Science & Tech

20 Canadian innovations you should know about

Celebrating Canadian Innovation Week 2023 by spotlighting the people and organizations designing a better future 

  • Published May 15, 2023
  • Updated May 17
  • 3,327 words
  • 14 minutes

Canada is bursting with great ideas. Some of them are small, affecting a single community. Some are changing the whole world.

In a way, the scope hardly matters. When innovation strikes, it tends to spread. You see a bold new solution affecting one part of your life and you start thinking about other ways to make a difference. Great ideas are everyone’s business.

That’s why, in 2018, the Rideau Hall Foundation convened the Canadian Innovation Space, a partnership of cross-disciplinary organizations that strives to build a stronger, more resilient culture of innovation in Canada. A major component of the program is Canadian Innovation Week, which takes place annually in the third week of May and aims to shine a spotlight on the people and organizations developing technology and programs to improve the lives of Canadians and the health of our communities and ecosystems from coast to coast to coast. 

Use this map to explore some of the inspirations that are touching all aspects of Canadian life, all of them laureates of RHF-supported granting and recognition programs including the Governor General’s Innovation Awards, the Arctic Inspiration Prize, Catapult Canada and Ingenious+. Whether it’s monitoring the effects of climate change on Arctic sea ice or tracking COVID-19 before anyone else thought to or envisioning more respectful ways to do research on Indigenous lands, Canadians are designing a better future.

  1. 1. SmartICE (GGIA, AIP and other awards)

    What started as a terrific idea in 2017 has evolved into an indispensable community-based social enterprise tool across the North to help Inuit community members avoid hazardous ice.

    The problem is climate heating. As the air warms, the sea ice thins. When sea ice is your mode of travel, your route to hunting and your main way of connecting to others, that’s an alarming situation.

    SmartICE marries high tech with traditional Indigenous knowledge to monitor the thickness of sea ice. It operates in more than 30 communities across Inuit Nunangat and the northern territories through SmartBUOY sensors stuck into the ice and SmartQAMUTIK sensors towed on sleds behind snowmobiles.

    Together, the sensors give readings of ice thickness that are communicated to community members through a special Indigenous knowledge social network platform that people can retrieve on phones and other devices. 

    The program is driven by Inuit values that celebrate Indigenous culture and knowledge. Inuit are involved in all decisions and operations.

  2. 2. Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey-Canadian Leaders in Indigenous Education (GGIA)

    Success is all about schooling. And in Nova Scotia, schooling for Mi’kmaq students is all about an outstanding educational authority led by the community. It’s been called a shining example of educational leadership not just in Canada, but the whole world.

    Teachers, chiefs, parents and education staff have put together a powerful combo of resources to make sure Mi’kmaq culture thrives across the collective of 12 communities in Nova Scotia. From revolutionary teacher training to new learning techniques, in-class language support to cultural events and iOS apps in Mi’kmaw, the authority unflinchingly promotes excellence in education.

    The results are stunning. Nearly 94 per cent of First Nation students in Nova Scotia graduate from high school, more than double the rates for Indigenous students in the rest of Canada. The success goes even further: more than 600 graduates are also enrolled in post-secondary education.

  3. 3. Elementary Literacy Inc./L’Alphabétisation au Primaire Inc. (Catapult Canada)

    Hundreds of trained volunteers. Thousands of early readers. Huge boosts in confidence and literacy. A matchless community-based strategy for unlocking every kid’s reading potential.

    This New-Brunswick-based non-profit has built a breathtaking reputation for helping young anglophone and francophone readers who are struggling in those critical first two grades at school. Volunteers, trained in the evidence-based science of teaching literacy, are ready when they’re needed, giving pupils extra support. Most are students themselves – either in high school or college.

    The goal is better reading and writing skills in Grade 2. And it’s working. Volunteers have spent nearly 130,000 hours – and counting – to support pupils since the program began. That adds up to more than 5,500 readers who’ve gained pride in their ability to decode words on the page.

    These literacy champions also bring stories into homes every week by showing people reading a favourite book aloud on the NB Reads/Le Nouveau-Brunswick raconte Facebook page.

  4. 4. David Brown — Chinova Bioworks (GGIA)

    This ingenious biotech engineer has already helped found two ground-breaking companies to improve health and the environment. The first, Mycodev Group Inc., pioneered a new way to produce chitosan, an ingredient used in pharmaceutical products and medical devices. Typically, this valuable compound is manufactured from the exoskeletons of crabs and shrimp. Brown’s method ferments fungi instead, cutting down on energy and chemicals.

    Next, he co-founded Chinova Bioworks, which uses fiber from the stems of white button mushrooms to make a natural preservative for foods and beverages. It’s a double punch against food waste, one of the contributors to climate heating. Not only is it produced from mushroom stems that would otherwise have been thrown out, it also slows down the action of bacteria, moulds and yeasts that can spoil food. Bonus: it has no taste. Plus, it’s vegan, kosher, Halal and non-GMO.

    The head offices of both companies are in New Brunswick. Last year Chinova moved to an expanded production facility on Prince Edward Island.

  5. 5. Atanniuvik (AIP)

    The name of this new organization set up to oversee research across Nunavik says it all. It means “a place to seek permission” in Inuktitut. This governance body will put Inuit self-determination at the heart of all decisions. It will put power back in the hands of local communities.

    First of all, that means making sure the organization is run by Inuit for Inuit. That entails assembling and training the people who can staff the organization.

    Then comes the complex work of identifying what research will benefit the Nunavimmiut, their culture, their lands and waters.

    Until now, research in the region has served the purposes of people who don’t live there. And more and more of it has been going on. The pace is overwhelming communities and organizations. Now, a centralized team will review proposals, support the research that communities need, help identify research priorities and make sure communities get access to the research that’s being produced.

  6. 6. Unaaq Men’s Association of Inukjuak – Intensive Traditional Program Development (AIP)

    Sometimes from terrible tragedy comes a journey toward hope.

    In the late 1990s and early part of the new millennium, the small community of Inukjuak in Nunavik was shaken by a series of suicides. They led to public meetings and a determined quest to understand what had led to such awful events. Did it come down to loss of identity?

    The men of the community stepped up. They established an intensive, sustained mentoring program to pair youth with Elders and hunters. The older men are passing on a whole spate of traditional skills: building the umiak. Fishing for char and then dressing it for drying. Hunting seals. Training dog teams for sleds.

    In the process, the community has come together to heal and build strength. Now, there’s talk of collaborating with other Indigenous communities to spread the program and build self-esteem and pride in the next generation. 

  7. 7. Signal for Help (GGIA)

    For women trapped at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, a simple hand motion could help silently communicate that they were at risk of gender-based violence.

    Up goes the hand, four fingers tall, thumb across the palm. Then down go the fingers, catching the thumb inside. It’s easy to do during a video call and leaves no digital trace.

    The Canadian Women’s Foundation invented the signal just weeks into the pandemic, aware of spikes in gender-based and intimate partner violence as people were forced to stay at home and as video calling became so widespread.

    But the violence wasn’t limited to Canada. Crisis calls from women in danger ramped up all around the world. And so the signal for help went viral, too.

    Now there’s an email learning series action guide for responders to the signal, a mini-course for those who want to learn how to help and a special podcast series with stories from survivors and experts. 

  8. 8. Naila Moloo — Transparent and flexible solar cells (Ingenious+)

    This passionate teen innovator was on her way to high school one day when she noticed that solar panels are getting more common, but tend to be out of reach for many people who would use them. What if they could be on your house window, your car windshield, your phone, or even your shirt?

    So she started investigating. After all, fossil fuels are emitting so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that they are putting a million species at risk of extinction, she reasoned. What if we could speed up a transition to renewable energy?

    She got in touch with industry leaders through LinkedIn, asking all the tough questions. And then she started developing a prototype of her own solar panel. It had to be transparent and bendable and harness the power of nanoparticles.

    She’s got a model, printed in 3D. And she’s still working to perfect it. Bring on the future! 

  9. 9. Kamran Khan — BlueDot (GGIA)

    Dr. Khan, an infectious disease physician in Toronto, set up BlueDot after the SARS epidemic struck in 2003. BlueDot is an epidemic intelligence company that uses masses of data, artificial intelligence, scientific knowledge and digital technologies to help governments learn as early as possible about outbreaks of disease.

    By the time COVID-19 began, Dr. Khan’s system was in peak form. BlueDot began tracking the novel virus from Wuhan, China long before most people on Earth had any inkling anything was wrong. The company issued its first warnings to clients nine days before the World Health Organization alerted the world, and published one of the first scientific papers on the new coronavirus.

    BlueDot and Dr. Khan have had worldwide recognition for the computer algorithms and analysis that led to the early warnings of COVID-19.

