Canadians of my generation learned their key moments in Canadian history via short television commercial segments produced by what is now Historica Canada. Known as Heritage Minutes, these short films were sent to schools, made available on tape, DVD, and online, and played during commercial breaks. They taught students and television viewers of all ages what was important in the history of our nation. The segments produced memorable catch phrases (such as the classic, ‘Doctor, I smell burnt toast!’) and have sparked numerous parodies over the years (the Rick Mercer Report‘s are always a favourite).
Over the past 26 years, Heritage Minutes have shown some of the best moments in our history as a nation: the fight for women’s rights (women’s suffrage, Canada’s first female medical doctor) and civil rights (the fight against segregated public spaces and businesses, the underground railroad); our contributions to science (the telegraph, the Avro Arrow, international standard time); and moments in our military history (Queenston Heights, Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach).
A number of the shorts are devoted to sports, with hockey unsurprisingly taking the starring role in films about the development of the goalie mask (imagine being a goalie without one!), Maurice Rocket Richard’s achievements, and the construction of Maple Leafs Gardens, although one early, memorable film was devoted to James Naismith’s invention of basketball starring those unforgettable peach baskets.
From their beginnings in 1991, Heritage Minutes didn’t shy away from acknowledging some of the more difficult moments in our history, too. From the frequent deaths of Chinese labourers building Canada’s vital coast-to-coast railway, to the devastating Halifax explosion of 1917, to the treatment of indigenous children in residential schools, these short films have also served to remind Canadians of countless lives that were lost in our recent history.
Being sent out to be viewed by school children in schools across Canada and continuing to receive significant screen time during advertisement breaks on the two major television channels year after year is a huge responsibility. By choosing what moments and which people to feature in a Minute, Historica Canada has been deciding what about Canadian history was important to remember. The Minutes have shaped a generation’s understanding of Canadian history.
Sometimes, though, it’s the way in which the message has been portrayed that’s remembered, like the burnt toast thing, instead of the film’s point. Many of us vividly remember ‘I smell burnt toast!’, as well as the graphic visual of a woman’s brain being operated on, but not Dr Wilder Penfield‘s name or the significance of his work in the field of neurology and understanding epileptic seizures.
Likewise, I remember seeing Dan Ackroyd in the Avro Arrow film and the dialogue in the Winnie the Pooh-related film, ‘Why “Pooh”, son?’ ‘I don’t know. Just Winnie-the-Pooh’, but again, the significance of the event doesn’t necessarily stick. Plus the mix of serious and lighthearted films has always been a bit jarring, as though the Minutes form a sort of puzzle of Canadian history where some of the pieces don’t obviously fit into the overall narrative of the nation’s history.
I think that examining the Heritage Minutes as a genre or teaching tool can teach us a few important points:
- Picking and choosing moments and people in history and having to share them with a broad television audience without the time to provide any context beyond a place and date is a problematic mandate.
- Making choices about what to portray and how to portray it means that you are shaping people’s understanding of history and what’s significant. They leave a lasting impression.
- Even in a short film of a minute or less, it’s easy for an audience to miss the point as they get stuck on the most memorable part of the film (such as the dialogue, an appearance by a celebrity, the ‘ick-factor’, or unrealistic special effects).
- Bite-sized doses of history can and do make an impression on a popular audience.
Thanks to YouTube and Historica Canada’s website, we can now go back and revisit some of those ‘favourite’ minutes online anytime and also look at how, if at all, what’s considered ‘important’ in Canadian history has changed over the past 26 years.
You can also follow Historica Canada on Twitter @HistoricaCanada