Alberta Beyond:
100 Years of Albertan Innovation

Part of the Alberta Beyond Series

There is no formal beginning to innovation, it has no start or end point, no hard line in the sand marking “complete.” It is ultimately a process, an often multidisciplinary one, that builds over time as novel thinkers contribute their new ideas and approaches to evolve a concept further, for the betterment of all.

This year, we celebrate the innovation process in Alberta, one which is marked by significant and truly groundbreaking discoveries and ways of thinking that have transformed Canada and the world. In just one hundred years since the formation of the Alberta Research Council, hundreds of innovators have devoted their time—and in some cases, their lives—to paving a new path for innovation in the province. Below is a selection of innovators who have built the foundation for a province that continues to transform year after year, and impact Canada and the world through its innovative spirit.

Nellie McClung, courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
Nellie McClung, courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

1927: Political Equality - The Alberta Five

Five prominent Alberta suffragettes—Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards—petitioned the federal government to refer the issue of the eligibility of women to be senators to the Supreme Court of Canada. This petition was the foundation for the Persons Case, which overturned previous legislation that women were not “qualified persons.” The case was a hallmark in the drive towards political equality, sparking the first wave of feminism.

Karl Clark
Provincial Archives of Alberta, A3554.

1929: The Oil Sands - Karl Adolf Clark

Perhaps the best known innovator in Alberta’s history, Karl Adolf Clark was a leading Canadian chemist who was approached by the first President of the University of Alberta, Henry Marshall Tory, to become the first head of the Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta (SIRCA). Clark set out to determine whether the oil contained in Alberta’s oil sands, once separated from the sand, could be mixed with other materials to form pavable concrete. Clark would conduct laboratory tests, and reported in 1927 that bitumen could indeed be separated from the sand. In 1929, SIRCA patented the process he had developed.

Banff Centre
A group of students and staff in front of the Administration Building of what was then called the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1939.

1933: The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

Located in Alberta’s Bow Valley, the Banff Centre is an internationally-renowned arts centre that was formed in 1933 by the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension. It began its first two-week course in drama during the early 1930’s, and has since fostered thousands of creatives and artists who have shaped Canada’s arts landscape. The facilities now host more than 500 conferences each year, welcoming Canadians and those from abroad to the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

Raymond Lemieux
Photo credit University of Alberta Archives: Raymond Urgel Lemieux with his assistant examining nuclear-magnetic resonance (NMR) results.
Banner Photo: credit Hyperyoda1065 Wikimedia Commons.

1953: Synthesizing Sucrose - Raymond Lemieux & George Hurber

In 1953, Alberta-born chemist Raymond Lemieux and fellow researcher George Huber were the first scientists in the world to successfully synthesize sucrose. Carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) reside in every living cell and are essential to most biological processes, and synthesized sugar laid the groundwork for the development of vaccines, antibiotics, anti-rejection techniques and organ transplants. Lemieux later founded two companies in Alberta that led to the rise of Alberta’s bioeconomy.

Harold Cardinal
Harold Cardinal (centre), Premier Harry Storm (left) and Jean Chrétien, Minister of Indian Affairs, 18 December 1970. Photo J547 courtesy of Postmedia Network Inc.

1969: The Red Paper - Harold Cardinal

Harold Cardinal was a Cree Chief, lawyer and author born in High Prairie, Alberta. As an Indigenous activist, Cardinal led the movement against then Minister of Indian Affairs JeanChrétien’s “White Paper”, which advocated for eliminating Indian Status and treaty rights. Cardinal authored his own “Red Paper” which later culminated in his book, The Unjust Society, a bestseller that in part forced the government to abandon its policy. Cardinal was later elected as the youngest President of the Indian Association of Alberta, serving nine terms during which he initiated a number of programs that enhanced Indigenous culture and traditions. He then went on to be the first Indigenous person appointed as Alberta’s Regional Director General of Indian Affairs.

Richard Sutton
Credit: CIFAR

1984 - present: Reinforcement Learning - Richard Sutton

Richard Sutton, a distinguished researcher, scientist and professor of computing science at the University of Alberta is considered one of the founding fathers of modern computational reinforcement learning, especially considering his contribution in temporal difference learning and policy gradient methods. Sutton published his first paper on reinforcement learning in 1981 and continues to work in the discipline, leading the U of A’s Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory launched in 2018. Sutton is also a Chief Scientific Advisor of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) and the CIFAR Artificial Intelligence Chair.

Ray Rojotte
Ray Rojotte. Photo credit: Laughing Dog Photography.

1989: Ray Rajotte - The Edmonton Protocol

In the late 1980’s, Ray Rajotte began assembling a team of clinical scientists to carry out Canada’s first islet transplant for patients suffering from Type 1 Diabetes. The technology used was developed by Rajotte during his time as a PhD candidate in Bioengineering at the University of Alberta. While a patient’s requirement for insulin diminished, it was not until the third transplant that the patient reported being 100% free of insulin. The process would later become known as the Edmonton Protocol, which is used worldwide.

Samuel Weiss
A mouse neural stem cell in a lab dish. The cell is sending out appendages (green) to establish connections with nearby nerve cells. Photo courtesy of Mark McClendon, Zaida Alvarez Pinto, Samuel I. Stupp, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

1992: Neural Stem Cells in Adult Mammals - Samuel Weiss

Now the inaugural director of the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Samuel Weiss was the first to discover the existence of neural stem cells in adult mammals. The discovery of an adult mammalian central nervous system showed that there is ongoing neural development throughout the lifetime of adult mammals and provides insight into how stem cells can be used to repair neural tissue and allow for the recovery from spinal or brain injury. Dr. Weiss continues his work by leading Canada’s Institute for Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction as its Scientific Director.

James Gosling

1994: Java Coding Language - James Gosling

Albertan James Gosling was working at Sun Microsystems when he had the idea for the Java virtual machine while writing a program. He created the original design of Java and implemented the language’s original compilerand virtual machine in 1994. Other languages, like C# were born from Java. The coding language is still widely used today and continues to evolve.

Tyrrell in his lab. Credit: University of Alberta

1998: Hepatitis B Antiviral Agents - Lorne Tyrrell

In 1986, when Dr. Lorne Tyrrell began his research while teaching a graduate course, hepatitis B was the ninth leading cause of death worldwide. Tyrrell soon found clues that would lead to his discovery of an antiviral therapy for chronic hepatitis B, which brought about the licensing of two pharmaceutical drugs that are saving lives across the world each day. Dr. Tyrrell is equally gifted in teaching, and is the Founder and Director of the Li Ka Shing (LKS) Institute of Virology at the University of Alberta.

Beverly McLachlin
Beverley McLachlin, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, speaks to the Federal supreme Court of Brazil 20 November 2007.

2000 - 2017: Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice - Beverley McLachlin

Beverley McLachlin holds a unique place in Canadian history as not only the first female Chief Justice, but also the longest serving. McLachlin has wrestled with a number of legal decisions throughout her tenure, including those relating to euthanasia and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One of her greatest achievements, however, was when she stepped up to fill the role of Governor General in 2005, following the hospitalization of Adrienne Clarkson, and gave royal assent to the Civil Marriage Act, legalizing gay marriage throughout Canada.