How Ilana MacDonald and Julie Bolduc-Duval are preparing Canadians for the eclipse

March 8th is International Women’s Day, an opportunity to honour and celebrate the achievements of women around the word. This year, it is also a month away from a once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse that will sweep across Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces.

Today we’re celebrating two women who are working tirelessly to help Canadians experience the eclipse to its fullest: Dr. Ilana MacDonald, Public Outreach, Communications, and Events Strategist for the Dunlap Institute and head of the Ontario Eclipse Task Force, and Julie Bolduc-Duval, Director of Discover the Universe.

We sat down with Ilana and Julie to chat about their work, why this total solar eclipse is so special, how to make the most of it, and more!

How are you getting folks ready for the eclipse on April 8, 2024?

Ilana: I’m leading eclipse programming in Toronto specifically.

At the Dunlap Institute, we’ve partnered with the Toronto Public Library to provide workshops for almost 40 branches around the city. We’ll have volunteers showing folks how to make pinhole solar viewers and scale models of the Earth-Sun-Moon system. We’re also leading solar viewing events where we’ll be able to show folks what the surface of the Sun looks like.

We’re also bringing eclipse glasses with us and all sorts of information about how to safely view the eclipse.

For April 8, we’re partnering with folks across Eastern Canada to do an eclipse livestream that we’re calling, “Chasing the Shadow from Niagara to Newfoundland.” We’ll have partners everywhere from St. Catherine’s in the Niagara region to Gander, Newfoundland, so we’ll be covering the entire path of totality.

The Ontario Eclipse Task Force has brought together institutions from around the province to get municipalities, communities, and school boards ready for the eclipse.

Julie: I’ve been helping teachers teach astronomy for years through Discover the Universe, and it became obvious to me years ago that the eclipse would be huge for schools across Eastern and Atlantic Canada.

It started in 2017 when I got to see the total solar eclipse in the United States. I thought, “We have to make sure schools in Canada are ready to enjoy it and live it.”

At Discover the Universe, we’ve trained thousands of teachers over the past year, getting them ready to teach about such a unique event.

We really want schools to embrace it. That’s not happening everywhere, which is disappointing, but I think you can still talk to kids about it and get kids excited about the eclipse.

This eclipse has been referred to as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity for people within its path. Why is it so important that we stop whatever we’re doing on that Monday afternoon and go outside to see it?

Julie: Because it’s not just for astronomy nerds. This is for everyone to enjoy. It’s such a profound experience—you can get emotional watching it. It will get dark in the middle of the day, which feels very strange. It’s thrilling.

Most adults can remember observing a partial eclipse as a kid. This will have a lasting impression that’s an order of magnitude bigger than that. That’s why I’ve been so motivated to make sure that kids can live this experience, not locked inside. I want all kids to be outside, to be able to observe it safely—whether it’s at home or at school.

Ilana: This is also something that won’t happen in this part of the country for another 50 years. So being able to experience it this time around is going to be super special.

Not everybody has the resources to be an eclipse chaser and follow the path of totality for every single total eclipse. So for it to be happening over where we’re living—it’s literally passing over Julie’s house—is awesome.

What makes the eclipse especially important for kids to experience?

Julie: It’s so hard to get kids excited about a textbook. You usually teach astronomy with a textbook, and it’s hard to get them to experience real, concrete learning out there.

This is the ultimate opportunity. This is one of the best natural phenomena we can see.

I know some people say, “I saw an eclipse as a kid and that got me so curious, so I decided to study science.” And that’s great, but my goal is not necessarily to make all kids scientists. But being curious about the world around you, no matter what field you study, is super important.

I’m about to get even more philosophical, but I really like the fact that it brings us all together. You see this cosmic alignment and there’s going to be millions of us outside at the same time looking up.

There are so many things that divide us these days. I like to think that this will bring us all together.

Ilana: I don’t know if I could say it any more perfectly than Julie just did. But I can add corroborating evidence.

