It was sometime in summer in the early 1990s. I took a break from whatever yardwork or farm work I was doing and sat down with my lunch in front of my tv.
I don’t remember what I was watching… it’s been 30 years after all but when the show went to commercials my life changed.
This commercial was not selling something I could buy in store instead it advertised Canada’s history.
Thinking back to that day I believe the story of James Naismith and the birth of basketball.
In it a janitor climbs up to get a ball from a basket, and laments at the task of getting the ball.
When it is suggested that a hole was cut at the bottom.
He says, “I need these peach baskets back”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiJJIacdF-E (0:40)
From that moment on, I was enraptured by Canadian history for the rest of my life.
and I’m not the only one.
Just say “I smell burnt toast” to a Canadian and see what they say because the impact of these commercials on me cannot be understated.
I’m Craig Baird — this is Canadian History Ehx! and The Heritage Minutes[TRANSITION]
Three things inspired my passion for Canadian history and placed me on the road I am on now, sharing history for my living.
Canada: A People’s History
And those Canadian history commercials I stumbled upon three decades ago.
Walter Stewart – the outspoken journalist for the Globe and Mail known as Canada’s conscience once said,
“For most Canadians, history starts about a week ago last Friday.”
He was right.
Before The Heritage Minutes few Canadians knew their history.
What they learned typically from a book as Canadian history on the screen was in short supply.
And it would have stayed that way and maybe I would have never been inspired to start this podcast, had it not been for one man.[PAUSE]
Charles Bronfman was, and still is, a rich man. He is currently worth over $2 billion and is easily one of the wealthiest men in Canada.
He loves baseball, and even owned the Montreal Expos from 1968 to 1991,
Like me, he also loves history.
That led him to establish the Charles R. Bronfman, or CRB, Foundation, in 1986
with the goal of enhancing Canadianism, and unity of the Jewish people.
Soon after its formation, the foundation commissioned a national survey to determine Canadians’ awareness of history.
As it turned out, they knew shockingly little about their own past.
The survey found that only 57 per cent of Canadians could name the first prime minister of Canada.
It’s Sir John A. Macdonald by the way.
Only 26 per cent could name three Canadian authors.
There are many but three of my favourites are Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat and Margaret Atwood.
Some of those surveyed thought Ernest Hemingway was Canadian, and that Hunter S. Thompson wrote Anne of Green Gables.
He isn’t, and that was Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Most shocking of all, barely half of respondents could name the year that Canada became a nation.
It was 1867.
Charles Bronfman found this unacceptable.
He believed history could be taught, not through traditional academic systems, but through popular culture to make it more approachable and palatable to the public.
He was so shocked that in a meeting of the CRB Foundation, he said.
“If television can use 30 seconds or 60 seconds to persuade people that Cadillacs or cornflakes are interesting, couldn’t we also use that short piece of time to persuade Canadians that their history is interesting? You tell me how to do it, and I will fund it.”
With plenty of money now at their disposal, the CRB Foundation put together six criteria for choosing topics that eventually became our beloved Heritage Minutes…
- 1. intriguing to Canadians
- 2. be easily produced
- 3. be truthful with SOME dramatic license
- 4. celebrate and reflect on cultural and social values like multiculturalism, bilingualism and Indigenous history.
- 5. Reveal origin stories
- 6.Surprise, provoke reflection, re-examination, raise questions.
Each minute was designed to capture the audience’s attention in a similar style to an advertisement.
Anthony Wilson Smith is the president of Historica Canada, which is what the CRB Foundation is now called.
He says the making the Minutes into ads that sold Canada was what helped them resonate.
Of course, creating those Heritage Minutes was not a simple task.
Decisions had to be made about which stories to include, how to balance English and French, while also including immigrants and Indigenous people’s stories?
It wasn’t easy, but in 1988, just two years after the shocking survey, the CRB Foundation developed three pilot Heritage Minutes episodes.
These were Valour Road, Underground Railroad and Jacques Plante.
(PAUSE music TRANSITION)
Valour Road told the story of three men who grew up on the same street in Winnipeg and each earned the Victoria Cross in the First World War.
