CBC's A People's History

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 23, 2000. Partner content is not updated.

The first moments on-screen belong to Shawnadithit, or Nancy, as the whites called her. On a winter's day in 1823, the 22-year-old Beothuk walked into the Newfoundland outport of Exploits Bay, starving and bearing the scars of gunshot wounds received on two separate occasions.

CBC's A People's History

The first moments on-screen belong to Shawnadithit, or Nancy, as the whites called her. On a winter's day in 1823, the 22-year-old Beothuk walked into the Newfoundland outport of Exploits Bay, starving and bearing the scars of gunshot wounds received on two separate occasions. By the time of her death from tuberculosis six years later, Shawnadithit was the last of her people. A St. John's physician sent her skull to London for study, accompanied by a note that captured the mixture of fear, curiosity and superiority the newcomers held about the people they had driven to extinction by massacre and disease. Shawnadithit, Dr. William Carson wrote, "was tall and majestic, mild and tractable, but characteristically proud and cautious." With that dramatic introduction to the enormously complicated interaction between Europeans and the diverse nations they encountered in the New World, Canada: A People's History is off to a powerful - and defining - beginning.

A good start is vital for the CBC's millennial history series, the brainchild of legendary producer Mark Starowicz, who created As It Happens and The Journal. There is a lot riding on the beleaguered network's latest, grandest project, which debuts on Oct. 22. A narrative history of Canada derived primarily from the writings of people who lived through it, the series - which will air nine episodes this year and seven in 2001 - is the largest production ever mounted by the CBC's documentary unit, and the network's first-ever French-English joint production. Over the past 3 ½ years, 15 directors, seven camera crews, 240 actors and hundreds of re-enactors - aficionados who dress in period costume and stage historical events - have worked on the series' 30 commercial-free hours in each official language. Then there are the state-of-the-art Web site (, the educational videos and teacher guides, and two substantial companion books of the same name. Published in English by McClelland & Stewart and in French by Les Editions Fides, they will be launched to coincide with Episode 1. And then there is the cost: $25 million, low by Hollywood costume-drama standards, but a huge investment for the CBC after a decade of cutbacks.

The scale of the gamble is enough by itself to put the network on edge. Starowicz admits to one recurring anxiety - "a public reaction of, 'It's really good that someone finally made a TV history of Canada. I don't plan on watching it.' " But it's the people who are guaranteed to watch - and the passions they will bring to it - who seem certain to turn A People's History into a well-gnawed bone of contention. This project, which the network has bruited about for more than 20 years - "the idea is in the fabric of the CBC," says Starowicz - was filmed and comes to air during one of Canadian history's infrequent eruptions into the public spotlight. The decades-old historians' war between traditional scholars like Jack Granatstein, author of the 1998 best-seller, Who Killed Canadian History?, and social and regionalist historians has escalated to a new level with the recent arrival of two Toronto-based corporate belligerents.

The Dominion Institute, established in 1997, and the Historica Foundation of Canada, which began operating in January with a $25-million commitment from the Bronfman family's CRB Foundation, echo the traditionalists' call for renewed emphasis on the nation's political and military history. Social historians, who have been busy working on the previously ignored stories of aboriginals, women, immigrants and the poor, deride traditional history as an upper-class WASP version of events. And the regionalists, who range from Quebec nationalists to westerners and Maritimers scornful of the central Canadian focus of past scholarship, are skeptical of, or even hostile to, the very notion of a national history. About the only thing all the experts agree on is that Canadians are notoriously averse to, and profoundly ignorant of, any version of their history. The story of Canada, run the contradictory clichés, is at once boring and too hot to handle.

The dispute among the schools of history has added its own twist to criticism of A People's History's hefty price tag. The CBC's $25-million commitment is a source of grumbling from many staffers outside the history project. And although the money is entirely from the public broadcaster's own budget, Starowicz says, "our people in Montreal had to handle the widespread assumption by their media colleagues that there was unity money from Ottawa hidden somewhere," funds directed to making federalist propaganda. Last summer's so-called Scully affair only fed those rumours. (The Montreal newspaper Le Devoir revealed that journalist Robert Scully's interview show on the French-language RDI network was receiving secret funding from the Canada Information Office, the national-unity agency operated by Alfonso Gagliano, the Liberal government's political minister in Quebec.)

Nor has Starowicz yet recouped as much sponsorship money as he expected at a time when business leaders like CAE Inc. chairman Lynton (Red) Wilson and Michael Phelps of Westcoast Energy Inc., both members of Historica's board of directors, have become such vocal history proponents. Only one sponsor has so far signed on - Sun Life Financial, for $1.7 million - although negotiations are continuing with two other, unnamed, companies. Starowicz, not a politic man at the best of times, tries to restrict himself to a measured summation: "Let's just say corporate Canada cannot be said to have stepped up to the plate in the current atmosphere of business concern about our history. CEOs loved it when we showed it to them, but then their marketing guys or their media buyers would shake their heads. I didn't know CEOs had so little authority in their own organizations."

Moments later, however, Starowicz is up and pacing about his office. "What the hell," the executive producer exclaims. "We have been asked if we would not make too much of the numbers of Chinese who died making the railway, if we could stress the roles of certain corporations in the making of Canada." The short answer to such questions, Starowicz tells anyone who asks, is that A People's History was made by journalists acting under the CBC's official policy guidelines, and has to be "as defensible as anything by the fifth estate."

