An­thony Wil­son-Smith

When the Her­itage Min­utes débuted in 1991, it seemed so for­eign—so some­how un-Cana­dian—to be dra­ma­tiz­ing much less glo­ri­fy­ing our own rel­a­tively brief but colour­ful story that they were greeted with a sort of awed cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance fol­lowed by glee­ful

Policy - - In This Issue - An­thony Wil­son-Smith

Canada at 150: Minute by Minute

What be­comes a leg­end most? In Canada, our na­tional leg­ends in­clude bearded fig­ures with swords and or­nate pan­taloons, women in wartime nurs­ing cos­tumes and in­dige­nous sol­diers fend­ing off Amer­i­can in­vaders dur­ing the War of 1812. Some of the peo­ple telling those sto­ries are Colm Fe­ore, Dan Aykroyd, Gra­ham Greene, Kate Nel­li­gan, Jean l’Ital­ien (Lance e t Compte; Vir­ginie) and Jared Keeso (19-2 and Let­terKenny.) The set­tings range from the bright lights of big cities to dimly-lit hockey rinks, an

old movie theatre, op­er­at­ing rooms, and the frigid beauty of Cape Dorset, Nu­navut. Those el­e­ments are all key com­po­nents of sto­ries that are, as the say­ing goes, ‘a part of our her­itage’. In other words, they are Her­itage Min­utes.

Over the last year, the Min­utes—there are more than 80—had close to six mil­lion views. They aired on tele­vi­sion across the coun­try more than 116,000 times. You can see them on na­tional air­lines and Via Rail trains, and on video screens in high-rise of­fice build­ings.

The Min­utes—pro­duced by His­tor­ica Canada, the non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion where I work—are now 25 years old. Their for­mat, 60-sec­ond vi­gnettes that tell sto­ries of mem­o­rable Cana­dian events and peo­ple, is as fa­mil­iar to most Cana­di­ans as it is unique. As we ap­proach the 150th an­niver­sary of Con­fed­er­a­tion, two new Min­utes are set for re­lease (stay tuned!) and more are in the pipe­line. The sto­ries and for­mat many Cana­di­ans saw for the first time as in­ter­sti­tials dur­ing chil­dren’s pro­grams are not only sur­viv­ing, but thriv­ing. Since our re­turn in 2012 from a seven-year hia­tus from Minute-mak­ing, the au­di­ence for new ones has grown ex­po­nen­tially. Over the last year, the Min­utes— there are more than 80—had close to six mil­lion views. They aired on tele­vi­sion across the coun­try more than 116,000 times. You can see them on na­tional air­lines and Via Rail trains, and on video screens in high-rise of­fice build­ings. One Minute, on the Nova Scotia civil rights ac­tivist Vi­ola Des­mond, has been seen more than one mil­lion times on­line.

All of this is thanks, in the first mea­sure, to phi­lan­thropist Charles Bronf­man (still a mem­ber of our His­tor­ica Canada board) and his re­flec­tions more than three decades ago. As Charles re­calls, he was frustrated that young Cana­di­ans then had lit­tle idea of their coun­try’s his­tory, and few means of cor­rect­ing that. “No so­ci­ety can be of merit un­less it has hero­ines, he­roes and myths,” he said re­cently. “While there were many in Canada, hardly any­one knew of them, nor that they had had a marked ef­fect on our so­ci­ety.” With a small team that in­cluded Thomas Ax­wor­thy, Michael Levine, Pa­trick Wat­son and oth­ers, they came up with the idea of ‘sell­ing’ Cana­dian his­tory with 60 sec­ond sto­ries—just like most tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials of that time.

From the start, the Min­utes told tales Cana­di­ans hadn’t heard, in a for­mat no one had seen be­fore, with plot, char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, and story res­o­lu­tion all within 60 sec­onds. The bite-sized for­mat was a good idea then and is per­haps even bet­ter suited to to­day’s im­pa­tient in­ter­net era. Be­cause the Min­utes are Cana­dian in ev­ery­thing from cast­ing to set lo­ca­tion, crew and con­tent, they have qual­i­fied for spe­cial sta­tus from the Cana­dian Ra­dio, Tele­vi­sion and Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (CRTC). A sta­tion air­ing a Minute can po­ten­tially claim credit for 90 sec­onds of Cana­dian con­tent. We thus can and do ac­cu­rately de­scribe the Min­utes as ‘cer­ti­fi­ably 150 per cent Cana­dian.’

