Thomas Widd's Lost Story

The Lost Stories project collects little known stories about the Canadian past from across the country.

For the initial episode, made possible by support from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a call was put out to Montrealers using a wide array of media. We received roughly forty story proposals, from which we selected that of Thomas Widd, a deaf man who was the founder in the late-nineteenth century of Montreal's Mackay School for the Deaf. We received Thomas Widd's story from Janet McConnell, a retired teacher at the school, both of whose parents were deaf (although she is not). When Montreal businessman, Joseph Mackay, provided the land and the money for the school, Widd's name -- and his story -- were literally "lost."

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With the involvement of the Montreal deaf community, a number of whom view Widd as a hero, a deaf man who created something significant, Widd's lost story has now been found, thanks to the mural created by the artist Lalie Douglas which was installed on the site of the Mackay School in September 2013. Lalie's creative process has been documented in a 22 minute film produced by Ronald Rudin and directed by Bernar Hébert, which tells Widd's story and documents how Janet and Lalie negotiated the translation of his story into art. The film was selected for and screened at Montreal's Festival International du Film sur l’Art in March 2015.

Thomas Widd's Lost Story Credits

    Original Concept
  • Ronald Rudin
    Assistant to director
  • Maxime Lapostelle
  • Geneviève Philippon
    Production coordinator
  • Maxime Lapostelle
    Researcher
  • Eric Fillion
    Assistant to producer
  • Caroline Boileau
    Camera
  • Anna Lupien
  • Geneviève Philippon
    Additional camera
  • Laura Antohi
    Sound
  • Maxime Lapostelle
    Editing
  • Pier-Philippe Chevigny
    Color Correction
  • Nicolas Gagnon
    With the participation of
  • Lalie Douglas
  • Janet McConnell
  • Donna Vann
  • JoAnne Stump
  • Pascal Dufaux
  • Marwa Bibi
  • Esther Wang
  • Ysabelle Solibaga
  • Caroline Riopel
  • Lilith Chamberland
  • Lorraine Theissen
  • Rolf Theissen
  • Samuel Gagné
  • Andrey Berezousry
    With thanks to
  • Patrizia Ciccarelli and the Mackay Centre School
  • Christine Boyle and MAB-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation
  • Louis Barette
  • Geneviève Philippon
  • Les films dans le sac
  • Concordia University

Continue the conversation

The Lost Stories Project raises as many questions as it answers. There is nothing inevitable about how a story is told in public. The film, Thomas Widd's Lost Story, shows a particular interpretation of that story created by Lalie Douglas, but are there other ways that Widd might have been remembered? With this in mind, here are several sets of questions for individuals or groups to consider -- and there are no right or wrong answers. This is not a quiz.

In light of what you learned from the film, can you imagine other ways that Widd's story might have been told? Did it have to be presented by way of a mural? Can you imagine other structures that might have been built, and where they might have been located? How would a different structure have told a different story?
This website contains information about Thomas Widd's life that was not included in the film. Taking that material into account, were there different stories that could have been told, other than the one presented in the mural created by Lalie Douglas?
The documentary film does not consider some information about Widd's life that is found in the additional material on the website. For instance, the website includes documents about Widd's interest in creating a school exclusively for Protestants. Would you have included such information in the film, and what would have influenced your decision?


Now that you have had an opportunity to think about this one Lost Story, are there little known stories that you think are worth telling, and that are connected to a particular location where a marker could be constructed. If so, write us at: historylost@concordia.ca; or contact us through Facebook or Twitter.

More about Thomas Widd

The film, Thomas Widd's Lost Story, provides an introduction to the life of Thomas Widd, but there is more to discover about his life and times. These galleries contain documents and images that explain certain aspects of his work as a deaf educator, while raising questions about his world.

The Widds and their Community

When the Protestant Institution for the Deaf Mutes opened in 1870, the staff essentially consisted of Thomas Widd and his wife Margaret Fitzakerly Widd. Indeed, the only sketch we have of Mr Widd in the classroom, also indicates the presence of his wife. They created a residential school, which was described by individuals interviewed for this project as having been like a home, which explains why Lalie Douglas chose "This place was like a home" as the title for the artwork described in the Lost Stories documentary.

All but one of the images in this gallery were found in the MAB-Mackay archives, and used with permission. The image of Lalie Douglas's busts of the Widds is from a photo by Paul Litherland.

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Thomas Widd and Religious Conflict

While Thomas Widd was committed to the betterment of deaf people, he arrived in Quebec in the late 1860s, at a time when all institutions (schools, hospitals, charities) were defined as either Catholic or Protestant. There were no "neutral" institutions. Accordingly, he called his school the Protestant Institution for Deaf-Mutes, and in the years immediately preceding the school's opening in 1870, he was involved in a controversy in the local press over the potential dangers to deaf Protestant children if they had to attend Catholic schools. This gallery of documents shows how Widd was not only part of the deaf community, but also engaged with debates in the larger society. In these documents, The Montreal Witness was a Protestant newspaper, while the True Witness was a Catholic one.

Thomas Widd on Education and the School He Founded

Deaf at an early age, Thomas Widd emigrated in 1868 from England to Montreal, where he made a significant contribution to deaf education. In 1870, he founded the Protestant Institution for Deaf-Mutes, which became the Mackay Institution for Deaf-Mutes in 1877 when Joseph Mackay provided land and money to allow construction of a building that survived until the 1960s. Widd served as the principal until his departure for health reasons in 1882.

This gallery of documents draws particular attention to both Widd's ideas about the potential of deaf children and the early history of the school he founded.

Thomas Widd's Buildings

During his relatively brief time in Montreal (1868-1882), Thomas Widd's school for the deaf was housed in two different buildings. The first was really more of a house, while the second -- which received royal visitors in 1878 -- was much more imposing.

  • 1. Protestant Institution for Deaf-Mutes: Thomas Widd,  “The Deaf and Dumb.” Canadian Illustrated News, Vol. X, No. 5 (August 1, 1874), 76.
  • 2. Protestant Institution for Deaf-Mutes by Lalie Douglas: Photo by Paul Litherland
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  • 4. Royal Visit to Mackay Institution, 1878:  BAnQ, Collection Massicotte, 2-4-b.
  • 5. Sketch of Mackay Institution: MAB- Mackay Archives.
  • 6. Photo of Mackay Institution: MAB- Mackay Archives.
  • 7. Mackay Institution by Lalie Douglas: Photo by Paul Litherland.