Shang-Chi's Simu Liu to TikTok's Jessia: Canadians who shaped culture in 2021

2021 was a difficult year for arts and entertainment, but superstars from Simu Liu to Justin Bieber shaped popular culture around the world in a major way. CBC News highlights some of the Canadian artists who defined this year.

Simu Liu, Elliot Page, The Weeknd among CBC's picks for top Canadian artists of 2021

Top row, from left: Justin Bieber, Bilal Baig, Simu Liu, Tracey Deer. Bottom row, from left: Jessia, The Weeknd, Denis Villeneuve, Sasha Raddock. (Evan Agostini/The Canadian Press/Invision/AP, Chris Young/The Canadian Press, George Pimentel/The Canadian Press, Dory Chamoun, Riley Stewart, Richard Shotwell/The Canadian Press/Invision/AP, Chris Young/The Canadian Press, Noam Galai/Stringer/Getty) (Photo illustration/CBC)

In a year defined by COVID anxiety and lowered expectations, it can be difficult to recognize success. But despite massive business closures, delayed releases and an incredibly difficult time for the arts in general, artists across television, music and film were not only able to survive 2021 — but topple records, revive franchises and even help reinvent the conventional path to fame.

And from superstars like Simu Liu and The Weeknd, to lesser known up-and-comers adapting to a new kind of industry, Canadians helped lead that charge. Here, CBC News highlights some of the Canadian artists who made headlines and defined the times in 2021.

Tracey Deer

Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer made her feature directorial debut with coming-of-age film Beans in 2021. The film is partially inspired by events from Deer's own life, growing up amidst the Oka Crisis in 1990. (Dory Chamoun/Photo illustration/CBC)

In her feature film debut Beans, Mohawk director Tracey Deer revisits her upbringing during the 1990 Oka Crisis, a 78-day standoff that occurred between the Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kanesatake, the Sûréte du Québec provincial police and the Canadian military. For her powerful rendering of that period — reframed as a fictional coming-of-age story — Deer won Best First Feature Film at the Canadian Screen Awards. 

It's a new era for the director, known for her TV series Mohawk Girls and documentary Club Native. But with Beans, she solidifies her place among a new wave of Indigenous filmmakers bringing authentic stories to life.

Bilal Baig

Bilal Baig is the creator, star and co-writer of Sort Of, a CBC/HBO show about a genderfluid millennial learning to navigate their identity. The Pakistani-Canadian talent is a champion of representation, both on- and off-screen. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press/Photo illustration/CBC)

Not many people make history twice with one project. But Bilal Baig did, with their CBC/HBO dramedy Sort Of: Canadian television now has its first non-binary protagonist and its first queer, South Asian Muslim actor in a lead role. 

The Mississauga, Ont.,-born talent stars as Sabi Mehboob, a gender-fluid millennial straddling family, work and big dreams. At its heart, Sort Of tells the story about the quirks and confusions of an identity in flux — and who better to tell that story than Baig (also the series creator and co-writer), a champion of representation in front of and behind the screen.

Elliot Page

Academy Award-nominated actor Elliot Page is working on a memoir. The Halifax-born performer stars in Umbrella Academy, a Netflix show filmed in Toronto. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/Photo illustration/CBC)

Page has been charming audiences for years, from indie darling Juno to mega blockbuster Inception. So when the Halifax-born actor came out as a trans man this year, it was clear that the world has seen only a sliver of what he's capable of: "I'm really excited to act, now that I'm fully who I am, in this body," he told TIME Magazine. For his advocacy, Page received an achievement award from Outfest, a major LGBTQ film festival. 

In addition to his lead role in Netflix's Umbrella Academy, the actor signed a deal to develop scripted and unscripted projects for Universal.

Sasha Ruddock

Sasha Ruddock recently won $100,000 to design a new clothing line with fast fashion company Shein. The Brampton, Ont.,-born fashion designer makes size-inclusive clothing with her Flaws of Couture brand. (Noam Galai/Stringer/Getty/Photo illustration/CBC)

Ruddock, the Brampton, Ont.,-born designer behind clothing line Flaws of Couture, won a $100,000 prize from fast fashion company Shein in September — and beat 30 designers from around the world to design a new line in collaboration with the online retailer. This is Ruddock's second collaboration with Shein, and it stays true to her values: all of the designs are size-inclusive, a solution to what she deems the exclusion of plus-sized women in fashion. Khloe Kardashian is among her fans

"I just want people who are wearing my clothes to feel comfortable but elevated," she told CBC News.

Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber is one of the country's most recognizable pop stars. The 27-year-old had a busy year, dropping a new studio album, a documentary, racking up awards — and dropping his Timbiebs donut collab with Tim Hortons. (Evan Agostini/The Canadian Press/Invision/AP/Photo illustration/CBC)

Bieber got busy this year. Having built himself back up after a series of personal troubles, the Stratford, Ont.,-born 27-year-old has again established himself as one of modern pop music's most vital stars. 

