"A part of our heritage."
It’s been 25 years since those words first appeared in a series of short films depicting some of the significant people, events and stories that have helped shape Canada’s history. The Heritage Minutes were first broadcast on 31 March 1991, launching a uniquely Canadian cultural phenomenon. Created at a time when many Canadians reacted with ignorance or indifference towards their country’s history, the Minutes enter their 25th year in a more mature Canada, one that has grown significantly over the years and become much more inclined to actively, willingly and enthusiastically celebrate itself.
The Heritage Minutes collection — now at 82 episodes and counting, with three more due this year — has grown right along with it, addressing subjects as vital and diverse as Viola Desmond, Terry Fox, Responsible Government and Louis Riel. In keeping with their lesson of learning where we’ve come from, we’ve provided a guided tour of the history of the Heritage Minutes.
“People must know the past to understand the present and to face the future.”
– Nellie McClung, 1935
The first generation of Heritage Minutes was the brainchild of philanthropist Charles Bronfman. In 1986, Bronfman’s CRB Foundation (one of the founding groups that preceded Historica Canada, the organization that also publishes this encyclopedia) commissioned a national survey. Less than half of respondents could name the country’s first prime minister and nearly one-quarter couldn’t name a Canadian event or achievement of which they were proud.
Bronfman set out to create a series of history-focused public service announcements designed to capture attention in the manner of an advertisement. The Minutes were similar in length to commercials, yet structured as dramatic narratives. Notable Canadian broadcaster Patrick Watson provided creative direction, script writing and narration to the initial series. Thomas Axworthy, then executive director of the CRB Foundation, and prominent entertainment lawyer Michael Levine also played key roles.
The Heritage Minutes project began to take shape in 1988 with the development of three pilot episodes: “Valour Road,” “Underground Railroad” and “Jacques Plante.” Focus groups were organized in Toronto and Montréal (involving English- and French-speaking participants respectively) to gauge reaction to the Minutes, as well as the level of interest in Canadian history and pride in being Canadian.
Early in the process, the CRB Foundation established the following criteria for Heritage Minute topics:
1. Intrigue us with Canada’s heritage;
2. Be producible within resources;
3. Be truthful within the bounds of dramatic license;
4. Reflect and celebrate Canadian social and cultural values such as tolerance, fairness, courage, tenacity, resourcefulness and inventiveness;
5. Reveal origins;
6. Surprise, provoke reaction and re-examination, and raise questions.
The first 13 Heritage Minutes were filmed in Montréal and Québec City. Over the last 25 years, Minutes have been filmed in several Canadian cities, including Toronto, St. John’s, Calgary and Cape Dorset. Some Heritage Minutes were created using footage from feature-length films, including “Grey Owl” and “Avro Arrow.” Others were co-productions with the National Film Board, including “Wilder Penfield,” “Rural Teacher,” “Vikings” and “Peacemaker.”
A number of famous Canadian actors have performed in the Minutes, including Dan Aykroyd, Roy Dupuis, Colm Feore, Graham Greene, Allan Hawco, Jared Keeso, Jean L'Italien, Kate Nelligan and Kandyse McClure. Many others have lent their voice to the final narration, such as Jackie Burroughs, Molly Parker, Pierre Houde, George Stroumboulopoulos, Alanis Obomsawin, Lloyd Robertson and Peter Gzowski.
The first 13 Heritage Minutes were televised on CBC/Radio-Canada on 31 March 1991. They were featured as part of a quiz show that aimed to educate Canadians on their history with entertaining, dramatic short films.
During their first decade, the Heritage Minutes were regularly broadcast on major Canadian television networks, which never received payment for airing them due to the Minutes cultural and educational content. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) designated the Minutes as an ongoing dramatic series with 150 per cent dramatic time credit towards networks’ Canadian Content (CanCon) requirements.
For a number of years beginning in 1992, the Heritage Minutes were also screened before feature films in Cineplex Odeon cinemas across the country. During the late 1990s, Universal Studios Home Video Canada included the Minutes in several of their home video releases.
Public Reaction and Awards
Heritage Minutes were ubiquitous in the first half of the 1990s, with around 50 episodes released between 1991 and 1995. Responses to the project included explorations of its role in teaching history and creating a Canadian identity. Some criticized the form, questioning whether 60-second television spots contributed to either goal in a meaningful way.
The Heritage Quiz and Questions d’histoire, the English and French specials that launched the Minutes, were nominated for a Gemini Award and a Prix Gémeaux, respectively. Cinematographer Steve Danyluk was also nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series for his work on “Halifax Explosion.”
