The Infinite Dance of History and Innovation 


As any inventor knows, it’s impossible to create something truly new without knowing what’s come before. And as any historian will tell you, the past—among its many definitions—is a trail blazed by visionaries to future after future. Nobody brings history to life better than Historica Canada, and nobody knows Canadian innovators like the Rideau Hall Foundation. Hence, a great Canadian collaboration.


Anthony Wilson-Smith and Bronwyn Graves 

A small, fine-boned woman moves briskly across a 1940s-era factory floor, her pace barely affected by the cane she occasionally relies upon for balance. Several steps behind, a longer-limbed male journalist struggles to keep up, scribbling notes as the woman reels off a barrage of facts about the project he’s reporting on. The tour complete, they step out of the building into sunlight. The woman smiles delightedly as one of the products she oversees—a Second World War Hawker Hurricane fighter plane—glides smoothly overhead.

If that scene seems familiar, it places you among the millions who have seen the new Heritage Minute released Oct. 1 by Historica Canada, the non-profit organization where the authors of this piece work. It is about the remarkable Elsie MacGill—polio survivor, feminist, the world’s first female aeronautical engineer, and the person in charge of production of all RCAF Hurricanes during the war. 

MacGill, who died in 1980 at age 75, was by any measure an innovator. She did new things in new ways. When others told her what ‘couldn’t’ be done—because she was a woman, or just because—she went ahead and did them. Time and again, she proved the doubters wrong. But MacGill has remained relatively unknown in the 40 years since her passing. Historica Canada is seeking to change that, by telling her story and those of other innovators and all-round remarkable Canadians who have made this world a better, safer and more enjoyable place. 

Those innovation stories include everything from the invention of insulin by University of Toronto’s Frederick Banting and Charles Best to the invention of basketball by James Naismith of Almonte, Ontario). The mini-documentary series Inspiring Innovators, produced in partnership with The Rideau Hall Foundation, explores some innovations and the inventors behind them, with stories told in short animated videos. The first videos, launched in May, cover Robert Foulis and his invention of the foghorn (which has seen online almost 1.4 million times) and Maude Abbott’s Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease, which revolutionized the diagnosis of heart defects and paved the way for more women to practice medicine (965,000 views.) Two more are coming in November—Olivia Poole’s invention of a baby jumper accessory based on the cradleboards of her Ojibwe heritage, and Roland Galarneau’s invention of an automatic Braille translator to make Braille texts more accessible. 

In order to tell stories like these, we’ve learned to innovate ourselves. Eight years ago, we began switching our focus from ‘live’ face-to-face programs to online offerings. At the time, we had about seven million users of our combined programs. Last year, we had slightly more than 27 million users. When we brought back our Heritage Minutes from a five-year hiatus in 2012, the early ones had about 50,000 viewers in their first month of release. Three weeks after its release, the MacGill Minute had been viewed 4.6 million times online—the highest number for any of the almost 100 Minutes produced to date, breaking the previous record of 4.3 million views and on track  to surpass five million views in a single month. (That was the case for the Minute earlier this year on the role Canada and its soldiers played in the liberation of the Netherlands in the Second World War.) We have more than 300,000 followers on social media platforms that include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, most recently, TikTok.

In a new Heritage Minute that has quickly set all-time viewership records, Elsie MacGill presides over a test flight of RCAF Hurricanes in the Second World War. A polio survivor and a strong feminist, she was the world’s first woman aeronautical engineer, and iconic leader of Canada’s fighter plane production program. Historica Canada photo

To tell these stories, we have to be innovative in our approaches. The ways in which historical events are interpreted are a moving target, and so are our efforts to engage Canadians in our shared past. An event happens only once, but can be interpreted countless different ways, depending on the perspective of the person telling the story, and the information at hand. Our Think Like a Historian video series, introduced three years ago, examines key events in Canadian history by analyzing primary source material. Such material is required in history classrooms across the country, but access to source documents can be challenging—and the analysis daunting. Our series explores century-old letters and newspaper headlines through a digital series. The videos provide a framework for analysis of specific documents and explains the context in which they were produced. For example, the federal government and military kept a tight control on wartime information; this, inevitably, contributed to the boosterish tone of headlines and letters home from the front, which were read and censored. In short, just because something was written at the time an event occurred doesn’t ensure its accuracy.

Our material always has to be presented in formats that interest our audience, and we have to help them find those materials rather than wait for them to discover us. We provide teachers with classroom resources for notable anniversaries, history months and significant events. We reach more than 100,000 teachers annually through e-blasts, conferences, school mailings, social media and digital content distribution. We use uniquely targeted campaigns and content to reach teachers on LinkedIn, Reddit, TikTok and Pinterest. Each year, we receive over 150,000 visits to our learning tools designed specifically for Canadian teachers.

Our biggest draw (separate from the Minutes) is the online-only Canadian Encyclopedia which, like all our offerings, is offered free-of-charge in both official languages. We have six full-time editors and a nationwide network of writers and fact-checkers. In all, the Canadian Encyclopedia offers more than 20,000 entries on people and things Canadian. They include events and people that make us proud to be Canadian as well as others that definitely do not. In the latter category, we have, for example, entries on the history of pre-Confederation slavery, and the residential schools in which tens of thousands of Indigenous youth were forcibly placed after being wrested from their families.

To better meet the needs of our readers, we’ve also found new ways to deliver our content. This year, we began publishing plain-language summaries of content directly tied to curricula across the country. That includes broad, difficult topics distilled to their essential points—including residential schools and Black enslavement. Difficult aspects of our history are increasingly included in elementary curricula, and many learners—of all ages—approach the study of Canadian history in their second language. These short, accessible entries are written in an easily understandable style. Since we began publishing them this year, these entries have been read more than 55,000 times.

When we ignore our past, we overlook all the aspects of life that once seemed impossible and now are commonplace—and the people who made them possible. When Elsie MacGill was growing up, the presumption was that women couldn’t manage the mental heavy lifting of applied mathematics and other complex skills required for aeronautics. Along with MacGill in Canada, another pioneer who put the lie to that was Katherine Johnson, the Black American mathematician without whose calculations the early NASA space flights would not have happened. Or, for that matter, consider the direct line of sorts between MacGill and Dr. Donna Strickland, the University of Waterloo-based optical physicist who was a 2018 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work. In fact, there is a very direct line between the two: Strickland narrates the voiceover at the end of the MacGill Heritage Minute. Innovators are people who find unexpected or unforeseen paths toward making our future a better one. As many of them understand, the beginnings of that process are often found in our past.  

Contributing Writer Anthony Wilson-Smith is President and CEO of Historica Canada, and a former Editor of Maclean’s.

A graduate of University of Toronto and Oxford, Bronwyn Graves is Director of Education and Programs at Historica Canada and Editor-in-Chief at The Canadian Encyclopedia.