I have been hearing some noise about CBC’s Canada: The Story of Us, and to be honest, I was excited. I always fall for these milestone events—be they the Olympics or major moments with the Royal Family—and Canada’s 150th falls into this category. I also completely understand why Canada 150 touches a nerve and, depending upon my frame of mind at the moment, it touches mine at times too. However, as an eternal optimist, I always hope these events can lead to an opportunity for bridge-building rather than more walls erected.
And it is clear from the very first moment that this a politically-motivated series with an opening statement by Prime Minister Trudeau. It is a statement that needs to be made, but I question the need for it here. His message: that we as Canadians do have a “dark past that we are only just coming to understand as we move forward into a new chapter that is the story of us.”
And so it goes. “We are explorers, and risk takers, dreamers and fighting the odds in a land of extremes.” Go us!
The first episode is entitled “Worlds Collide,” and it very carefully walks the delicate line that currently exists between cultures as we begin—although I find the position of “beginning” questionable—a chronological journey through Canada’s history with the story of Samuel du Champlain and the Beaver Wars. Now I say “story” intentionally. Much of the grittier detail is elided over in this retelling, obviously for time’s sake. But throughout, I felt this was all sugar-coated; re-enactments enhanced by CGI imagery. Toss in the many celebrities liberally peppered throughout with the odd historian, like John English, Ph.D., History of Trinity College and you have the “opening chapter” of Canada: The Story of Us with the establishment of New France.
The first episode also describes the process by which France promotes population growth in New France: Filles du Roi—Daughters of the King—women sent over by France to propagate and make the new colony viable, the birth of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Battle of Quebec in 1759.
Episode 2 “Hunting Treasures” airing next Sunday, suggests the epic quest for treasures: our natural resources. Our country was not begun by a settler society but rather a mercantile society. The entrepreneurial spirit is strong and is what motivated the quest to conquer a landscape wrought with so many challenges.
First, we learn the history of St. John, New Brunswick, featuring the story of William Hazen, an American who has come north to escape the War of Independence and make his fortune in the wood trade.
Next, the series tackles the complexities that influenced the competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and The North West Company in their quest for dominance and monetary gain. Enmeshed in this competition was the importance of horses and buffalo, and the alliances between Indigenous tribes and their unique connection to the land, all of which presented challenges that needed to be overcome. The abundance of resources created a mindset that ofttimes persists today: resources are to be entirely exploited until they are virtually extinct.
The story of Mathew Bell is the next story to unfold. Bell is a man from Britain who sets the course for industrialization in Lower Canada, and made Canadian winters bearable with his creation of the “Canada Stove.” This innovation also made Les Forges Saint- Maurice the first company able to guarantee his employees a year-round wage and set a precedent for company towns that would continue to spring up across the country like Hamilton, Ont., and Fort McMurray, Alberta. We learn a bit about Chief Maquinna of Nootka Sound in present-day B.C., and his influence on the north-west fur trade and current diplomacy for which Canada is renown.
To be perfectly frank, after Episode 1, I was not at all impressed and delayed settling in to watch Episode 2 for the purposes of this review. I was also disappointed that The Story of Us, basically began with the traditional Discovery Story, the way our textbooks have always treated the history of Canada. Understandably there is more documentation regarding the history of Canada post contact, yet still at this time when we are working toward reconciliation, it would have been nice to have more than 45 seconds devoted to the 12+ thousands of years before Samuel du Champlain’s arrival.
However, I found next week’s instalment much more engaging and I am looking forward to seeing what Episode 3 will bring. It didn’t hurt that “Hunting Treasures” closed with Peter Mansbridge evoking some patriotism the way only he can, with his closing statement: “Our natural resources will always be incredibly important, but don’t kid yourself … it is our people, Canadians, that are our greatest resource.” You don’t have to tell me, I am well aware I am a sucker for this stuff!
Overall, the cinematography is stunning. The use of CGI was a bit overdone in my opinion. I am not a huge fan of re-enactments but these were well done. I wish, as a student, when I was forced to learn Canadian history I had Canada: The Story of Us to watch. It is far more entertaining and engaging than the dry textbooks we had to study. By no means does this cover all of the details, but as a tool for educators, it would be a worthy device to introduce segments of our history to students. Parents, sit down with your school-aged children and watch. Some events will be very familiar while others may be a pleasant surprise.
Canada: The Story of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.