The Heritage Minutes have become a touchstone of Canadian popular culture. They have inspired numerous think pieces, articles and perhaps most flattering of all, parodies. Television programs such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce, Rock et Belles Oreilles and The Rick Mercer Report have all riffed on the Minutes, and the Comedy Network aired short parodies entitled Sacrilege Moments. There have also been many spoofs produced by individuals and posted online.
The Heritage Minutes have also been the subject of wide-ranging academic scholarship exploring their role in both reflecting and shaping Canadian identity. The 2012 relaunch reignited debate about the collection and its representation of Canadian history.
While the Minutes have enjoyed great popularity, there have also been criticisms. A Minute about 19th-century Métis activist Louis Riel — which begins with him staring directly at the camera with a first-person voice-over narration, and ends with his hanging — was decried by some as too violent. Some have criticized the Minutes that focus on military heroes and achievements, arguing that more attention should be paid to peaceful achievements.
The Minutes were also sometimes viewed with suspicion in Québec, where some observers described them as federalist propaganda. In 2000, producer Robert-Guy Scully became the target of allegations of conflict of interest over his dual role in working on the French-language Minutes while also hosting a program on Radio-Canada’s news channel. This occurred amid the growing sponsorship scandal. For their part, the films’ producers pointed out that the Minutes were produced without any engagement by the funder in any aspect of production.
The Lost Minute: “Lester B. Pearson”
Some viewers who caught the first round of Heritage Minutes on television in 1991 have a hazy memory of a spot that focused on Canadian peacekeepers. It never appeared in VHS or DVD collections and when Historica Canada inherited the Heritage Minute master tapes, the “lost” Minute was not included. We recently uncovered a single VHS tape containing the legendary spot. “Lester B. Pearson” (variously called “Cyprus” and “Peacekeepers”) was released in 1991 alongside the pilot Minutes and other classics like “Halifax Explosion” and “Superman.” The Minute was soon pulled because of historically inaccurate costume details discovered during the post-production process. As well, the Turkish ambassador to Ottawa complained the Minute treated his country unfairly, though the producers have said this was not a factor in the decision to pull it from circulation.
To complement the Heritage Minutes, Historica created additional thematic collections called Military Minutes, Screen Legends, Radio Minutes and Footprints, as well as a comic book series, True North Comics. Newspaper columns about Canadian history written by Masha Boulton were compiled in the books Just a Minute (1994), Just Another Minute (1997) and Just a Minute More (1999).
In 1992, Canadian retailer Roots created a line of Heritage Minute-themed sweatshirts and T-shirts called “Wearing Your Roots.” The designs incorporated events and figures featured in the Minutes, including Jacques Cartier, Superman creator Joe Shuster and Jacques Plante.
Since the 2012 relaunch, Heritage Minute merchandise has included a set of posters designed by Halifax artist Christopher Hemsworth, one-liner buttons and greetings cards.
To mark the relaunch of Heritage Minutes in 2012, Historica Canada commissioned a public opinion poll to determine the top Minutes from the past 20 years, to measure attitudes on the series and to explore potential topics of future Minutes. The Ipsos Reid poll found that the most popular Minutes were: 1) “Halifax Explosion” and “Jackie Robinson” (tied); 3) “Jennie Trout;” 4) “Winnie;” and 5) “Laura Secord.”
The poll also revealed that 63 per cent of Canadians strongly agreed that the Minutes were a good way to teach Canadian history. Among the public’s top suggestions for new Heritage Minutes were Terry Fox (80 per cent), the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (82 per cent) and the creation of Nunavut (79 per cent).
In selecting new topics, the CRB Foundation continued to consider its original criteria, while also emphasizing historical specificity and accuracy. The new Minutes aim to commemorate rather than celebrate and will also explore darker chapters in Canadian history, such as Residential Schools.
The first two new Minutes, “Richard Pierpoint” and “Queenston Heights,” focused on the War of 1812.
Historica Canada secured further funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage in 2014 to produce two new Minutes each year until 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation. “Winnipeg Falcons” and “Nursing Sisters” were released to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War. “Terry Fox” was released to mark the 35th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope and became the most successful online Minute, with more than 200,000 views. “Viola Desmond” was released in 2016.
Historica Canada is in the process of producing more Heritage Minutes in the lead up to Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. This includes Residential School and Treaty-themed Minutes due out in spring 2016, as well as a profile of famed Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak. Created by Fifth Town Films, the latter Minute was shot on location in the artist’s community of Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Historica Canada will be releasing an Inuktitut-language version of this Heritage Minute — a first for the program.