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Home > Publications


"The Past in Prime Time: Canadian History, the 
CBC/SRC, and the National Archives"

by Monica MacDonald, CBC/SRC Project Researcher and Archives Coordinator


Canadian history is boring and not fit for popular attention. This is the recent musing of a Globe and Mail journalist who concluded by announcing Canada’s dramatic equivalents to Napoleon and Lincoln  --  the Manitoba Schools Question, and the Reciprocity Debate of 1911.1

Such comparisons highlight the need for a greater awareness of our nation’s past  --  a familiar rant to those employed in the country’s archives, museums, and universities. The challenge is in transmitting to the general public, that our history is indeed relevant, interesting, and yes, exciting.

To that end, the National Archives entered into a unique collaboration with the CBC/Radio-Canada which saw the culmination, beginning in autumn 2000, of a thirty hour television documentary series entitled Canada: A People’s History / Le Canada: Une Histoire Populaire. By providing office space and support to a project staffer and facilitating access to its collections, the Archives exemplified the type of co-operation necessary to bring such an ambitious project to fruition. This unprecedented series aims to make Canadian history accessible and engaging to a vast audience and by doing so, showcases the documentary, visual, and material treasures of the National Archives, as well as of other archives, museums, and libraries across the country.

In this large scale collaboration of Canadian filmmakers and historians, some of the leading thinkers in the field were retained as consultants. Academics are traditionally wary of such ventures, one criticism being that many such productions are too isolated in time and context; another is historical inaccuracy. The series addresses the former by documenting Canadian prehistory to the advent of the third millennium, thus depicting the chronological "grand sweep" and the process of change inherent. At the same time it strives to expose the values and underlying assumptions of past Canadians from all regions. This approach places people and events in perspective and by connecting the past to the present, allows us a better understanding of our own times. Accuracy is sought by meticulous research and attention to the established historical record and its primary sources, as well as consultation with experts.

Canadian historians have done an outstanding job writing analytical texts without which such a documentary series could not exist. If, as historian Daniel Walkowitz maintains, more people receive history from the media than from the scholarly pen, then serious filmmakers have a responsibility to seek out these quality works for guidance in their projects.2 Not all historians confine themselves to text however, some produce visual histories and others make films.3 A faction of the latter group believe that using all the creative devices available to other filmmakers does not compromise their rigorous standards, albeit history as portrayed on film and television has by its very nature, other considerations not present in the textual format.

One of these aspects is the emphasis on the visual. The series obtained from the National Archives alone, over some twelve hundred works of documentary art (in transparency format) and over some two thousand photographs. Many of these images fall victim to the editor mostly for reasons of contextual or visual continuity, or simple aesthetics. Some factors in preliminary visuals research are: access to good quality and informative works, accurate supporting documentation, and the extent to which artistic license was used in its creation. The latter is a concern particularly with non-contemporary artists whose works are used when there is a dearth of contemporary illustrative material. A similar issue can arise with photographic images, some practitioners having been masters at fashioning their own reality rather than accurately recording it. For example William Notman who, with his "Nature" series, was lauded to have authentically portrayed the great Canadian outdoors in the comfort of his Montreal studio.4 And Edward Curtis’ photographs of North American Indians portray few candid shots  --  his subjects were often posed or portrayed in an unrealistic fashion.5

The opposite problem is poor-quality photographic prints featuring spontaneous images of "history-in-the-making." For instance many of the rare shots captured by Captain James Peters, a member of the regiment sent to quell the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, are blurry and the contrast is low. No negatives are known to exist though the approximately 3 x 4 inch-size prints were pasted in albums, two of which were subsequently deposited in the National Archives.6 Copy negatives were made, and although excellent in their depiction of the action at Fish Creek and Batoche, the resulting prints are barely television-quality. Fortunately, modern technology, including high-resolution scanning and further computer enhancement of contrast and detail, render most of the images useful. Bill Cobban, director of the episode featuring the prints, found that filming them in the album yielded a slightly better result, but camera movements were too restricted on the small subjects.

Works of art tempt many film and television directors to set up the camera rather than acquire and scan reproductions, but this is impractical with up to seven images airing over thirty seconds. Jim Williamson, director of "The Great Enterprise" episode, explained that the textual rendering of the paintbrush or other artistic medium does not always adequately transfer to the screen via the negative. This was demonstrated by Peter Ingles, director of "Rebellion and Reform", by filming selected pieces at the Archives’ Gatineau Preservation Centre, and simultaneously screening the same images scanned from transparencies. He added that further benefits of filming originals include a resulting truer representation of colour, and more control over the "pan." The CBC/SRC filmed over a hundred paintings, engravings, posters, maps, and documents at the Gatineau Centre, where the photographic studio served well as the production’s primary archival filming locale.