I remember seeing the partial eclipse that went over Quebec in ‘94 when I was in grade two. My dad had made a little shoe box pinhole viewer for me, and he was so excited to let me go outside and view the eclipse. A few of my classmates also had eclipse glasses they were excited to use. But at school, they just kept us in the gym that whole day.

I remember getting home and being able to catch the tail end of it with my dad on our back porch—just watching through that pinhole shoe box. That’s a memory that’s imprinted on my brain. Even if I hadn’t gone into astronomy, that was still something that very much affected me in terms of being excited about the world.

Beyond safely observing the eclipse by wearing eclipse glasses or using indirect viewing methods, how do you recommend people get the most out of it?

Julie: If you can, go to the path of totality. A 99% eclipse is still an amazing event but it’s not quite what you see with totality. Because during totality, you can remove your glasses, you can see the solar corona. It’s quite different.

If you can’t make it to the path of totality, you can still enjoy the show. Because it’s still going to get dark, you’ll see just the tiniest sliver of the sun through your eclipse glasses, and the light will be very different. The best description I’ve heard is from another astronomer who said that in the last 10-15 minutes it’s almost like you’re in a video game and someone is playing with the settings. It feels kind of weird.

Ilana: If you’re in the path of totality, totality itself is only a couple minutes long. The most anybody in Canada will experience is three and a half minutes down in the Niagara region. Those few minutes will pass very, very quickly so I would recommend that people try and live in that moment. Maybe snap a quick picture but don’t be around your phone the whole time. Be there. Be present.

If you have a telescope, look at the sun to see if there are any cool features around the edges. I think the corona for this one is going to be extra interesting because we’re at a solar maximum right now, where there’s a lot more magnetic activity happening on the Sun.

If you don’t have a telescope, can you still see the Sun’s corona during totality?

Ilana: Yes! The corona extends two or three diameters of the Sun outwards all around it. It’s something you can’t normally see when the Sun is not covered by the Moon because the Sun itself is too bright. But as soon as the eclipse happens, you can see it with your naked eye no problem. I’ve been told it’s about as bright as a full Moon.

We’re in for a stellar show, but what do eclipses tell us about our Universe?

Ilana: Historically, we’ve only been able to study the Sun’s corona during eclipses, and all sorts of other cool things. But the example that sticks out is that eclipses were used to prove general relativity, Einstein’s theory about the curvature of spacetime.

In 1919, astronomers looked at a total eclipse and noticed that stars near the Sun had shifted their position a little bit because of the Sun’s gravity altering the fabric of space-time.

General relativity told us that gravity will cause spacetime to curve in such a way that even the path of light will be curved. That means that stars that would normally appear to be in one position when the Sun isn’t there would shift when the Sun is there because their light would curve around the Sun.

Julie: When we were writing the book Éclipse : Quand le Soleil fait son cirque, we researched the historical aspect. What I liked most was seeing how it took humanity a while to understand eclipses, but as soon as we did, it helped us understand so much more about the world. For example, lunar eclipses were used to determine longitude on Earth.

How are you going to celebrate the culmination of all your work after April 8?

Julie: I’m going to sleep!

Ilana: Same! For a week straight.

Julie: I’ve been working super hard getting schools ready and I’ll do that until the weekend before, but on April 8, I’m off, I’m enjoying the eclipse with my family.

I’ve been saying it’s sort of the Olympics of my career. It’s the one time in my career when my field is so in-demand. People come to me a lot for information, so it’s fun, but it is tiring.

I’ll also be trying to measure the impact that we’ve had and seeing how we can turn this around and help those teachers that we’ve connected with beyond the eclipse. We’re training thousands of teachers right now and connecting with so many schools. So how can we build on that?

Ilana: I’m going to take a few days off after the eclipse, but going forward, we also want to maintain and nurture the partnerships we have started ahead of April 8.

We now have this incredible partnership with the Toronto Public Library, and I would love to continue programming with them because it’s a great way to reach people around the city.

We’ve also started relationships with all these different institutions through the Ontario Eclipse Task Force. I find that we’re learning a lot about the network and the resources we can use to plan for these incredible events.

Background image: Artist’s rendition of a total solar eclipse courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency