It has often been said that the creation of Canada is some sort of miracle. That the Dominion of the North succeeded in resisting north- south influences, ethnic and linguistic cleavages, and regional differences in order to build a country north of the 49th parallel is seen as a triumph against all odds.
By the same token, it can be said that the making of the TV series Canada: A People’s History is in its own way nothing short of miraculous. The story of the production of this series reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation " its talent, its complexity, its confusion, and its Byzantine politics.
Making History: The Remarkable Story Behind Canada: A People’s History is a highly readable account of how this series was made. Written by Mark Starowicz, the CBC veteran who served as executive producer of the series and who, with historian Gene Allen, hatched the idea of a history series to mark the arrival of the new millennium, the book outlines the many obstacles that had to be overcome to bring the 32-hour series to the screen.
First, Starowicz and Allen had to convince a cash-strapped, downsized CBC to invest up to $25 million in this venture. In a long series of corporate intrigues and office politics that make our constitutional debate look like a walk in the park, Starowicz and Allen succeeded in selling the CBC on their project. At various times, this meant overcoming rivalries between the CBC chairman, Guylaine Saucier, and the president, Perrin Beatty. It meant begging, borrowing, and stealing the talent and equipment from inside and outside the CBC in order to produce the 16 two-hour episodes. And, in an example of corporate inertia impossible to understand for an underfunded crown corpo- ration, Starowicz outlines the long and ultimately futile efforts to seek external funding for the venture. After lining up the support of Governor-General Roméo Leblanc, a small committee was ready to go out to find private funding and spon- sorship. Internal squabbles between the CBC board, the marketing department and others doomed these efforts.
If coping with the intricacies of CBC politics was not chal- lenge enough, Starowicz and Allen were determined to pro- duce the series in both English and French, which required the co-operation of the CBC with the Société Radio-Canada (SRC). To obtain this co-opera- tion in the wake of the 1995 referendum was no easy task. There lingered a suspicion, shared by both the SRC and Quebec intellectual cir- cles, that the project was another effort in patriotism promotion à la Sheila Copps. It required the efforts of Hubert Gendron, Claude St-Laurent and oth- ers, plus the recruitment of Jean- Claude Robert as the historical advisor, to attenuate these fears. At the end of the day, however, the series did not receive full support from the French network, which made shooting episodes in Quebec more difficult and compromised efforts to promote the series to the French market.
Added to the story was an uncom- mon series of personal tragedies, from cancer deaths to divorces, which made the perseverance of several key actors even more remarkable. The struggle by Serge Turbide to direct the episode on the fall of New France while battling cancer, and his death a few weeks after his episode aired, illustrates the human drama that the pro- duction team faced.
What emerges is a story of triumph in the face of all these challenges. Starowicz, who was very much a ”œhands-on” producer, takes the reader into the wonderful worlds of battle re-enactment, outlining how 100 re-enactors were transformed into thousands of French and British sol- diers on a field in North Gower, Ontario, that in turn was transformed into the Plains of Abraham. With cos- tume changes and careful cinema to graphic splicing, 100 actors became a ”œthin red line” nearly a mile long.
He also describes the drama of an emergency at sea, off the coast of Newfoundland, as his crew was filming a sail-past by the replica of the Matthew, John Cabot’s ship. Travelling with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Starowicz is found flashing an ”œSOS” at the distant shoreline, hoping against hope that someone heard their ”œMayday” before an electrical fire crip- pled their boat. The actions of a quick- thinking couple in Savage Cove saved the crew and the series.
The book calls into question the role of the CBC. Our national broadcaster was under constant siege in the 1990s, as budget cuts and the departure of key personnel compro- mised the CBC’s ability to produce a series of this nature. Clearly, the pri- vate sector in Canada did not have the means nor the interest in producing a history project of this magnitude. The success of the series, both artistically and in the audience it reached, con- firms the important role the CBC can and must play in exploring our national identity.
This success was short-lived, however, as the postcript to the book reveals. Very few of the talented individuals who put the series together remain employed by the CBC. Despite efforts to keep a core group together in the Canadian History Project, most people have moved on. The CBC and the viewer are poorer as a result.
But at the end of the day, one is also struck by the imbalance of the huge efforts to produce the series, the coffee-table books, the DVDs and videos and other material, and the ephemeral nature of TV. Three years later, do we much remember this series? Has it contributed to a height- ened awareness of our past? Is TV mak- ing a greater effort to explore our past? Sadly, it is difficult to find a lasting legacy of this series.
However, as I took a second look at one of the crucial episodes of the series ”œBattle for a Continent,” I had a greater appreciation of what Starowicz and his crews had achieved. A narrative history of that tumultuous period of our history, richly documented by first hand accounts, featuring vivid re- enactments of the struggle for a conti- nent, was both informative and entertaining. This is the true accom- plishment of Starowicz et al.: they managed to interest millions of Canadians in the story of our past.