An aviation milestone: 100 years since the first commercial bush flight in Canada

Canada Aviation and Space Museum Curator Rénald Fortier, during a press conference marking the centennial of the first commercial bush flight in Canada.

On June 8, 1919, Canada’s first commercial bush flight landed at Lac-à-la-Tortue — now part of the city of Shawinigan. Now considered an official National Historic Event, the landing would become a landmark in the development of this small Quebec community. Since the early 2000s, Lac-à-la-Tortue has been part of the city of Shawinigan and its population of 50,000, but aviation still defines it to this day.

In 2018, Tourisme Shawinigan initiated a discussion with DigiHub’s heritage and digital museology team regarding the development of a project celebrating the centennial of Canada’s first commercial flight. Given that the hundredth anniversary was rapidly approaching, the team went straight to work on a project to be launched in June 2019.

As project manager and an aficionado of Shawinigan’s history, I felt strongly that it was important to work with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. The museum is home to La Vigilance, the first flying boat to land on Lac-à-la-Tortue in 1919.

From the outset, the museum’s team proved a perfect partner. Members of the team worked with us on documentary research, fact checking, analysis of various display options, and verification of texts and captions. This support lent our local project an elevated quality and increased reach.

After discussing the direction of the project, the partners decided to develop a digital exhibition within an outdoor touchscreen kiosk. The kiosk would be located close to Lac-à-la-Tortue, where La Vigilance had landed 100 years earlier. In addition, the kiosk was to be part of an art installation consisting of a sculpture representing La Vigilance, created by a local artist. In order to protect the installation over the winter months, and to provide more people with access, it was decided that the kiosk should be located inside the Gisèle-M.-Beaudoin municipal library during the winter.

Six people stand on a balcony, holding a large sign commemorating the hundredth anniversary of commercial bush aviation in Canada.

(Left to right): Shawinigan Mayor Michel Angers (left), attended the commemorative event along with collaborators Valérie Lalbin, Bernard St-Onge, Danielle Mongrain, Dorothy Jean Lupien, and Claudine Drolet.


The City of Shawinigan immediately offered financial support up to $32,575, and Canadian Heritage provided $33,175 via the Legacy Fund. Research and writing were undertaken by Culture Shawinigan, the para-municipal organization tasked with showcasing local heritage.  

We envisioned a slate of events in support of the centennial anniversary. To us, this was an opportunity to acquaint Shawinigan residents with an important but little-known aspect of their history. We also hoped to give the region’s many tourists an opportunity to learn a bit more about local history.

Thanks to the support of Shawinigan’s municipal libraries, Notre-Dame Elementary School, volunteers with a passion for aviation history (with special thanks to Dorothy Jean Lupien and John J. Henney), and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, throughout the summer of 2019 we were able to host a series of events, workshops, and activities around the theme of aviation. A lecture by museum curator Rénald Fortier exploring the history of Canadian aviation, La Vigilance, and the beginnings of bush flying, was a special highlight.

Today, our digital exhibition gives visitors and residents a new way to explore the history of aviation in Shawinigan, along with the important role played by Lac-à-la-Tortue in the development of aviation in Canada. Users of our touchscreen kiosk also learn about the role of the Laurentide paper mill in the establishment of industry at Lac-à-la-Tortue, key aviation players within the region, the development of the local aviation industry, as well as the first flight of La Vigilance to Lac-à-la-Tortue.

This iconic flying boat crashed into an Ontario lake in 1922. Recovered in 1967 by a team from the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the wreck and its reproduction can be viewed today at the museum. During the summer of 2019, I had an opportunity to go and see this famous airplane. After a year talking about La Vigilance, experiencing it firsthand was an emotional moment — a moment shared with my six-year-old son, who was keen to see “the Shawinigan airplane.” This aircraft has now found its virtual way back to its home base for its hundredth anniversary — due, in no small part, to the support of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, to which we offer our warmest thanks.  

Profile picture for user Claudine Drolet
Claudine Drolet

Claudine Drolet has a B.A. in Journalism and Communications, a diploma in Criminology, and an M.A. in History. She was a journalist with Radio-Canada for 12 years, working in several Canadian provinces. She later worked as Cultural Development Officer — Heritage Section at Culture Shawinigan, before becoming head of Communications and Events with the Shawinigan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  Since March 2018, she has been Project Manager for Heritage and Digital Museology at DigiHub in Shawinigan.