The next Canadian woman on a banknote should be Elsie MacGill

Posted on December 07, 2016

Engineer, social advocate, pioneer, war hero and a role model for people of all abilities, Elizabeth (Elsie) MacGill is a great Canadian hero we should all know about, admire and emulate. On December 8th Bill Morneau, our Minister of Finance, and Justin Trudeau, our Prime Minister, will announce which Canadian woman will become the next Bank NOTEable person. What better person than Elsie MacGill: a Canadian who made a defining contribution to our country and left an indelible mark on our national story. She paved the way for a generation of young women and men by showing them that with passion, hard work and determination, nothing is impossible. She defines what it means to be Canadian.

Elizabeth MacGill

Elizabeth Muriel "Elsie" MacGill (1905-1980) was known as the Queen of Hurricanes. She was the first Canadian woman to obtain an electrical engineering degree, the world's first woman chief aeronautical engineer and, during the Second World War, supervised the production of Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft in Canada.

Elsie MacGill was born in 1905 and was the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree in Canada, the first practicing woman engineer in Canada and the first woman aircraft designer in the world.  As the chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (CanCar) during World War II, Elsie made Canada a powerhouse of aircraft construction. She was in charge of all the engineering and design work related to Canadian production of the Hawker Hurricane fighter plane and oversaw operations at CanCar, as it expanded from 500 workers to 4,500. Sixty percent of air victories by the Royal Air Force during the war involved this single-seat fighter aircraft and it was vital to the Battle of Britain. Elsie became a symbol of the economic changes in Canada during World War II and was such a popular international figure that she inspired an American comic strip entitled "Queen of the Hurricanes”.  Her contribution to the war effort made her a Canadian war hero. She contributed to the freedoms we take for granted today.

Her accomplishments in engineering and aircraft design did not come without challenges. On the eve of her 1929 graduation, 24-year-old MacGill fell ill to awaken the next morning fully paralyzed from the waist down. She had contracted a form of polio and would spend the next three years battling the disease confined to a bed, with a wheelchair to aid her mobility. Despite her physical challenges, she kept her career aspirations alive by writing articles on aviation in journals and magazines, including Chatelaine and Vogue. She slowly regained enough strength to use metal walking sticks to get around and get back to her career as an engineer. For the rest of her life, Elsie relied on a cane to walk. She became a wife and step-mother, had a career and volunteered on national committees for the rights of women and people with disabilities.  As Canadians we should strive to live as Elsie did, setting our sights resolutely on our highest aspirations. 

Elsie defined Canada and Canadian values through her actions and accomplishments. She was a pioneer for women in engineering and business, a war hero and a role model.  

Although Elsie’s role as the first practicing female engineer marked a turning point for diversity in the Canadian engineering profession, and planted the roots for initiatives that encourage women to pursue engineering, there is still much work to be done. Today, over 90 years later, women continue to be significantly under-represented in the engineering profession: in Ontario, they account for only 12% of licensed professional engineers. The significance of this under-representation resonates within government, science and engineering professional associations, industry and academia alike. We know that diversity benefits engineering and indeed all professions. Diversity broadens perspectives that enable more creative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.

By choosing and recognizing Elsie as our next Bank NOTEable person, we will inspire a new generation of girls and boys who will be shaped by her pioneering story of determination. As we pass banknotes between us, we will also pass a torch of acceptance, diversity and a belief in limitless possibilities to future generations. This is what it means to be Canadian.

By Dr Mary Wells (University of Waterloo),  Dr Kim Woodhouse (Queens University), Dr Cristina Amon (University of Toronto)  on behalf of the Council of Ontario Deans of Engineering