia to rise to the top of Canadian politics before bringing her talents home. Her packed resumé reveals the many avenues she’s found to bring about the change she wants to see, from politics to business and now into her latest venture, education.

Ryan Hreljac would appear to be an ordinary university student, but the 22-year-old already has a career’s worth of success under his belt. A charity he started when he was 11 has raised millions of dollars and saved countless lives.

Soulafa Al-Abbasi’s road to Halifax started in Syria and travelled through Egypt and Saudi Arabia. She knows how hard it is to make it in a new country and now she’s paying it forward by helping newcomers thrive in Halifax.

Julia Rivard pivoted from an Olympic career in canoeing to become one of Canada’s top technology gurus. Her work at Norex and SheepDog Inc. has seen her develop apps downloaded by the million.

The five people we’ve highlighted would be the first to tell you they’re just ordinary people. But when ordinary people do extraordinary things, the whole community benefits. —Jon Tattrie

André Bernard: Health crusader

By Jon Tattrie

André Bernard Photo: Michelle Doucette Photography

André Bernard calls me during a 10-minute break from the operating room. He apologizes for being hard to reach.

It’s amazing I managed to connect with him at all. The 35-year-old is a staff anesthesiologist at Halifax’s Capital District Health Authority and an assistant professor in Dalhousie’s department of anesthesia, pain management and perioperative medicine. He represents the Canadian Medical Association at the World Medical Association and helps develop health policy around the world.

But he’s taking some time off this fall. Sort of. He’s going to teach at the University of Rwanda to help that country rebuild its medical profession. The Mabou, Nova Scotia native says his passion for social justice began when he spent his 18th year volunteering around the world with the United Church of Canada. “I fell for social justice, which migrated to global justice and international development,” he says.

Bernard trained to become a doctor at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine (he was valedictorian for the class of 2006), including voluntary trips to Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor to learn about the bureaucratic side of health. In 2009, he did his master’s of science at the London School of Economics and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine—two of the world’s top schools in their fields.

He received Dalhousie’s Dr. TJ Murray Resident Award in 2010 for “demonstrating an ongoing commitment and leadership in global health.” It’s a lot to fit into one life. His husband, lawyer Sean Foreman, sometimes travels with him. Bernard often uses his vacation time to volunteer internationally, as he’s doing with his Rwanda trip.

Being a born Canadian is a huge privilege, says Bernard, and being a Canadian doctor even more so. But that privilege comes with a duty. “That profound sense of duty to serve others is something I was born with,” he says. “It’s worth the small, small sacrifice. I get more out of this than I give.”

Cheryl Stewart: An education in government

By Jon Tattrie

Cheryl Stewart

Cheryl Stewart is only 35, but she’s already risen to the top of Canadian politics, Halifax politics, as well as fitting in successful stints in the business and education sectors. She thinks this generation must drive Halifax into the future, while honouring its past.

The Pictou County woman became a senior policy advisor in Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government in 2003. When he lost the 2006 election, Stewart moved to Halifax. She worked with Nova Scotia Business Inc., the Halifax Regional School Board, Innovacorp and the Nova Scotia Community College, and helped found the Fusion Halifax young-professionals group. She ran Mike Savage’s campaign for Mayor and then worked as an advisor as he settled into office. Then, she decided it was time to move away from politics.

In May, she found that next challenge as she was named associate vice-president, university advancement at Mount Saint Vincent University. She thinks Halifax is coming into great times driven by an “entrepreneurial” generation not afraid of change. “I want to see our community stretch itself, try new things and foster a ‘Why not?’ attitude,” she says.

This requires a mindset change for a province often described as putting the “No” in Nova Scotia. Stewart thinks the current generation can be that change. “We are less afraid to fail, to move around, to do different things,” she says. “I love that because we need more fearlessness.” The drive for change must be tempered with a knowledge of the past and learning from older, wiser voices who got us this far, she cautions. “I think we need more intergenerational mentorship to ensure that the next generation is ready to take on the leadership roles that will come much more quickly to us,” she says.

Stewart is thrilled to be working in the “simply transformative” field of education. “Strong and vibrant post-secondary institutions are integral as we face economic and demographic challenges in this region,” she says. Halifax looks set to benefit from her fearless mind for years to come.