For hit singles Peaches and Anyone (both tracks from his sixth studio album, Justice), Bieber nabbed a career-high eight Grammy nominations and won artist of the year at the MTV Video Music Awards. A new documentary, Justin Bieber: Our World, explored his first COVID-era live show. But he made the biebs-est splash of all with his Tim Hortons collaboration: Timbiebs, a twist on the donut chain's iconic Timbits.

Michelle Good

Cree writer Michelle Good won the Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction this year for her debut novel, Five Little Indians. Good, a lawyer by training, is a staunch advocate for the rights of residential school survivors. (Candice Camille/Photo Illustration/CBC)

Cree writer Michelle Good's debut novel, Five Little Indians, was released in 2020 — and she received a litany of accolades this year, earning the Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction and the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

A lawyer by training, Good is a fierce advocate for the rights of residential school survivors, which she channeled into her remarkable novel. The book was inspired by the experiences of her mother, aunt and cousins at various residential schools, following five survivors as they grapple with the aftermath of the abuse they endured in these institutions.

The Weeknd & Wassim (Sal) Slaiby

With co-manager Wassim (Sal) Slaiby behind him, The Weeknd won big at the Junos and Billboards for his 2020 album After Hours and hit track Blinding Lights, and became the first Canadian to play the SuperBowl halftime show. Slaiby isn't doing too shabby, either: the Lebanese-Canadian music executive just launched an Arabic music record label. (Richard Shotwell/The Canadian Press/Invision/AP, Mike Coppola/Getty, Photo illustration/CBC)

The Weeknd had a major year, becoming the first Canadian solo act to headline a Superbowl halftime show and cleaning up at every major awards show (while, famously, boycotting the Grammys). But so did the man behind him: co-manager Wassim (Sal) Slaiby, who emigrated from Lebanon when he was 15 years old and became one of Canada's leading music industry executives. 

The duo are an unstoppable force. As The Weeknd ends 2021 with a slew of hits (including the title track from his album Blinding Lights crowned the No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 song of all time), XO Records co-founder Sal has just launched a new Arabic music record label with Universal.

The TikTokers

From left to right, the Canadians who made their name on TikTok: Tesher, Akintoye, Jessia, Lubalin, ElyOtto. (Neha Sharma, Adit Dixit, Riley Stewart, Gaëlle Leroyer, Sam Drasin, Photo illustration/CBC)

While Canadian musicians did well in traditional venues, they also saw enormous success on the newest pipeline to fame: TikTok. Artists like Alberta's ElyOtto created tracks that dominated the charts: his song SugarCrash! topped out at  No. 4 of global tracks on the app, and helped define the hyperpop genre. Vancouver's Jessia was listed by Rolling Stone as one of their fastest up-and-coming artists after an unproduced song went viral on the app, and Montreal's Lubalin took the internet — and talk shows — by storm with his "internet drama" series

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan's Tesher formed a "Bollywood Hollywood duo" with none other than superstar Jason Derulo after finding viral success of his own. And finally, Toronto-based rapper Akintoye proved himself as one of the country's great undiscovered talents. His account rocketed to over 2 million followers in 2021, placing him seventh on the list of Canadians with the most growth — right behind The Weeknd.

Denis Villeneuve

Montreal-born director Denis Villeneuve released his long-awaited adaptation of Dune this fall. The 1965 novel has been called 'unfilmable' due to its massive scale and complex details, but Villeneuve's film raked in at the box office, guaranteeing a sequel. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press/Photo illustration/CBC)

French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve was able to pull off the impossible in 2021 — adapt the "unfilmable" novel Dune for the screen, and have people actually enjoy it. 

The last time Frank Herbert's space opera made it to the silver screen it was almost universally panned by critics, largely due to the fact that the novel — which sits at over 180,000 words — contains far too much information to fit comfortably in a conventional runtime. Villeneuve's Dune solved that problem by splitting the story in two; a strategy that was successful enough to guarantee a sequel will be made, and for it to pull in over $390 million US at the box office. 

Simu Liu

Simu Liu made a seamless transition from Kim's Convenience to Marvel in 2021, nabbing the lead role in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The movie was a smash hit, jolting box office numbers and catapulting the Mississauga-raised actor to global fame. (George Pimentel/The Canadian Press/Photo illustration/CBC)

Moving from Kim's Convenience to Shang Chi with a tweet, Canadian Simu Liu was able to dominate 2021 — and potentially save the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the process. 

Liu took the starring role of 2021's Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — the MCU's first Phase 4 movie to introduce a new character. While critics saw the movie as a critical testing ground for the industry juggernaut, Liu was able to hit it out of the park. The movie exceeded all expectations — smashing COVID-stagnant box office numbers — proving audiences still cared about the MCU and wanted to see more diverse faces on screen.