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."


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.


Watch the video


Watch the video [CC/ASL]



Lalie Douglas

Montreal artist Lalie Douglas creates objects and installations which question our expectations of how art should behave both inside the gallery and outside in public spaces. Her work has been exhibited in Quebec, Canada and internationally. Her recent projects include Du coin de l’œil (Regina, 2011 and Montreal, 2013), Broken Land: histoires contées et racontées (Laval, 2014) and public art projects such as D’où venons-nous / Où Allons-nous (Mascouche, 2012) and This place was like a home to us (Montreal, 2013) made to honour Thomas Widd and his wife Margaret, founders of what became the Mackay School for the Deaf, a project documented in the film Lost Stories. Her work has been supported by several grants from both the Canada Council and the Conseil des arts et des letters du Québec. She holds an MFA in sculpture from Concordia University, in Montreal.


Bernar Hébert

Bernar Hébert, founder of ANEMIC & KINETIC, is an accomplished director/producer, who specializes in projects involving the arts. For the last 30 years, he has explored most artistic mediums, from dance to music to contemporary art. In 1991, he won an International EMMY award for his direction of Pictures at an Exhibition, a dance/musical film combining talents from different artistic disciplines. Hébert was also behind The Art of Nude Modeling, which focused on nude modeling while following the artistic collaboration of the creators who work with the models. He also did 4 seasons of the well-known series Vente de Garage broadcast on ARTV. This series explored the creative process of artists such as Isabelle Hayeur, BGL, and Pascal Grandmaison. Most recently he created Les Contemporains, a series that follows emerging artists at work. It was broadcasted on ICI ARTV to mark the 50th anniversary of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

Project leader

Ronald Rudin

Professor of History at Concordia University, Ronald Rudin's role as director of the Lost Stories Project grows directly out of his interest in studying how the past is communicated to the larger public. This interest is evident in his past three books (Founding Fathers; Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie; and Kouchibouguac) which explore how the past has been used for a variety of purposes in French Canada. In addition to communicating his research through text, he has also been involved with a number of film projects which explore the representation of the past in public space. He was the producer of both Life after Île Ste-Croix (2006) and Remembering a Memory (2010); and was the co-creator of the film-based website, Returning the Voices to Kouchibouguac National Park (2013). He is the project coordinator for this story, the pilot Lost Stories episode, which was financed with funds from his fellowship from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.


Making the Art

Teaching Lost Stories

Teaching Lost Stories consists of a set of lesson plans and historical documents that encourage critical thinking about the history that is literally all around us. Teachers and students consider why some stories from the Canadian past have been commemorated through historical markers such as monuments, while other stories have been ignored. More specifically, the Lost Stories episode about Thomas Widd is used to encourage classroom reflection about why that particular story was "lost," and to challenge students to present it through markers of their own.

  • Thomas Widd: Unit and Lessons Plans [pdf]
  • Lesson 2: Other Narratives [pdf]
  • Lesson 3: Researching Lost Stories [pdf]
  • Deaf Education Backgrounder [pdf]
  • Deaf Education Historical Document Collection [pdf]
  • Primary Document Analysis Organizer [pdf]
  • Lost Stories: Historical Marker Criteria [pdf]
  • Historical Marker Research Presentation Rubric [pdf]

Material prepared by Ruth Sandwell and Scott Pollock.

Ruth Sandwell, educational consultant for Lost Stories, is a historian and history educator at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of History at the University of Toronto. In addition to researching and publishing about the social history of energy and of rural Canada, she is the founding Co-director and Educational Director of the history education website: Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History ( She has edited two collections of essays about history teaching: Ruth Sandwell and Amy von Heyking, eds. (2014), Becoming a History Teacher: Sustaining Practices in Historical Thinking and Knowing, Toronto: University of Toronto Press; and Ruth W. Sandwell, ed. (2006) To The Past: History Education, Public Memory and Citizenship Education in Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press: October: 2006.

Scott Pollock, educational consultant for Lost Stories, received his Ph.D from OISE/UT in 2017. His research focuses upon the history of curriculum in Ontario, with an emphasis on the development of "historical thinking" as a pedagogical concept. In addition, he has worked as a high school history teacher for 17 years and is currently a teacher and innovation lead at St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School in Oakville, Ontario. He has also served as an educational consultant for a range of organizations and publishers, helping to create materials dealing with Canadian and world history.

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,
  • 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.