Defensible is certainly the watchword for the series' creators, who came to learn that the divisions among academic historians merely reflect those in society. Veterans groups may want provincial education ministries to emphasize what they see as such nation-forging events as Confederation or Vimy Ridge. But there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Canadian citizens - francophone Quebecers and aboriginals for the most part - who do not believe there is a single Canadian people to write about. As for an alleged indifference to history, even the filmmakers' most gingerly probes into the past made it abundantly clear that the nation's history matters very much indeed to its inhabitants. From Burnt Church to an entire province that bears the motto Je me souviens (I remember), they quickly realized, Canada's present is ruled by its past - or, to be exact, by differing, evolving interpretations of it.

If the makers of A People's History hadn't learned that lesson already, it would have been brought home by the extraordinary public reaction to the Sept. 28 death of Pierre Trudeau. Canadians relived and reargued issues from 20 and 30 years ago in an unsettling atmosphere of loss. That feeling of ground shifting is one Starowicz pinpoints as key in prompting history's current resurgence. "For years now, we've been told to lay aside old national symbols like they were the things of a child," he says. "There's a yearning now to think that the milk train stopped here once, that there is some meaning to our history." But it was the reaction to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's proposal to rename Yukon's Mount Logan, the highest peak in Canada, after Trudeau that may have best illustrated Canadians' feelings about the past. Even in the midst of grief, many objected to erasing one eminent Canadian - pioneering 19th-century geologist Sir William Logan - to make way for another.

Knowing what a minefield they had to navigate, the makers of A People's History trod carefully but deftly. Gene Allen, the project's director of research, combines 23 years of journalistic experience with a doctorate in Canadian history. ("He's the brains of this thing," says Starowicz. "I'm just the TV thug.") Allen notes that the big decision - to make the series chronological rather than thematic - was taken long ago, and determined everything that came after. "We're journalists, TV journalists. We have a logical-sequence-of-events bias, a story bias." Whatever the needs of the medium, however, it is also true that a narrative history without any expert commentary was the only way the series could have been made. By locating the differences of opinion in the past, in the words of the original protagonists, Allen says, staffers with very different views could work together peacefully, even on such contentious subjects as The Conquest. The eminent scholar Ramsay Cook, one of three historians - the others were Jean-Claude Robert and Olive Dickason - who vetted scripts for factual accuracy, was impressed. "It's a wonderful thing that the French and English managed to work together on this without anyone being killed."

The approach still left the series with one vulnerable flank. "Not everyone will be pleased with our choices of what to include or exclude," Allen acknowledges. (War of 1812 heroine Laura Secord, for instance, didn't make the cut.) "But the only situation I don't want to find myself in is one where somebody says, 'Why not this?' and not having heard of it." That meant, Allen continues, that "we were always urging directors and producers to 'go broad, go broad,' at a time when they were instinctively trying to narrow down and find the story. 'No, no,' we said, 'get an idea of the forest before you pick a tree.' " In deliberately avoiding telling viewers what to think, the filmmakers were asking for an extraordinary degree of trust - and attention. "The whole thing is a gamble," agrees Cook, who pronounces himself pleased with the results. "They're gambling on people understanding."

At its best, the technique succeeds brilliantly. That's the case with the last of the Beothuk, Shawnadithit. Viewers can make of Carson's commentary on her what they will: an expression of dull insensitivity, or the summation of the tragic life of one woman, or a heartbreaking epitaph for an entire nation. The effect is equally spellbinding when armies march towards one another on the Plains of Abraham. The narration sketches brief biographies of individuals among the displaced Irish and Highlanders on the British side, the dispossessed of urban France who were their king's cannon fodder, and the FrenchCanadian militia defending their homes. By focusing on ordinary people at the mercy of great historical forces, the series turns them - and by extension, all Canadians - into participants in an epic drama. And at all times, even when the event is hard to stage for the camera or requires active engagement by the viewer, the visuals are stunning, the result of wide-screen digital cameras and advanced digital graphics.

What makes the series work as a spectacle, what made it possible at all, is a combination of high-tech digital compositing and low-tech re-enactors. More than 20 such groups took part in the early episodes acting out battles and other scenes from the centuries before photography. Then the CBC compositors took over. In "the biggest thing to ever come through this department," in the words of Stephen Dutcheshen, the English-language graphics project leader, compositors built appropriate settings around the 10 to 20 historical characters who addressed the camera in each of the 16 episodes, expanded tiny model boats into great armadas, and made cannonballs fly out of guns that no longer work.

For the CBC series makers, it was crucial to get Episode 4, Battle for a Continent, absolutely right. Not only was it a crucible for French- and English-network co-operation, it required a large-scale re-enactment of the vicious combat at the Plains of Abraham, and visuals that included a French attack on the British fleet with 80 fire boats and the massive bombardment of Quebec City. To show how ravaged the city was by British cannon fire, Dutcheshen melded a Second World War photo of London after a Nazi air raid with a shot of the Quebec capital's skyline, itself already doctored to remove anachronistic buildings. For the climactic battle itself - actually shot in North Gower, Ont., near Ottawa, in a farmer's field that looks a lot more like the Plains did in 1759 than the Plains do now - the CBC filmed 98 re-enactors, playing one army at a time. Through digital replication Dutcheshen's department seamlessly turned them into 9,000 soldiers from both sides.

The television achievement is undeniable, and in terms of telling the stories - reliving the experiences - of individual Canadians, unparalleled. Within the great debate over the nation's history, the series is a new player, with a new vision to offer. "The really interesting question in A People's History is who is 'we,'" says Starowicz. "Before the Loyalists came, 'we' were the French-Canadians. After that, the 'we' mutated and keeps mutating." And now we can see ourselves as never before.

Maclean's October 23, 2000