From the out­set, the pro­duc­ers paid trib­ute to the coun­try’s lin­guis­tic du­al­ity, in­clud­ing Min­utes on the artist Paul-Emile Bor­d­uas; the early 20th cen­tury singer La Bolduc; 19th cen­tury jour­nal­ist Eti­enne Par­ent; and, more re­cently, a Minute on the key role played by Sir Ge­orge-Eti­enne Cartier in bring­ing about Con­fed­er­a­tion. To their credit, they also de­cided to show dark as­pects of our his­tory as well as cel­e­brated ones. A Minute on con­struc­tion of the na­tional rail­way de­picts the ex­ploita­tion of migrant Chi­nese work­ers. Oth­ers with in­dige­nous themes de­picted both tragedies and con­tri­bu­tions. One on Abo­rig­i­nal World War One hero Tommy Prince de­scribes his strug­gles against prej­u­dice upon re­turn­ing from war, while an­other shows a First Na­tions fam­ily teach­ing set­tlers how to make maple syrup. Sev­eral Min­utes fo­cus on women’s strug­gles for equal rights.

To­day, we seek the same bal­ance. On the one hand, we have re­cently pro­duced (among oth­ers) the story of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful sports dy­nasty (the Ed­mon­ton Grads women’s basketball team) and the Olympic cham­pion hockey team the Win­nipeg Fal­cons. On the other, we have a Minute on the per­se­cu­tion suf­fered by Des­mond as a Black Nova Sco­tian in the 1940s and the wrench­ing story

of Chanie Wen­jack, the In­dige­nous boy who died run­ning away from a res­i­den­tial school in the 1960s.

Minute-mak­ing starts at about $150,000 and climbs if spe­cial ef­fects or large casts are re­quired. For ev­ery Minute, we is­sue a Re­quest for Pro­posal (RFP) to which any Cana­dian film com­pany can re­spond. Our most re­cent drew more than 110 ap­pli­ca­tions. Other than two in­dige­nous-themed Min­utes funded by the gov­ern­ment of On­tario, all Min­utes since 2012 have been paid for by the fed­eral Depart­ment of Cana­dian Her­itage (with some ad­di­tional pri­vate sup­port). To an­swer an oft-asked ques­tion, no one has tried to in­flu­ence or en­gage in the cre­ative process.

An­other fre­quently-asked ques­tion con­cerns how we de­cide on the sub­ject of a Minute. We com­bine his­tor­i­cal re­search, polling, con­sid­er­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ties, top­ics or re­gions that have not had much pre­vi­ous at­ten­tion paid to their sto­ries and plain gut sense as to what makes a good story. We ask the teenage participants in our Ot­tawabased En­coun­ters with Canada pro­gram what they would like to see. Film com­pa­nies seek­ing to co-pro­duce Min­utes are en­cour­aged to sug­gest top­ics. We have in­for­mal rules on what does not make a Minute. We don’t ed­i­to­ri­al­ize in our clos­ing voiceovers (ini­tially and mem­o­rably voiced by Pa­trick Wat­son). We don’t make Min­utes on liv­ing peo­ple. We avoid hav­ing ac­tors play peo­ple with whom Cana­di­ans are very fa­mil­iar, be­cause that would di­min­ish the re­al­ism we seek.

