Robert Fulford's column about Canada: A People's History on CBC-TV

(The National Post, January 16, 2001)

The winners write history, and they make damn sure it depicts them as admirable fellows: That rule has been stated so often that it now seems unquestionable. But the CBC's account of our national past, Canada: A People's History, has reversed it. The first seven programs tell the story from the losers' point of view and insist that the downtrodden and the defeated had the best arguments on their side.

This expresses the spirit of our time, which routinely attributes the highest virtue to victims. There may be no one in the CBC history unit who articulates that view, but in our society it's pervasive and inescapable. If the CBC documentary-makers don't know how much their thinking is soaked in current attitudes, they are no more deluded than others who write history. Most historians hope to explain how people thought in the past, but most historians fail; they see only through the ethos of their own time. To do otherwise requires great effort, and the CBC people did not make that effort; perhaps they felt there was no reason to make it.

The CBC is doing for Canada what Thomas Babington Macaulay did for England in the middle of the 19th century. He was amazingly popular, just like Canada: A People's History. He wrote in a breathless narrative prose, the 1850s equivalent of TV storytelling. Like the CBC producers and directors, he was a master at scene-setting. He was also deeply opinionated, again like the CBC. He thought humanity had been progressing steadily since the Protestant Reformation and that further progress was inevitable. His writing was smug in a way that seemed altogether appropriate in his day and altogether preposterous 75 years later.

Consider how Canada: A People's History treats William Lyon Mackenzie, whose 1837 rebellion is in Episode 7 (which made its debut on Sunday night). Mackenzie's clumsy attempt to overthrow the British in Upper Canada eventually helped advance democracy, but the truth can't possibly be as one-sided as the CBC indicates. The British found it easier to recruit volunteers than Mackenzie, who failed to raise the soldiers he needed. The governor's supporters must have had their reasons, but those reasons aren't heard by the CBC audience. And Mackenzie, when his words are spoken to camera, sounds a lot saner than the record tells us he actually was (later in the episode we hear someone briefly mention that he was nuts).

Mark Starowicz and his colleagues might argue that historians long ago decided this issue and Canada: A People's History is not in the business of overthrowing standard judgments. We all learned in high school that Mackenzie was good, the monarchists bad. But the treatment of the 1837 rebellion is typical of the series so far. At every point, those who claim to be oppressed get all possible credit. The British Empire Loyalists, for example, are shown as morally superior to the revolutionaries who established the United States and pushed out the Loyalists. In this account, the rebels, not to put too fine a point on it, are rabble. (Their chief crime was to win.) Governments and governors are almost always wrong, even Hudson's Bay Company governors. The CBC makes George Simpson, head of the Bay from 1821 to 1860, look mean and autocratic. Certainly he was a pioneer downsizer: He fired half the staff, but that may have been the wisest course, as the filmmakers almost admit. Just before saying goodbye to him, the narrator remarks that he brought modern business methods to the West.

The programs use quotes from historical figures effectively, but the words written at the CBC are less impressive. The tone is too solemn and portentous, as if all those people lived through four centuries or so without once cracking a joke; few even smile. The writers of the narration (read by Maggie Huculak) are helpless when tempted by a cliché. We hear at one point that "the sun is setting on the fur trader's West." Rebellion is brewing, the die is cast, cholera spreads like wildfire, something or other "will change the face of the continent" and a certain letter "will change the course of history." The words are always far inferior to the pictures. It's like having captions for Matisse written by Tom Clancy.

But even raising such questions about the approach and the writing style of Canada: A People's History acknowledges how important it is. As one of the grandest events in the history of Canadian mass media, it deserves extensive discussion and detailed criticism. With this series the CBC has produced an amazing amount of first-class television for a moderate amount of money, and has done it by making every shot count. Once the directors win our confidence and pull us into their way of seeing, they use modest visual elements (a corner of a spike-fenced wooden fort, a pile of documents on a table) to illustrate affecting stories. A man on horseback, seen partially as he kills a buffalo, precisely suggests an environment and a historic moment. In one scene, a dozen lower torsos, with legs attached, rush across the screen, hands holding muskets. We don't see the tunics, we don't see the faces, we don't even see the ground they're running on, but we effortlessly fill in the picture.

It's hard to remember any television documentary that used imagery with more power, or more attention to telling historical detail: the tough little voyageurs stuffing themselves into those terrifyingly fragile canoes, a Red River homesteader prying a huge tree's roots from the ground, a lush pile of beaver skins shining like gold in the sun. All this takes place against a background depicted with exquisite skill. Has anyone since the Group of Seven paid such elaborate (and convincing) tribute to the Canadian landscape? From the first seven episodes you could put together a gorgeous montage of Great Canadian Sunsets, then do another of rapids and waterfalls.

As a view of the past, Canada: A People's History embodies the inevitably narrow biases of one period in time -- our own. As TV documentary, it's superb, as good as we are ever likely to get. Given our indifferent treatment of the CBC, it's also probably better than we deserve.

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