  10. 10. Portage la Prairie Revitalization Corporation, Roving Campus (Catapult Canada)

    What if a classroom wasn’t just a classroom? What if it was a new adventure somewhere else in the community every day? Maybe interviewing Indigenous Elders at a former residential school. Or identifying as many species of plants and animals as possible during a single day at a lake.

    These are just some of the ways this creative educational pilot project, designed by three teachers, helps students regain an interest in graduating high school.

    The teachers were concerned at how many students were at risk of not graduating because they didn’t attend school. So they looked at what was keeping them away.

    Getting to school? They bought a van. Hunger? They furnished meals. Lack of computer access to do schoolwork? They provided laptops and internet. No gym clothes? They negotiated with a local business to find discounted running shoes.

    The program is so successful the organizers hope that other communities can make use of it, too.

  11. 11. Sweet Dreams (GGIA)

    Sometimes all it takes to keep a young mother and her baby together is a little support. This innovative financing program, run by EGADZ, a downtown youth centre in Saskatoon, has set up a new financial mechanism to do that.

    It’s a Canadian first, called a social impact bond. Money comes from private investors to provide vulnerable moms and their kids with independent housing and support in a small community of peers. Without the need to scramble for sheer survival, moms can learn how to safely parent their kids while continuing their own education and planning for a job. When the program reaches specific goals, the government pays the money back to the investor.

    It’s a win all around. Kids get the nurturing they need from their moms. Moms get a chance to reach their personal potential by finishing school and entering the work force. The community grows stronger. And the government can redirect money from fostering services to moms.

  12. 12. Dr. Garnette Sutherland – NeuroArm (GGIA)

    When this neurosurgeon wanted to use magnetic resonance imaging during an operation to make sure he was getting every last bit of brain tumour, people thought he was asking the impossible.

    But he persisted. He realized that he needed a robot. So he worked with MDA, the Canadian company famous for making the Canadarm that is used on space shuttles. Together, they created the first robot in the world that can perform neurosurgery on a patient inside an MRI.

    It’s called the NeuroArm and it’s based at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary. It’s been used on more than 40,000 patients around the world. The robotic brain surgery is less invasive for the patient. It leads to better outcomes.

    Even NASA, the American space agency, is impressed. Dr. Sutherland won its highest technology achievement medal for this invention.

  13. 13. Dr. Ronald Ignace (Stsmél’qen) and Dr. Marianne Ignace (Gulḵiihlgad) — Combining scientific knowledge with the wisdom of Elders (GGIA)

    Lose language and you lose memory, tradition, family and dignity. And stories. For decades, Dr. Ronald Ignace and Dr. Marianne Ignace have been immersed in revitalizing Indigenous languages and storytelling. They call it being scribes of the Elders.

    Both holders of PhDs in anthropology, they have developed creative new research methods that honour Indigenous Peoples’ connection to land and language. Those methods advocate for western scientific knowledge to exist in dialogue with the wisdom and knowledge of Indigenous Elders, both past and present.

    Dr. Ronald Ignace, a traditional storyteller, international ambassador, political advisor and scholar, was appointed Canada’s first Commissioner of Indigenous Languages in 2021. He was the long-time chief of the Skeetchestn and is a member of the Secwépemc (Shuswap) Nation. Dr. Marianne Ignace is a distinguished professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Together, they wrote the award-winning 2017 history book Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws.

  14. 14. Dr. John Borrows — Reconciliation through Indigenous law (GGIA)

    As Indigenous languages and cultures continue to find their rightful place in Canadian society, traditional Indigenous laws are gaining ground, too.

    Much of that momentum is thanks to one of the world’s leading scholars in Indigenous law, Dr. John Borrows, Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria. He is Anishinaabe and a member of the Chippewas of the Nawash Unceded First Nation in Ontario.

    The principles of Indigenous law stem from the laws that govern nature and the land. Reviving those principles and teaching communities about them can be a powerful new path to reconciliation for all Canadians.

    To that end, Dr. Borrows has helped create the world’s first dual law program to teach both common law and Indigenous law. Some of the law classes take place in nature, where students can bear witness to the origin of the Indigenous legal framework.

  15. 15. N’’tsaÜw Chu’ Kedts’edán Kù Traditional Camp (AIP)

    This inspired project is aimed at making it easier for students at an urban high school in Whitehorse to learn traditional skills in the outdoors.

    The idea is to build a permanent Indigenous camp on the grounds of Porter Creek Secondary School to conduct in-depth cultural teaching. It’s unique in Whitehorse.

