Alberta Order of Excellence member Elizabeth Cannon

M. Elizabeth Cannon OC, Ph.D., FCAE, FRSC, P.Eng., LLD (hon.)

“Yes, Alberta is resource based. We have a strong energy industry and a strong agriculture industry. Both of these sectors have succeeded through our entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity. We now have the desire and tenacity for Alberta to be a great tech ecosystem, which can also leverage these attributes, and be another layer in our important industries. We’re really starting to see this take shape as people’s views start to shift to an image of what Alberta can be and it’s fun to be part of this journey.”

Elizabeth Cannon of Calgary is a titan of post-secondary education. She is a brilliant geomatics engineer; a pioneering researcher at the forefront of developing global positioning systems (GPS) technology; an inspiring advocate and role model for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); and a passionate trailblazer for leadership in higher education. Her guiding navigation has benefitted Albertans and raised awareness of Alberta in the international community.

Margaret Elizabeth Cannon was born on June 25, 1962, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the youngest of four. Her father Fred was an entomologist and research scientist; her mother Mickey was a high school math and science teacher. Education was broadly encouraged at home, with an emphasis on math and science. Elizabeth enjoyed both.

In high school, she was less intrigued by pure math and science, preferring to use them as building blocks or puzzle pieces to identify problems and create solutions. Thus, it was natural she be drawn to engineering, despite it being a non-traditional role for women at the time. Elizabeth ultimately chose geomatics engineering.

After completing a degree in Mathematics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1982, she moved west to join the new geomatics engineering degree program in the Schulich School of Engineering (SSE) at the University of Calgary (UCalgary). With no endgame in sight, Elizabeth arrived in Alberta with an open mind on where this adventure would ultimately take her.

Her first year at UCalgary completed, Elizabeth landed a summer job at Nortech, an early adopter of satellite navigation technology. She was assigned to Nortech’s internal research and development (R&D) team, opening her eyes to the limitless potential of the technology, while also opening doors to GPS research, which became part of her life’s work as a researcher and professor.

After earning her undergrad degree, Elizabeth returned to Nortech’s R&D group full time. It was during these years that she met fellow geomatics engineer Gérard Lachapelle. The couple were married in 1985.

Elizabeth soon realized that to become an expert in GPS, she would need to return to school. As a graduate student in geomatics, she excelled in technology development and commercialization. Her international reputation as a top GPS researcher and innovator was cemented long before she defended her doctoral thesis.

In 1989, she wrote a paper about the software she had developed to process GPS data. The paper caught the attention of a Norwegian government agency that reached out to her to discuss licensing the software. That letter from Norway helped spark Elizabeth’s lifelong journey, which combined discovery and innovation with commercialization.

GPS technology would grow to become the ubiquitous presence it is today. As the cost of the technology decreased, demand for its use increased proportionately, just as she was beginning to commercialize her work. Elizabeth would go on to invent/co-invent eight software programs, then commercialize the technology to over 200 agencies worldwide, and over 3,000 sublicenses, which generated significant commercialization revenue.

That same year, 14 female engineering students were massacred at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, galvanizing the engineering community and deeply impacting Elizabeth. She realized the importance of being a role model for others interested in, or studying, engineering.

In response to the tragedy, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) created a program to increase the number of female faculty members in science and engineering in Canada. The UCalgary put forward Elizabeth’s name, and in 1991 – the same year she completed her PhD – Elizabeth became an Assistant Professor of Geomatics Engineering. In 1997, she was appointed as the NSERC/Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) where she was responsible for promoting STEM to young women through innovative programming, research and public awareness.

“When I became a faculty member, there were 86 professors in our engineering school and there was only one other female faculty member, who was a generation ahead. And it hit me. It was important for all students – men and women – to see women in front of the classroom. So I took teaching very seriously along with my research. I enjoyed both,” she says.

As she moved up the professorial ranks, Elizabeth became a full professor and NSERC Steacie Fellow. She published over 350 papers and research reports, co-authored three patents, and supervised 49 graduate students, all while attracting substantial research funding from industry and government. Elizabeth’s leadership resulted in the SSE having one of the highest proportions of female undergraduate students of all major engineering schools in Canada. In 2004, she was appointed Head of Geomatics at SSE.

Just two years later, Elizabeth’s leadership was recognized again as she became Dean of SSE, the first woman to serve in the role. She propelled the school into the top ranks of engineering schools, led the development of interdisciplinary research programs, enriched student leadership programs, and led the community-endorsed five-year strategic plan known as Beyond Engineering, which increased the school’s research performance, fundraising, reputation and impact.

Elizabeth was appointed President of the University of Calgary. From 2010 to 2018, she served as the university’s eighth president and vice-chancellor, the first woman and the first alumna to hold that position. Elizabeth guided the university to unprecedented heights in teaching innovation, research impact, philanthropic support and community integration.

Under her leadership, the university embarked on an ambitious trajectory, supported by the launch of a visionary strategic plan – Eyes High – that was accompanied by the Energize fundraising campaign, the third-largest successfully completed fundraising campaign in Canadian university history. Today, the UCalgary is in the top five of Canada’s research universities, the youngest post-secondary institution to reach that ranking, and it is an accomplishment that started with Elizabeth’s leadership.

During her tenure as president, the UCalgary was named one of Alberta’s Top Employers, a Top 10 Sustainable Organization in Canada, and a Top 200 university in world rankings. Sponsored research funding increased by 48%, and the university secured $900 million in additional government funding for infrastructure, research and education.

Throughout her career, Elizabeth has been a constructive leader on dozens of significant boards and corporations. Her work in governance, science, technology and development is extraordinary. Her contributions are many, spanning information technology, capital management, public and government affairs, human resources, and strategic growth.

Elizabeth has received more than 80 awards and other recognitions for her teaching, research and leadership. Identified as one of Canada’s most powerful women, she holds five honorary degrees and has been inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Engineering. She is a recipient of the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Engineers Canada Gold Medal. In 2019, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada and was awarded the Peter Lougheed Award for Leadership in Public Policy. In 2021, Elizabeth received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Calgary Influential Women in Business Awards, and in 2022 was inducted into the Junior Achievement Southern Alberta Business Hall of Fame. In 2022, she will receive the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal (Alberta).

Elizabeth’s reputation outside Canada is a further measure of the esteem she has earned. Many of her awards and recognitions are from international institutions, including being inducted as an elected Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and an elected Correspondent of the Mexican Academy of Engineering. In 2001, she was the first woman to receive the Johannes Kepler Award from the U.S. Institute of Navigation.

These days, Elizabeth still serves on many boards, including the Rideau Hall Foundation, Opportunities Calgary Investment Fund, Aga Khan University, Gairdner Foundation, and the Alberta Enterprise Corporation. She is an active angel investor and mentor with a focus on female entrepreneurs, and is involved with the Creative Destruction Lab as a Fellow. She also serves on the General Partner Advisory Committee for the The51, which is creating a new critical mass of women investors, making Canada the centre for women-powered capital.

Elizabeth and Gérard live in Calgary. Their daughter Sara followed in her parents’ footsteps and became an engineer, while their son René is a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy.