Blind Spotting

The CBC’s narrow take on Canadian history

In the aftermath of the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation went to work on its most ambitious historical docudrama, Canada: A People’s History. Eager to fulfill its mandate as a promoter of national unity and identity, the Mother Corp — as insiders often describe Canada’s oldest operating broadcaster — sought to make a series that would boost morale and instill in Canadians a sense of pride and security. At a time when the neoliberalist tide was running high, the Crown corporation also hoped such a series would be a blockbuster hit, generating much-­needed revenue and proving its economic and cultural value to the nation.

The seventeen-­episode, thirty-­two-hour series first aired in October 2000, and it ran until November 2001. Narrated by Maggie Huculak and starring the likes of Lorne Cardinal, Eric Peterson, and Graham Greene, Canada: A People’s History was extravagant and expensive. The full run was produced in English and French. The level of attention paid to cinematography was unprecedented for a Canadian documentary. Thus, there was a sense of satisfaction, as well as relief, when the ­ratings showed that three million Canadians tuned in to watch the first episode. Just as gratifying were the reviews that described A People’s History as “gold,” an “epic docudrama,” and a “remarkable story.”

CBC executives felt they now had the proof needed to silence those who had been questioning the need for a national public service broadcaster in the first place, particularly Conservative politicians and other free marketers who had criticized the state-run network. For those on the political right, the Communist Broadcasting Corporation — as they disparagingly termed it — had a left-wing bias and cost taxpayers a great deal of money. The success of Canada: A People’s History demonstrated that the CBC was, in fact, an asset, essential to promoting Canadian culture and national unity.

But according to Monica MacDonald, a specialist in public history who holds a PhD in communications and culture from York University, the series was actually little more than “conventional fare.” It focused on the same tired themes and historical figures as previous productions. To make matters worse, the onscreen presentation gave no indication that other interpretations of our collective past were possible. In fact, the Mother Corp had been making these mistakes for decades.

Indeed, since the late 1960s, the CBC had fallen behind the professional historical discipline, which had begun to move away from grand narratives and tidy storylines — with their celebration of white business tycoons and political heavyweights — to focus on a diversity of ordinary experiences. MacDonald’s fascinating study, Recasting History, reveals the broadcaster’s behind-­the-scenes manoeuvrings, from 1950s documentaries and docudramas to Canada: A People’s History at the dawn of the new millennium. A long line of CBC producers struggled to represent the nation’s past within a rapidly changing commercial, regulatory, and informational environment, while reinforcing a flawed impression of Canadian history for audiences at home.

Four years after the launch of CBC Television in 1952, Canada’s national broadcaster created a new educational series. Low-cost, experimental, and anthropological, Explorations featured documentary, docudramas, and dramas on a wide variety of subjects, including the past. The series provided regional offices with a vehicle to engage national audiences; it was also the CBC’s first attempt at a sustained schedule of history TV. Its driving force was Eric Koch, a German-­Jewish refugee who had been deported to Canada from Britain during the Second World War. Having studied economics and law at the University of Cambridge, Koch resumed his education at the University of Toronto, after the Canadian government recognized him, in 1942, as a “victim of Nazi aggression” and released him from internment.

After graduating from U of T, Koch went to work at CBC Radio as part of Canada’s psychological warfare campaign, and subsequently in efforts to educate Germans in democracy. In the early 1950s, he made the switch from radio to TV and became the program organizer of Explorations.

Television and history were uncharted territories for Koch, and he went looking for help among professional historians. Highly educated himself, he felt comfortable among those from academe. Like a number of others at the CBC, Koch considered historical expertise an essential ingredient in educational programming. As a result, he lined up giants as advisers, including Donald Creighton, Arthur Lower, William Morton, and C. P. Stacey. All of these somewhat cranky jingoists were committed to popularizing Canadian history through whatever means available. They also believed that important events shared military, economic, and political dimensions. Thus they focused on such defining moments as Confederation, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the conflict and reconciliation between the English and the French, the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the two world wars. Not surprisingly, their significant figures of the past were overwhelmingly great white men.

When Explorations aired, it reflected the biases of Koch’s advisers, and it kicked off a fruitful period of collaboration between CBC Television producers and professional historians. “It was based on their joint desire to educate Canadians,” MacDonald writes, “and to build good citizens through knowledge of a common national history.” Explorations also initiated a pattern of themes, subject matter, and interpretations, and introduced a variety of conventions that continued for years.

As part of Canada’s 1967 centennial celebrations, the CBC sought to legitimize its claim as an essential national service provider. Plans were well under way in 1963 when production of the eclectic Explorations came to an end. At the time, the Mother Corp was feeling the pressure from the “next gen” of broadcasters on the Canadian scene. The CTV Television Network, for example, launched in 1961, and after teetering on the edge of bankruptcy around 1965, it had found its feet and was aggressively expanding across the country. When CTV started broadcasting in colour, in 1966, many questioned if a Crown corporation could ever compete as a source of innovation against private broadcasters. Within the increasingly competitive environment, the brain trust at the CBC sought to regain the advantage by recasting the past.

Well before Koch, history had been seen as the backbone of nationalism. Stories about the achievements of great leaders and the inspirational arc of national progress helped to define shared identity, and it was this shared identity that producers wanted to tap into. So the CBC formed a special committee for history programming and appointed Bert Powley as special programs officer. Having distinguished himself as a front-line CBC reporter during the Second World War, Powley put forward some big ideas but stressed that he did not want a “dogged, school-­masterish attempt to teach history.” Rather, he wanted to “search for highlights that will make good story-­telling.” Like those before him, Powley sought the assistance of professional historians and asked Koch for a list of names. Powley’s centennial programming included a number of one-off historical dramas and documentaries, but none proved to be a lasting vehicle.

Images of Canada, which aired in 1972, was the Mother Corp’s first attempt at covering the full scope of Canadian history, and it reflected the changing demands of Ottawa. A few years before, in 1968, the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau had passed the Broadcasting Act, which finally made official the nation-­building role of the CBC. The government was moved to act when it became difficult to reconcile the relative lack of Canadian programming on the network with a patriotic mood — still running high in the wake of Expo 67. The act also included requirements for regional programming and stated for the first time that the CBC had an obligation to serve the “special needs of geographic regions.” The question for executives in Toronto, including Knowlton Nash, who had recently stepped away from an illustrious reporting career to become director of information programming, was how to tell a national story in ways that would not alienate the regions. The answer was Whitecomers, a five-part production that paid homage to regional history.

In subtle ways, these early CBC documentaries and docudramas suggested that history was an incomplete or contested form of ­knowledge — not just a straightforward ­narrative — and the first generation of producers made a concerted effort to inform audiences about the nuanced nature of what was being seen and said. But this began to change in the mid-1970s, when the CBC experienced a huge commercial success with The National Dream.

Based on the book of the same name by the prolific author and journalist Pierre Berton, The National Dream told the unequivocally epic story of the Canadian Pacific Railway, built in the early 1880s. Indeed, Berton was a transitional figure in the history of history at the CBC. He represented what MacDonald considers a lamentable shift: the institution turning away from professional historians in the researching, writing, and presenting of material.

Ironically, Berton was as obsessed about getting the facts right as any traditional scholar. For example, when the young scriptwriter Timothy Findley (who would later pen a long list of acclaimed novels, including the award-­winning The Wars) had historical personalities use phrases and do things that were out of character, Berton took him to task. Findley was fond of highly improbable scenes, Berton complained, with no basis in historical fact. “It makes for good theatre,” he said of Findley’s work, “but bad history.”

Still, Berton had a journalist’s appetite for galloping plots, dramatic scenes, and grand narratives. The National Dream was full of colourful characters, rising action, and climax. He also had a nationalist’s yearning for myths, heroes, songs, and a sense of shared identity. At the CBC, there was a growing belief that professional journalists — and not professional historians — were best equipped to tell these stories to the masses. The National Dream was thus an important demarcation point in the evolution of Canadian history programming: the transfer of content authority from professional historians to professional journalists.

As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, the CBC increasingly turned to independent producers who made or co-­produced larger and larger chunks of programming. Such was the case with The Valour and the Horror, a docudrama miniseries on the Second World War and a co-­production of the CBC, the National Film Board, and independent producers. The key players were two journalists, the brothers Brian and Terence McKenna, who sought to challenge existing narratives surrounding the war. Among other things, their polemical documentary aimed to make the case that RAF Bomber Command “deliberately hid the truth” about bomber crew survival rates, concealed plans about purposely annihilating German civilians, and betrayed the trust of Canadian airmen. “The historians screwed up in telling us about the war,” stated Brian McKenna. “If you fail to tell the whole story, then you’re lying.”

McKenna’s statement, combined with The Valour and the Horror itself, ignited a highly charged and polarizing debate that brought forth an avalanche of commentary from all corners of Canada. According to MacDonald, although the brothers promoted their work as a journalistic product, rather than a scholarly one, it fell short as both journalism and history.

In analyzing fifty years of history on Canadian television sets, Recasting History discerns a pattern in CBC documentaries and docudramas. Since Explorations, these programs have aimed to define Canada as a unified nation, despite some episodic tension between the French and English; a nation that’s unique and separate from the United States; a nation built on the accomplishments of male explorers, military leaders, captains of industry, and dignified politicians. They have focused primarily on central Canada and the march of progress from colony to Confederation. The Mother Corp promoted them, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, as something important to watch, and offered them up as proof that it was fulfilling its public policy mandate. But, in the end, they were dangerously out of step.

The CBC’s attempts at history, MacDonald argues, have been consistently at odds with developments within the historical profession, which since the 1960s has been increasingly interested in previously unheard voices: those of women, working-­class men, immigrants and ethnic minorities, Indigenous people, and other marginalized groups. Under commercial and political pressure to produce “good television,” CBC executives prioritized entertainment over education, and historical programming became something other than history. What makes this so dangerous is that — as MacDonald explains — television does more than mirror the society in which it operates. It also helps to shape it. Thus, “the CBC has helped to shape how and what we know, as well as how and what we do not know, about the Canadian past.”

It seems this trend will only continue, at least until ratings and market share stop being the yardsticks by which we measure the value of a TV show. The neoliberal world in which we live has collapsed the epistemological distinction between economy and society. The market is everywhere, and networks are under tremendous pressure to produce entertainment that will attract audiences and advertising dollars. But culturally — and, yes, historically — we are the poorer for it.