Thunder Bay·Audio

Canadian aviation 'trailblazer' Elsie MacGill lends name to new Thunder Bay, Ont., school

Trustees with the Lakehead District School Board public board have approved Ecole Elsie MacGill Public School as the name of a new elementary school in Thunder Bay, Ont., slated to open in September 2020. It's a fitting tribute for a trailblazer in engineering, education and human rights, said her biographer.

MacGill used her aeronautical engineering skills to redesign WWII Hurricane aircraft to fly in winter

Elsie MacGill (1905-1980), a pioneering engineer and feminist, will have a school named after her in Thunder Bay. She worked in airplane manufacturing in the northwestern Ontario city during the Second World War.

Trustees with the Lakehead District School Board public board have approved Ecole Elsie MacGill Public School as the name of a new elementary school in Thunder Bay, Ont., slated to open in September 2020.

It is a fitting tribute for a woman who was a "trailblazer" both in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and for human rights, said Crystal Sissons, a Canadian historian who is the author of Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill. 

"Elsie MacGill was someone who was very behind women's education in general, she advocated for people to have full education, and I think if she was with us today she would be pleased by this."

World's first female aeronautical engineer

MacGill was Canada's first female graduate in electrical engineering and the first woman in the world to be awarded a master's degree in aeronautical engineering.

In 1938, she was hired as Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry (Can Car) in what was then-known as Fort William, and later became part of Thunder Bay. There, she designed and produced the Maple Leaf Trainer II, a training aircraft, and was later tasked with streamlining production of the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

"She was at the right place at the right time," said Sissons, explaining that MacGill had earned her qualifications when "there were very few Canadians, male or female, who had anything close to what she had, and as a result, when war broke out, it was natural she would be selected as a leader."

The combination of MacGill's leadership and ingenuity lead to some "remarkable" achievements, including adapting the Hurricane, a high-speed fighter aircraft, for winter flying conditions.

Adapted WWII aircraft to fight, fly in winter

"At the time, the idea of dealing with ice on the propeller and landing on skis, these kinds of things had not been put into the design, so she was working with colleagues at the National Research Laboratory in Ottawa to try to figure out the best way to do this and to make sure the planes were safe when they went up and wouldn't freeze."

MacGill was christened the "Queen of the Hurricanes" because she was such an "anomaly" in her chosen work field and the media wanted to "normalize her," said Sissons.

During the Second World War, Elsie MacGill was featured in an American series of comic books about wartime heroes. (Kelly Saxberg)

Reporters would describe MacGill's obvious proficiency – after the war she helped draft the International Air Worthiness regulations for the design and production of commercial aircraft – but then feel a need to add that "she knits, or she has a cat or something to give us a sense she's still a woman and we don't have to be too worried she's a Chief Aeronautical Engineer".

Status of Women report co-author

Sissons said MacGill was sometimes frustrated by those titles and was more likely to say "Yes, I'm a woman but I'm an engineer. What's your engineering problem and let's get at that."

Yet the rights of women and children remained a passion for MacGill.

She had grown up in a feminist household. Her mother was the first appointed judge in British Columbia. Both her mother and grandmother were active in public service and as suffragettes. 

In 1962, MacGIll was elected President of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, and was later named to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, co-authoring the report published in 1970. MacGIll was awarded the Order of Canada in 1971 for her work on that issue.

'A person first and foremost'

But whether it was at the board table or on the manufacturing floor MacGill, who also suffered some mobility impairments due to polio, just wanted to be seen "as a person first and foremost."

Crystal Sissons is an historian and the author of a book about Elsie MacGill. (Chris Power)

Sissons hopes MacGill's remarkable life and legacy can be woven into the daily curriculum at the school bearing her name because then "it can not only recognize her, but more importantly get them [students] to think about Canadian history in a larger, multi-faceted way that takes into consideration, the importance works by both men and women."

Ecole Elsie MacGill Public School replaces Agnew H. Johnston Public School and Edgewater Park Public School and will be built on the grounds of the former Sir Winston Churchill Collegiate and Vocational Institute.