Veteran television and theatre actor Eric Peterson and music producer Daniel Lanois are among the six Canadians who will be honoured with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards this year.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gen. David Johnston announced winners of the $25,000 awards which celebrate lifetime achievement . They are:

  • Andrew Dawes, first violinist of Canada’s internationally acclaimed Orford String Quartet and a teacher and mentor to young musicians.
  • Daniel Lanois, a Hamilton, Ont-born musician who produced for Brian Eno, U2, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris and is a respected guitarist and recording artist.
  • Jean Pierre Lefebvre, an independent filmmaker responsible for more than 30 features and short films, including Les fleurs sauvages, a 1982 film which won a critics’ prize at Cannes.
  •  Viola Léger, an advocate for Acadian culture and an actress best known for playing the lead in La Sagouine by Acadian writer Antonine Maillet, a role she has performed more than 2,500 times.
  • Menaka Thakkar, an Indian classical dancer and choreographer and artistic director of Menaka Thakkar Dance Co.
  • Eric Peterson, an actor known for TV series Corner Gas and This is Wonderland and for theatre hit Billy Bishop Goes to War.

In addition, Jean Pierre Desrosier, who has led fund-raising campaigns for the arts in Montreal, including Centaur Theatre and Théâtre du Rideau Vert,  wins the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for voluntarism.

Sarah Polley gets NAC award

Actor-director Sarah Polley, star of Splice and Road to Avonlea, will receive the National Arts Centre Award which celebrates achievement over the past year. Her latest directorial outing is Stories We Tell, which premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, then captured acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival.

Peterson, who had roles on Street Legal and more recently, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, says he was "gobsmacked" at the news he was getting the award.

Playwright to mentor

Canadian playwright John Murrell, author of Farther West and Waiting for the Parade, will work with a young playwright as part of the annual mentoring program that accompanies the performing arts awards. 

He has chosen playwright Anita Majumdar as his protegé.

"There's always that 'Are you sure you've got the right man here?' It is a tremendous boost, a tremendous encouragement to get an award like this for your work. It's a hard job being an actor in this country. It's a pretty problematic way of getting a living," Peterson said in an interview with CBC News.

"Part of the object in my career has been to try and establish Canadian television and do work here in this country without having to leave the country as an actor in order to realize my dreams," he said, adding that actors always fear they will never work again.

In October 2009, Peterson, who has trod the boards of theatres across Canada,  was given the Earle Grey Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Gemini Awards.  His work with actors union ACTRA and his advocacy for Canadian TV and film was acknowledged in the citation for his Performing Arts Award.

"My goal is to see more resources put into Canadian film and television and also to make sure that our theatre scene is sustainable in some way. That's important to me," he said. "I think it's important for a country to have culture and it's important to have cultural workers. And they have to be able to live between jobs somehow."

Indian classical dancer

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Menaka Thakkar has trained a generation of Canadian-born Indian classical dancers who are now on the world stage. (CBC)

Menaka Thakkar came to Canada in 1972 to observe Western classical dance and to perform. She intended to stay three months, but was offered a contract immediately to tour and then began to get requests to teach from fellow Indians.

She ended up applying to stay as an immigrant, teaching dance at York University in Toronto and establishing a dance school, Nrtyakala — The Canadian Academy of Indian Dance.

"The dance world accepted me on the spot. …The students I was getting from the dance department, they were wonderful so my style was accepted by Western dancers — that's like my family now," she said.

Thakkar is noted for her high-profile collaborations with the Western dance world, including a residency at the National Ballet School in Toronto. She also performed at Toronto schools, exposing children to classical Indian dance that they might not otherwise see.

Thakkar performs in three Indian classical dance styles, and her dance company has toured widely, showing off her choreography in Europe and the U.S. Her dance school has produced a generation of young Canadian-born Indian classic dancers who now have international careers.

Winning the award has the dancer, now 72,  looking back at her career.

"When this kind of response comes and this highest award, that really makes you think that ‘yes, what I was doing, that was right.’ Second thing, you look back and say yes, that was my passion, but how much work I've done," she said.  

Fond memories of Hamilton

Lanois, now based in Los Angeles, said he plans to do a little road trip with his mother from his hometown of Hamilton to Ottawa for the awards presentation.

Lanois has "fond memories" of his years as a teen in Hamilton, the place where he built his first recording studio, he said in an interview from Los Angeles, where he is working on his next record.

"When I was growing up in Hamilton, there was a lot of music. I was in a band and a lot of my friends were in bands and we took over the old YWCA for a while. It was a lot of rock and roll coming up in Hamilton for sure," he said.

He also recalled how the unique sound of his record with Brian Eno, Apollo. brought him to the attention of U2, with band members asking him to produce their album Achtung Baby!

Lanois said he is flattered to be chosen and believes it’s important for Canada to honour its artists.

"There are little Stravinskys and little Beethovens and little Daniel Lanois around everywhere so it’s our job to celebrate obvious achievements and I think it's probably more important to fertilize the rising stars of our country. We must keep an eye out for them," he said.

Gov. Gen. Johnston will present the awards May 31 and all the laureates will be honoured June 1 at a ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.