All Min­utes, like all our pro­grams, are of­fered in both of­fi­cial lan­guages; one, on Inuit artist Keno­juak Ashe­vak, is of­fered in Inuk­ti­tut. We aren’t in­fal­li­ble, but we try very, very hard to be ac­cu­rate. A num­ber of the 35-40 staff mem­bers in our head of­fice have post-grad­u­ate his­tory de­grees, and we have a wide net­work of con­sul­tants. We fuss over de­tails. In the Vi­ola Des­mond Minute, we knew that the film show­ing in New Glas­gow, N.S. the day she was asked to move to the bal­cony of the theatre be­cause she was black—she re­fused and was ar­rested—was Dark Vic­tory. In our open­ing shot, we show her ap­proach­ing a theatre with that ti­tle prom­i­nent on the mar­quee. In the clos­ing shot, a mag­a­zine on a desk is one that was ac­tu­ally on sale in the area dur­ing that month in 1946. In ad­di­tion to con­sul­tants on pe­riod dress and speech, we en­gage ex­perts in and around the com­mu­ni­ties we por­tray to pro­vide a bal­anced per­spec­tive. Our Wen­jack Minute was co-pro­duced with a pro­duc­tion com­pany owned and op­er­ated by In­dige­nous film­mak­ers, and shot at a for­mer res­i­den­tial school at the Six Na­tions re­serve near Brant­ford, On­tario. The most en­gag­ing ev­i­dence of the Min­utes’ sta­tus as prime Cana­di­ana is the re­ac­tions they pro­voke. Drop the phrase ‘I smell burnt toast’ to some­one 25-40 years of age, and chances are they know it comes from the Minute on Dr. Wilder Pen­field’s pi­o­neer­ing brain surgery. There is a whole genre of spoof Min­utes—some of the best of which are on our site, www.his­tor­i­ca­canada.ca. We know of sev­eral the­ses by post-grad stu­dents mulling the Min­utes’ ef­fect on the na­tional psy­che. Sev­eral pubs have held Her­itage Min­utes trivia nights in which full houses of com­peti­tors face off to show who knows the col­lec­tion best. A cou­ple from Ot­tawa have set up a Twit­ter ac­count de­scrib­ing their ef­forts to visit as many sites of Min­utes as they can. A Bri­tish Columbia jour­nal­ist pro­voked lively on­line de­bate when he ranked each Minute in or­der of pref­er­ence, along with cri­tiques. There is also a uni­ver­sity drink­ing game based on the Min­utes—which, as I ad­vised the stu­dent who in­formed me, I find in­ter­est­ing but can­not, for the record, con­done.

The Min­utes are loved by many, though not by all. Some com­plain they in­ad­e­quately sum­ma­rize the sto­ries they tell. Oth­ers dis­like the ap­proach to in­di­vid­ual sto­ries or the se­lec­tion of top­ics.

To work on the Min­utes is to learn first-hand what moves Cana­di­ans, whether the over­ar­ch­ing emo­tion is de­light, pride, anger or some­times sad­ness and shame.

We pay at­ten­tion to those con­cerns. An event only hap­pens once, but can be in­ter­preted in end­less ways. A story told in 60 sec­onds is never com­plete. The ex­cel­lent his­to­rian Tim Cook, in his re­cent book Vimy: The Bat­tle and the Leg­end, ar­gues that a 1990s Minute on the bat­tle makes too much of Cana­dian Gen. Sir Arthur Cur­rie at the ex­pense of his Bri­tish su­pe­rior, Sir Ju­lian Byng. The Minute does not iden­tify Byng as the Bri­tish com­mand­ing of­fi­cer to whom Cur­rie is shown speak­ing in the Minute. The net ef­fect, Cook writes, is that Byng is un­fairly ‘cast aside’.

That sort of de­bate is healthy. To work on the Min­utes is to learn first-hand what moves Cana­di­ans, whether the over­ar­ch­ing emo­tion is de­light, pride, anger or some­times sad­ness and shame, as with the Wen­jack story. When the Min­utes suc­ceed, they cre­ate a de­sire to learn more—not only about the event at hand, but ide­ally, about all our his­tory. We sup­port a larger dis­cus­sion through sup­ple­men­tary learn­ing tools, and re­sources on The Cana­dian En­cy­clo­pe­dia. The end re­sult is greater aware­ness—and with it, hope­fully, greater en­gage­ment as cit­i­zens. So per­haps the real story of the Min­utes is not the way we make them—it’s that af­ter 25 years, more Cana­di­ans than ever are ea­ger to em­brace them. Thank you again, Charles Bronf­man.

His­tor­ica Canada photo

Film­ing the Keno­juak Ashe­vak Her­itage Minute in Cape Dorset, NU.

His­tor­ica Canada photo

The cast of the Win­nipeg Fal­cons Minute, with Jared Keeso as coach, on set.

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