On Saturday night, a slew of famous faces enjoyed a late summer night of wining and dining under the stars, all in support of an ever-important cause.
The 14th annual Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ) Gala returned in all of its fashion, entertainment, and celebrity-filled glory. The feel-good affair raises much needed funds for APJ, a non-profit organization that encourages peace and social justice and addresses issues of poverty around the world. APJ’s immediate goal is to serve the poorest communities in Haiti with programs in education, healthcare, and dignity through the arts.
Hosted by public relations powerhouse Natasha Koifman and fellow co-chair, Zoomer Editor in Chief Suzanne Boyd, at Koifman’s Forest Hill residence, the high-profile affair raised over $725,000 for education in Haiti. The talent-packed guest list included names like Nelly Furtado, Hayden Christensen, Eric McCormack, Rick Mercer, George Stroumboulopoulos, P.K. Subban, Kardinal Offishall, Fefe Dobson, Wesley Louissaint, and Yannick Bisson.
Minutes before the guests began to arrive, Koifman, Canada Board Chair, US Board of Directors, and Gala co-host, spoke passionately with us about her commitment to the cause and of a meaningful moment – one of countless others – that stands out in her mind in her work with Artists for Peace and Justice throughout the years.
“I get asked so often, ‘why Haiti and why do you do this year after year?,’ and a big important memory comes to mind from when I was in Haiti in 2012,” says Koifman. “There was a little girl who lives in Cité Soleil – which is a really impoverished area in Port-au-Prince – and she jumped in my arms and clung to me. We were walking through the city and a woman was shouting at me to please take her daughter because she thought I could give her a better life. Ten years later, that same little girl is at our academy. That’s why we do what we do.”
The guest list included many fellow change-makers who are no strangers to lending their time and voices to important initiatives. Known for his passionate involvement in many causes throughout the years, Will and Grace star Eric McCormack was honoured with the official Artist for Peace and Justice Award, which recognizes a commitment to social good.
“I’m excited to see this gorgeous property and hear the important message,” said McCormack on the red carpet when we asked what he was most looking forward to for the evening. “This is very much a boots-on-the-ground, getting-something-done organization. You leave an event like this having learned a lot.”
The Canadian-American actor tells us that his favourite thing about Toronto is his family who lives here.
“My brother and sister both live downtown,” he tells us. “So, I always stay right in the centre of town so I can walk to them and see them, which is really nice because I don’t get to see them that often – especially not through COVID.” Speaking of the pandemic, McCormack tells us that spending time with his wife and his teenaged son was a silver lining in the midst of the global crisis.
“My family of three became much tighter,” says McCormack. “And it was right at the end of my son’s high school when he was getting ready for college, so I am really grateful to have that time. Otherwise, he would have just been at parties.”
As for pandemic silver linings, Juno Award-winning Canadian musician Kardinal Offishall told us that he’s still searching for some (we feel you, Kardi), but that he loved the fact that people are uniting and connecting on deeper levels again. “You can look in someone’s eye in person now and get a sense of how they’re really doing,” he said.
When asked about the evening’s cause, Kardinal says he hopes more attention is paid to Haiti. “Haiti is one of the most handcuffed and neglected places on earth and it has a very rich and vibrant history,” Kardinal told us. “I like that a lot of the money is going to create things like schools in Haiti and I think that’s amazing. A lot of the times, we think about whatever is in the news – whatever headline catches our attention – and we don’t get to hear about places like Haiti; they get looked over. That’s a country that’s seen a lot happen to it, so I’m happy that a lot of the money is going to go back there.”
Beloved media figure George Stroumboulopoulos (or “Strombo,” as he’s known around town) has been a fixture at the Artists for Peace and Justice gala for years. He tells us he likes the more intimate feel of the event in recent years, in its move from large venues to the private home.
“When TIFF lines up with good weather, it’s the best,” says Stroumboulopoulos. “It’s my favourite time of the year in Toronto; there’s an electricity here. I used to be an usher for the film festival in the 80s before it was called TIFF, back when it was called the Festival of the Festivals. The film festival is in my blood. I’m not a big believer in the whole ‘oh let’s showcase our city to the world,’ because I actually don’t care what anybody thinks. But I like when people show up here during TIFF because they get a sense of who we really are. I think Torontonians see us at our best. We’re a complicated city that’s a bit broken in many respects, but here’s a moment when things smoothly work.”
Of course, TIFF time isn’t just about the red carpets and air kisses at parties.
“I like how some people show up to this event thinking it’s just another TIFF thing. Then, when they see the videos and hear the stories, you can usually see a turn in their mind when they realize that there’s a great need in Haiti and we can actually play a role in doing something,” Stroumboulopoulos told us. “Every year, there’s a moment when that happens – you can see it in someone’s face.”
Later in the evening, Stroumboulopoulos and Eric Hendrikx honoured environmental activist and champion Dax Dasilva with the prestigious Canadian Changemaker Award for the tremendous impact he has made through his non-profit environmental alliance, Age of Union. In 2021, he pledged an initial $40 million towards conservation projects around the world that aim to solve critical environmental challenges.
Famed Canadian singer Fefe Dobson treated the crowd to a special performance alongside Dan Kanter. On the red carpet beforehand, Dobson told us that this wasn’t her first time at the gala.
“I performed a few years ago, and it’s just so amazing that everyone can come together and support this cause,” says Dobson. “I can use my voice to support it, so that’s why I’m here.” Dobson calls Toronto “the best city in the world,” especially now that it’s come back to life. “I love seeing old friends, reconnecting, the energy – it’s so vibrant,” she says of the city’s post-pandemic return.
As for big names Hayden Christensen and Nelly Furtado, they both arrived just minutes before the sit-down dinner portion started (meaning, we couldn’t speak to them, sadly). While Christensen didn’t seem as enthused about posing for pictures — at least, not upon immediate arrival — Furtado brought an energy to the step and repeat that reminded us all she was a red carpet pro.
Find out more about Artists for Peace and Justice here.