That street was renamed Valour Road as a result.
Jacques Plante took us back to when the legendary goalie first put on a mask in a hockey game, and the Underground Railroad detailed the story of Canada as a haven for enslaved people looking for freedom by following Harriet Tubman’s route north.
Once the Minutes were produced, they tested in front of focus groups in Toronto and Montreal, with both English and French speaking participants.
Organizers looked to see how the participants enjoyed the Minutes and asked about their level and interest in Canadian history.
Without knowing it these participants became part of our collective heritage and changed one future podcaster’s life.
Thankfully the focus group responded favourably, and the new program was expanded through 1989 and by 1990, the first group of Heritage Minutes were chosen, and filming soon followed.
By November 1990, the first official series of Heritage Minutes was in the can, as they say in show business, and ready for its time in the spotlight…which would come the following year on, of all things, a quiz show.[PAUSE]
Before we continue on our journey, we need to take a detour to talk about a Canadian show that was immensely popular in the 1980s and 1990s…On The Road Again.
Hosted by Wayne Rostad, that show gave birth to a one-off history quiz show on March 31, 1991, called The Heritage Quiz.
When The Heritage Quiz debuted, several Heritage Minutes came along with it.
There was Joe Shuster excitedly talking about his new creation of Superman. You can hear a bit more about him in my episode on the Canadian Whites.
Then we got the story of Jacques Cartier misinterpreting the settlement name of Kanata to be the name of the land itself.
And lastly there was the story Nellie McClung holding her mock debate to fight for women’s suffrage in Manitoba. While I have not done an episode on Nellie McClung, but I have covered the Famous Five, so check it out.
In all, 13 Heritage Minutes were broadcast during the show.
But who was behind all of them?
Patrick Watson was the driving force in writing, directing and narrating those first 13 Minutes and many more over several years later.
On the business side of things, there was Michael Levine during those early years, and he says he was the glue that brought Charles Bronfman and Patrick Watson together.
Watson was a Canadian broadcasting legend, having co-hosted This House Has Seven Days on the CBC in the 1960s, and the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
He also acted in over 50 films, including The Terry Fox Story in 1983.
Watson was part of the Minutes for decades until his death in 2022.
He said the focus of the Minutes was to avoid pedantry, while creating
“indelible images in the minds of their viewers.”
After The Heritage Quiz aired in date, the 13 original short vignettes were broken up and ran between shows on CBC and CTV.
The media at the time called them engaging and interesting, the biggest criticism was that there were only 13 and with constant rotation they became a bit dull.
Hester Riches, writing for the Vancouver Sun said,
“I watched the preview reel for the new Heritage Minutes and enjoyed them more than I’d expected, even better than the first bunch.”
The godfather of popular Canadian history and my personal historical hero, Pierre Berton, said,
“It is very important to have a narrative history as the Americans have had for a long time. We need a sense of our roots and our background and until we know that, and until we find out where we came from and are proud of, we won’t know where we are going.”
The Heritage Minutes attempted to look at Canadian history, through different ethnicities, genders, and linguistic lines.
But of those first 13 though, most focused on white male history, only a few, such as those of Jennie Trout and Nellie McClung, addressed women’s history.
Only one had an Indigenous focus to it.
The one of Jacques Cartier meeting Chief Donnacona and learning the word, Kanata.
Only one Heritage Minute, about Louis Frontenac, the Governor of New France, focused on a Francophone history.
It would not take long before the Heritage Minutes expanded to focus on a wider assortment of Canadians and events from our past.
The Heritage Minutes always seemed to fall into six categories.
Our Northerness and the survival of early settlers and trailblazers, as well as our interactions with the United States.
Some told the story of the French and English colonial past, while others focused on our geography and regionalism.
Lastly, there was our role on the world stage, and the sociological characteristics of the country.
Beginning in 1992, the Heritage Minutes were screened before feature films at Cineplex Odeon cinemas across Canada.
Later in the decade, Universal Studios Home Video Canada jumped on board and started to include the Minutes in many home video releases.
Throughout the 1990s, the Minutes were fixtures on major Canadian networks.
For TV networks, this was a win-win.
Canadian content requirements meant that a certain percentage of airtime per day had to be devoted to Canadian content.
Each Heritage Minute counted towards that and playing them through the day helped networks reach their Can-Con requirements.
Per week, 46 hours of Heritage Minutes were seen which meant they reached 23 million Canadians annually.
They were seen so often that some phrases became part of our collective culture.
Michael Levine says Heritage Minutes continue to resonate with Canadians, because they are stories wrapped in values.
As the Heritage Minutes expanded, their production value increased, and they attracted several big names.
Dan Ackroyd appeared in the Avro Arrow Heritage Minute, while Gordon Tootoosis was in the Peacemaker Minute.
Most famously, Academy Award nominee Graham Greene portrayed Sitting Bull in one.
The Minutes also earned critical praise.
In 1992, director of photography Steve Danyluk earned a Gemini Award nomination for The Halifax Explosion Heritage Minute.
In 1997, that same minute along with the stories of Jacques Plante and Chinese Railway Workers were turned into comic books by McClelland and Stewart
They published and distributed them to more than 900 McDonald’s restaurants around Canada.
The comics were given out to any young person coming into the restaurant for free.
But this wasn’t as successful as the launch of the Minutes on television.
Many criticized the use of marketing partners and the comic book format to convey serious issues, while others found there were historical errors.
Following that venture, in 1998, 60 Heritage Minutes were compiled into one single VHS, which the media called This Hour Has 1,000 Years.
That is in reference to the earliest Heritage Minute that detailed the story of the Vikings landing in Newfoundland around 1000 CE and the iconic CBC comedy show THIS HOUR HAS 22 MINUTES which premiered in 1993.
The VHS also included a documentary about how the Heritage Minutes were made, along with interviews.
In many ways, it was ahead of its time as the era of DVD special features and commentaries was still a few years away.
Patrick Watson said,
“We hear a lot of people saying they’d love to have the Minutes at home. My attitude is let’s get them out there and see how much use they’re going to get.”
In 1999, Just A Minute More was released.
This book featured dozens of stories about the subjects of the Heritage Minutes, as well as other stories from our past.[PAUSE]
After four years of releasing Heritage Minutes, production slowed down.
There were still Heritage Minutes, but they were coming out fewer in number as the media landscape changed.
Nine Heritage Minutes were released in 1997, then none in 1998 and only two in 2000, one of which by the way starred Pierce Brosnan as the Englishman who posed as an Indigenous man named Grey Owl and began the Canadian conservation movement.
Side note, I’m doing that story in next week’s episode.
Then for two years, there were no new Heritage minutes.
In 2003, new Heritage Minutes were released, but this time they were planned only for radio distribution.
In 2005, a plethora of televised Heritage Minutes, nine, were released.
Eight were released as part of a military series, while the last one was about Maple Leaf Gardens.
Then… another desert of history… because there were no heritage minutes for the next seven years.
While it seemed that at this point, the Heritage Minutes had run their course, something came along that changed everything…YouTube.[TRANSITION]
Suddenly there was a new opportunity for t Heritage Minutes.
As if preparing for the future in 1991, Historica Canada had created the type of one-minute quick content that would come to dominate the digital streaming media decades later.
While some YouTube creators can spend months or years building up a portfolio of videos, Historica Canada already had dozens ready for streaming.
Not only originals but new ones could suddenly be made to reach a brand-new generation of Canadians, while appealing to the nostalgia of those, like me, that remember them from their youth.
In 2012, the Richard Pierpoint Heritage Minute debuted, telling the story of the Black Canadian who fought for Canada in the War of 1812, followed by the Queenston Heights Heritage Minute in 2013, which told the story of the battle that helped turn the tide of the War of 1812 for Canada.
From then on, at least two Heritage Minutes have come out each year.
This time, the Minutes were not exclusively on tv, or in a quiz show.
The Minutes were launched in public, in a variety of settings.
To debut the Heritage Minute about the Winnipeg Falcons, who won the first hockey gold medal at the Olympics in 1920, Historica Canada turned things up a notch.