The National Archives preserves a century of unique and gripping moving images. Like pioneer photography, the degree of authenticity in early "real-life" films was often questionable. Newsreels from the Great War for example, demonstrate this by having regularly featured staged events and selective omissions.7 These early films can also provide a rare glimpse of our past, and critically viewed, are a valid historical source. Canada: A People’s History is airing selections spanning the entire twentieth century, some seen on television for the first time.

As part of the partnership between the National Archives and the CBC/SRC, history project staff were able to view original film on-site at the Gatineau Centre. This enabled researchers like Radio-Canada’s Hélène Bourgeault to view fragile images in such obsolete formats as the silent era 28mm film, and allowed her to select or reject material without having to initially order reference copies. In addition, the two sides worked together to create the best possible video images for the series using the combined expertise of the CBC/SRC technicians and the Archives’ preservation staff.

Moving and still images are essential factors in the integrative representation of the past that filmmakers seek to present. Threading them together and providing a framework for the whole is the narrative. Narration for Canada: A People’s History is based on the correspondence, journals, and memoirs of Canadian men and women from all walks of life. The seventeenth-century concerns expressed by Jeanne Mance around her founding of the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal, contrast with the ambitions of Charles Aubert de la Chesnaye, engrossed in his thriving business transactions and compounding fortunes in New France. Joseph Brant negotiates the terms of the Six Nations’ homeland near the Grand River, while on the coast, Mary Bradley of New Brunswick recounts the pitiful state of the refugee loyalists passing by her door. The voice of privilege from Mercy Ann Coles, a young woman delighted to witness the revelry around the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, highlights the frustration of Mary Ann Shadd, a black abolitionist living in Canada and fighting for the lives and freedom of her American countrymen and women who are still enslaved.

These first-hand testimonies help to create an intimacy with the viewer and to provide the context and insight important to an understanding of the topic. It also presented a daunting assignment. Despite the above-mentioned examples, women, native peoples, and other non-white groups are not well represented in the manuscript collections of our country’s pre-twentieth century archives. And finding contemporary words to illuminate that which only recent historical research has made understandable, was challenging; significant trends and influential people are sometimes revealed as such only when viewed in historical perspective.

By the same token, some people and events immediately ingrain themselves in the national psyche. Over the years, through a grand array of oral, textual, and visual reinforcement, their images can become progressively more distorted and eventually approach the realm of the mythological. Competent portrayal of history in text, film, television, museum exhibit, or other guise, can serve to amend these myths and debunk similarly existing stereotypes. This was a motivation of Ken Burns’ in producing his Civil War series and by most measures, he succeeded.8 Unlike academic pursuits, his primary goal was not to create new scholarship but to present that which already existed. Despite this, The Civil War was one of the first of its kind to spur both academic praise and criticism in professional journals  --  a healthy development for the genre.

The merger of history, education, and entertainment is not without difficulties and finding a good balance for each can be delicate, but the opportunities it presents far outweigh the limitations. Such collaborations as that between the CBC/SRC and the NA on "Canada: A People’s History", also stimulate the staff on both sides and leads to a greater respective understanding of the others’ role in serving the public. Connecting Canadians through our shared past, the series should spark an exciting dialogue and prompt viewers to continue on their own voyage of exploration and discovery at our nations’s heritage institutions.


1. Robert Fulford, "Is it Possible to be too Patriotic about Canadian History?" The Globe and Mail, May 22, 1999, p. D9.
2. Daniel Walkowitz, "The Craft of the Historian/Filmmaker," The Public Historian, vol. 7, no. 1, Winter 1985, p. 53.
3. For example, Canada’s Visual History series, National Museum of Man, co-published by the National Film Board, 1974-1981.

Walkowitz, "The Craft of the Historian/Filmmaker," p. 53-64.

For discussion on the pioneer stages of this field see John. E. O’Connor, "Historians and Film: Some Problems and Prospects," The History Teacher, vol. VI, no. 1, August 1973, p. 543-552.

4. Joan M. Schwartz, "William Notman’s Hunting Photographs, 1866," The Archivist, no. 117, 1998, p. 20-29.
5. Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian: Being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States, and Alaska. Seattle, Wash.: E.E. Curtis, 1907-1930 (for Canadian-based photographs see vols. IX, X, XI).

Also, Daniel Francis, Copying People, 1860-1940: Photographing British Columbia’s First Nations. Saskatoon and Calgary: Fifth House, 1996, p. 2-4.

6. Frederick Hatheway Peters Collection, National Archives accession number 1958-179, isn 3029.
7. David Mould and Charles Berg, "Fact and Fantasy in the Films of World War I," Film and History, vol. 14, no. 3, 1984, p. 50-59.
8. Gary Edgerton, "Ken Burns’ Rebirth of a Nation: Television, Narrative, and Popular History," Film and History, vol. XXII, no. 4, December 1992, p. 119.

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