    The camp will have a fire pit, seating for a huge crowd and even a kitchen for preparing traditional foods. The name translates in English to “the place where wild rhubarb grow.”

    Elders are enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching Indigenous wisdom outside the physical school building. Students are eager to learn from them. And so are teachers, who want to see Indigenous cultural teachings valued.

    The heart of the project, for many, is the fire pit. Elders call it a sacred place that will be critical for healing the spirit and mind and for fostering pride in Indigenous cultural practices. 

  16. 16. Youth Training in Ethical Knowledge Sharing and Co-production to Advance Northern, Indigenous-led Conservation and Stewardship (AIP)

    This leading-edge program is training a generation of Indigenous youth to be guardians of the lands and waters in their traditional territories.

    Hosted at a research station on the homelands of the Lù’àn Män Ku Dän – Southern Tutchone People, this emerging generation of leaders from Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunatsiavut work, learn and live together to build skills to manage the fallout from climate heating.

    Traditional knowledge, learned from Indigenous Elders and knowledge-holders, is the guiding light and there’s also a contribution from Western scientific thinking. The trainees go on field trips with Elders and knowledge-holders, plugging into community wisdom and becoming certified in land-based learning.

    The program coaches them to design conservation and stewardship programs to help communities adapt to conditions that are changing unbelievably fast.

  17. 17. First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun — Indigenous Food Sovereignty Hub (AIP)

    Living in the wild heart of Yukon means gorgeous scenery year-round, but not always ready access to groceries. Food has to travel a long distance before it arrives. Sometimes roads close down.

    So the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun has developed a bold vision to strengthen food sovereignty. It already has a farm. Now, the community is designing and constructing a food-processing complex of buildings. The Hub will be a commercially certified, inspected and food-safe place for processing foods for those who live in the nearby village of Mayo and the surrounding area.

    The Hub will be a place for the community to gather, gain access to locally grown food, share traditional knowledge of foodstuffs and build on-the-job skills. It will foster the development of food-related workshops and offer space where those workshops can take place. Community members will be able to use communal tools and participate in mentorship relationships.

  18. 18. Tuktoyaktuk Community Climate Resiliency (AIP)

    The Inuvialuit hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk is nestled against a natural harbour on the Arctic Ocean, at the end of the mainland’s most northerly highway.

    But while being a coastal community in the Arctic has a lot of pluses, it also brings a lot of risks in an era of climate heating. The sea is rising and taking over the land. Coastlines are eroding. Permafrost is thawing. It adds up to a suite of threats to the hamlet’s very existence.

    Instead of relying on other people’s ideas of how to cope, the community is taking charge of its own fate. Community members, including youth, are learning how to monitor the changes. They are devising their own recommendations for what do to.

    They’re even having tough conversations about whether to relocate the hamlet to somewhere less precarious.  When the possible changes are this momentous, their key strategy is to build resilience so they can face whatever comes.

  19. 19. Dehcho: River Journeys (AIP)

    This visionary multimedia history project captures the winding tales of the past century of the Mackenzie River, told through the eyes of Indigenous Peoples.

    At the project’s heart are two short films made by students. The first is made up of archival material from Elders, many of whom were interviewed for CBC Radio when the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, known as the Berger Commission, was underway. Their voices tell stories that go back 100 years, to nomadic life before Indigenous Peoples of the area signed Treaty 11 with the Canadian government.

    The second film revolves around journeys on the river today, with Elders sharing their wisdom about what the river has gone through since then.

    The project was exhibited in January at the Fort Simpson Heritage Centre in the Northwest Territories, complete with artifacts and artworks from Gwich’in, Sahtu and Dehcho artists. It is so powerful that the education authority has already made it part of the curriculum for the northern studies program in high schools across the territory.

  20. 20. Qajaq Program (AIP)

    For generations, Inuit who lived in the area of Chesterfield Inlet on the western shore of Hudson Bay relied on sturdy hand-crafted qajaqs for transportation and hunting. In fact, Nunavut was the birthplace of the qajaq. But then, the art of qajaqing died out. 

    This project helped bring it back to life. Students from grades 7 to 12 at Victor Sammurtok School have participated, building up the community’s fleet of qajaqs from designs developed hundreds of years ago.

    Elders and local knowledge-keepers helped teach the youth how to build the vessels, sew their covers and paddle them. The community even made a special qajaq to send to other Inuit communities as a teaching resource.

    It means a lot more than a boat on the water. It’s the resurrection of a key invention in the history of Arctic life and the reclaiming of Inuit culture and identity.

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