Ryan Hreljac: All grown up

By Jon Tattrie

Ryan Hreljac Photo: Lorna Ash

Halifax student Ryan Hreljac insists his story is simple. As a Grade 1 student in Ontario, his teacher spoke about people who were dying because they didn’t have access to clean water. He was stunned to learn some people had to walk hours just to get dirty water.

Like any six-year-old, he decided it was his responsibility to do something about it. He earned $70 performing extra chores at home for four months, thinking that would buy a new well. It turned out to cost $2,000, so he became a public speaker and raised the money. Angolo Primary School in Uganda got a new well.

In 2001, at age 11, he started the Ryan’s Well Foundation. To date, it has raised $6 million and built hundreds of wells in 16 countries, from Haiti to Ghana, bringing safe water and improved sanitation to 789,900 people. Hreljac was on the Oprah Winfrey Show twice. He’s also had documentaries made about his work.

Hreljac moved to Halifax four years ago to study international development and political science at the University of King’s College. He remains on the board of his Foundation and has spoken everywhere from Australia to South Africa to across Canada. He’ll graduate this fall and hopes “to find a job soon, most probably in Halifax.”

Child Ryan created a tough act for adult Ryan to follow. He’s considering working for a year and then doing a master’s degree to start his career in international development. “Whatever you want to do—if you want to get a high mark on a test, if you want to make the basketball team—you’re going to have drawbacks,” he says. “The actual necessity of what is being done [by his Foundation] is so simple and so essential, that I don’t think quitting was an option.”

Soulafa Al-Abbasi: The ambassador

By Courtney Zwicker

Soulafa Al-Abbasi

After being born in Syria and living in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in between, Soulafa Al-Abbasi made her way to Canada with lots of ambition.

She’s currently working as the employment specialist at Immigration Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS) and as a volunteer with Fusion Halifax. Al-Abbasi says her experience as a newcomer to Canada has shaped her passion for her work. “I’m an immigrant myself so I can relate to the stories I hear,” she says. “I love first-hand stories. They are powerful and keep people in check in terms of what needs to be done.”

Former ISIS colleague Jenny Mulligan believes Al-Abbasi’s wit and tactical thinking are the keys to her success. “She is very strategic,” says Mulligan. “She plans where we need to get to and how we are going to get there. She finds people who have the strengths and the skills needed.”

“She’s a dynamic woman,” adds Mulligan. “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

One of Al-Abbasi’s proudest accomplishments is the network of professionals she has built in the city—a task that took her 10 years. “I know it’s very challenging for immigrants to have that social capital,” she says. “I’m not where I want to be yet, but I can say when I walk down the street [that] I will know somebody.”

She describes her work habit as trying to reach out to everyone without wearing herself out. “I think of myself as an octopus,” she explains. “I try to reach out to everyone, but I can only have so many arms.”

Julia Rivard: Still going for gold     

By Courtney Zwicker

Julia Rivard

When Julia Rivard competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a sprint canoeist, her career had barely even begun. After a ninth place finish in the team 500-metre race, she returned to Halifax to become an entrepreneur.

“I’ve never thought I was the most talented at anything, but I am a hard worker,” she says. After graduating from both Dalhousie and NSCAD, she honed her practical and creative skills and is now a senior partner at Norex.ca, a web development firm. Rivard used to be a partner with Norex’s sister company SheepDog. Inc, which is Canada’s first partner with Google. In 2010, they were one of only 40 partner companies selected to launch a Google app.

Rivard describes her work with Norex as the most growing concern in her life. Her competitive spirit is what drives her forward to making the company a global leader in its field. “My Olympic background gave me the sense that we can be the best in the world,” she says.

One of Rivard’s efforts to help others is a project she developed called Pursuit (http://pursu.it), which helps raise funds for athletes. Rivard is also the vice-chair on the board of governors at NSCAD. She also sits on the Nova Scotia Premier’s Economic Advisory Council, is the chair of marketing for CanoeKayak Canada and remains involved with her sporting heritage by being part of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Leah Skerry is Rivard’s business partner. Skerry admires her colleague’s commitment. “She leads by example and is never afraid of hard work,” says Skerry. At the end of the day, it’s Rivard’s concern for others that makes her commit herself to so many projects. “If I don’t feel like I’m making a difference, I don’t feel good about myself,” she says. “It’s amazing that you can be so successful in life, but without that peace I don’t have the happiness I need. That’s what keeps my fire fueled.”

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