Elsie MacGill, a trail-blazing engineer and prominent Canadian feminist, is being honoured with a new $1 commemorative circulation coin that celebrates “her exemplary desire to improve and uplift others.”
The Royal Canadian Mint announced the new commemorative on Aug. 1 at a ceremony in Calgary. The artwork appearing on the coin’s reverse is the creation of Tofino, B.C. artist Claire Watson. It features MacGill holding a pair of rolled up blueprints. Flying above her is the Maple Leaf Trainer II that she designed, and beside her appears one of the more than 1,450 Canadian-made Hawker Hurricane fighter planes that she helped produce for the Allied effort in the Second World War, as chief engineer of Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William, Ont. (now Thunder Bay). She was known as the “Queen of the Hurricanes” for that unique wartime contribution. “Elsie MacGill” is engraved beneath the fighter plane. The obverse features the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II by Susanna Blunt.
Limited to a mintage of three million coins, of which two million will be coloured, the new $1 coin began circulating Aug. 1. The coloured and uncoloured circulation coins are also available as collectibles in a six-piece “Collector Keepsake” coin set. They are packaged in a richly illustrated collector card that contains uncirculated versions of classic 2023-dated circulation coins, from five cents to $2. Also available are coloured and uncoloured limited-edition special wrap rolls of 25 uncirculated coins each (uncoloured rolls are available only in a special wrap roll set).
Born March 27, 1905 in Vancouver as Elizabeth (Elsie) Muriel Gregory MacGill, she was the second daughter of James and Helen MacGill. According to The Canadian Encyclopaedia, Helen MacGill was a pioneer in education and a role model for her daughters. She was the first woman in the British Empire to earn her bachelor’s degree in music (1886).
Elsie MacGill went to public school as a child and attended the University of British Columbia in applied science. Two years later she applied and was accepted as the first woman in the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science electrical engineering program.
“At times, her presence caused quite a stir among her male classmates,” states The Canadian Encyclopedia article. “However, by graduation, few questions remained about her suitability as an engineer. In fact, MacGill forged many strong friendships with classmates. She maintained lifelong ties with her graduating class, serving prominently within its alumni body.”
Graduating in 1927, an automobile company in Pontiac, Mich. hired McGill as a mechanical engineer. When her employer began making airplanes, McGill started part-time studies in aeronautics at the University of Michigan. Eventually, her studies became full time and she received her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1929, making her the first female aeronautical engineer in the world.
However, this victory was cut short months later when she was diagnosed with polio. She used a wheelchair for a short time while recovering at home in Vancouver. She kept herself busy by becoming involved with different organizations and studies, including postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She later worked at aeronautical companies in Canada, where she honed her skills in aircraft design, including being hands-on involved in dangerous test flights.
“In 1938, two important events occurred in MacGill’s career,” states The Canadian Encyclopedia. “First, she took a job as chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car) in Fort William. Second, the Engineering Institute of Canada accepted her membership application. This made her the first woman member of the professional association.”
Her professional highlights include:
- In 1939, she supervised Can Car’s production of Hawker Hurricanes. She played a key role in re-tooling the factory to produce more than 1,450 Hawker Hurricanes, and spearheaded improvements for cold-weather performance by designing specific adaptations such as ski landing gear and de-icing capabilities.
- In 1941, she relocated to Toronto to start her own engineering consulting company focusing on civilian aircraft.
- In 1947, MacGill became the first woman to serve at the International Civil Aviation Organization, and her service became highly elevated when she was appointed chair of the stress analysis committee.
- In 1955, MacGill published a biography on her mother, Helen, entitled My Mother the Judge. This renewed her advocacy for women’s rights.
- In 1962, MacGill was elected president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.
- In 1967, she was named to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. After releasing its report in 1970, MacGill played a pivotal role in promoting the findings and the feminist response.
“Elsie MacGill always looked to the horizon in her engineering and feminist endeavours and sought to move beyond it,” Elsie MacGill biographer Crystal Sissons said in a news release from the mint. “She was not deterred by setbacks, and she knew the value of teamwork and harnessing the support and co-operation of her colleagues in both fields to effect the changes she desired. She believed Canadians could work together to soar beyond social and technical limitations.”