They launched it with events at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg during a Jets game, at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and then broadcasted to Canadians during the intermissions of a Penguins-Jets game.
In March 2015, 53 Heritage Minutes were mashed up to recreate Drake’s Started From the Bottom music video.
Within 48 hours, this mashup had 100,000 views on YouTube.
Two months later a Heritage Minute about the Canadian nurses of the First World War launched in theatres in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, and Halifax.
And with this new rise in popularity, parodies of the Minutes, which had existed for years, also began to surface online.
David Aronovitch with Historica Canada said,
“We get that there’s a lot of nostalgia there. While we take the Minutes very seriously, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We can be in on that joke.”
As society evolved, so too have the minutes, which now have a much stronger focus on essentially, non-white male stories.
Since 2015, only two Heritage Minutes have focused on a white male historical figure.
Michael Levine says it’s all about the Minutes’ evolving with society,
Of the five Heritage Minutes released in 2016, three focused on Indigenous stories, one on Black Canadian history and two on Canadian women.
That year, two of the Indigenous Heritage Minutes were released on June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day.
On Oct. 19, 2016, a Heritage Minute about Kenojuak Ashevak, the Inuk artist from Cape Dorset was released. It was the first Heritage Minute that was not narrated only in French or English, but in a third language, Inuktitut.
The release of the Jim Egan Heritage Minute in 2018 was the first time LGBTQ history was represented, and that was followed up in 2022 with the story Jackie Shane, a Black transgender performer, and an enduring queer icon in Toronto and beyond.
To date, over 100 Heritage Minutes have been released.
As of this recording, the most recent one, was the story of Paldi, the multicultural community on Vancouver Island.
This Heritage Minute was released in conjunction with Asian Heritage Month in April 2023.
Currently, a Heritage Minute is being filmed in Ogema, Saskatchewan, telling the story of baseball players who helped inspire the movie A League of Their Own.
Anthony Wilson Smith says three decades Heritage Minutes continue to resonate with Canadians, as seen by the press coverage and the millions of views online.
As you can imagine, over r 100 minutes release doesn’t come without a bit of controversy.
You might remember Louis Riel as the Canadian politician, and a founder of the province of Manitoba, and a political leader of the Métis people. He led two resistance movements against the Government of Canada and its first prime minister John A. Macdonald.
In the minute we hear voice-over narration as an actor playing Louis Riel stares at the camera.
Then, a sack is put over his head and it ends with his hanging.
The Heritage Minute was criticized for being too violent for young people.
In 1991, a Minute about Canadian Peacekeepers was released but Turkey’s Ambassador to Canada criticized it because he felt it depicted Turkish citizens in a poor light.
The producers responded it was about the Peacekeepers and no slight to Turkey was intended.
The Minute was eventually pulled due to what producers said were inaccurate costume details.
One of the main criticisms of the Heritage Minutes, at least the original 1990s run, is that they sometimes weren’t completely historically accurate.
This was a minor criticism for most, as the message of our history and the event was still accurate.
As Andrea DeMeer of the Sault Star wrote,
“Canadian Heritage Minutes are not historical truths. They are dramatizations giving life and colour to words in a textbook.”
Anthony Michael-Smith says the Heritage Minutes are important to our collective understanding of where we came from, and where we are going.
[ANTHONY CLIP 3 21 SECONDS]
Now if you’re like me, you might be wondering, what is the greatest Heritage Minute of all?[TRANSITION]
Well, as can be expected, not everyone can agree on which one truly reigns supreme.
In 2012, Historica Canada commissioned a poll to determine the most popular Heritage Minutes.
First place was a tie between Jackie Robinson and The Halifax Explosion.
Months ago, I did my own Heritage Minute poll and after receiving over 10,000 votes the most popular Heritage Minute was…. drum roll please.
The Halifax Explosion.
Personally, I love every Heritage Minute as they scratch that history itch for me.
But if the Stanley Cup depended on it my favourite would be the one all about Maple Leaf Gardens.
It is the perfect blend of history, nostalgia, and production values.[OUTRO]
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, CBC, Montreal Gazette, Wikipedia, Vancouver Sun, Macleans, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen,