Creation and History
The first generation of Heritage Minutes were the brainchild of philanthropist Charles Bronfman. In 1986, Bronfman’s CRB Foundation — one of the founding groups that preceded the creation of Historica Canada — commissioned a national survey in which less than half of respondents could name the country’s first prime minister and nearly one-quarter could not name a Canadian event or achievement of which they were proud. Discouraged by Canadians’ lack of knowledge about their own history, 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 often provided creative direction, scriptwriting and narration to the initial series, which was produced by Robert-Guy Scully and directed by Richard Ciupka under the ownership of the CRB Foundation.
In the early stages of the project, the CRB Foundation established the following criteria for Heritage Minute topics:
- Intrigue us with Canada’s heritage
- Be producible within resources
- Be truthful within the bounds of dramatic license
- Reflect and celebrate Canadian social and cultural values: tolerance, fairness, courage, tenacity, resourcefulness, inventiveness
- Reveal origins
- Surprise, provoke reflection, re-examination, raise questions.
The Heritage Minute 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 Montreal (involving English- and French-speaking participants respectively) to gauge reaction to the Minutes, as well as level of interest in Canadian history and pride in being Canadian.
The first 13 Heritage Minutes were televised in English on CBC and in French on 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. The English broadcast was hosted by CBC personality Wayne Rostad.
The short films were produced in English and French and released in five rounds between 1991 and 2000. The CRB Foundation partnered with the National Film Board of Canada to produce several early Minutes, including “Wilder Penfield,” “Rural Teacher,” “Peacemaker” and “Inukshuk.” Some Minutes, including “Avro Arrow,” “Grey Owl” and “Lucille Teasdale,” were created from television miniseries and films.
In 1999, the CRB Foundation created the Historica Foundation of Canada, which renamed the films Historica Minutes: History by the Minute during their ownership period. In 2005, the Historica Foundation partnered with Patrick Watson to produce eight military-themed Heritage Minutes: “Vimy Ridge,” “Osborn of Hong Kong,” “Mona Parsons,” “Tommy Prince,” “Juno Beach,” “Andrew Mynarski,” “Home from the Wars” and “Dextraze in the Congo.”
The Historica Foundation merged with the Dominion Institute in 2009 to become the Historica-Dominion Institute, bringing with it Historica’s projects including the Heritage Minutes. Since their inception, the Heritage Minutes have received funding from a variety of sources, including Canada Post, Power Corporation of Canada and the Government of Canada. The Minutes are produced independently without any engagement from funders in script, direction or production.
During their first decade, the Heritage Minutes were regularly broadcast on major Canadian television networks. Due to the cultural and educational content of the Minutes, networks have never received payment for airing them. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has historically 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. 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 Marsha Boulton — initially under contract with the CRB Foundation — were compiled in the book Just a Minute (1994), followed by Just Another Minute (1997) and Just a Minute More (1999).
Since 2013, the Heritage Minutes have been available for viewing on all VIA Rail trains within the Québec City–Windsor corridor.
The Heritage Minutes have worked their way into Canadian popular culture to the point where they have been parodied on such Canadian television programs as This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce, Rock et Belles Oreilles and The Rick Mercer Report. The Comedy Network also aired short parodies entitled Sacrilege Moments, and there have been numerous other spoofs produced by individuals and posted online.
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 and Kate Nelligan. The series’ list of distinguished narrators includes Jackie Burroughs, Molly Parker, George Stroumboulopoulos, Alanis Obomsawin, Lloyd Robertson and Peter Gzowski.
In 2012, the Historica-Dominion Institute (now Historica Canada) commissioned a poll by Ipsos Reid of 3,900 Canadians to determine the most popular Minutes. The top five were: 1) “Jackie Robinson” 2) (tied for first) “Halifax Explosion” 3) “Jennie Trout" 4) “Winnie” and 5) “Laura Secord.”
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 being too violent to show to young people. Some critics dislike the Minutes that focus on Canadian military heroes and achievements, arguing that more attention should be paid to peaceful achievements.
A Minute about Canadian peacekeepers in Cyprus produced in 1991 was criticized by Turkey’s ambassador to Canada on the grounds that it depicted Turkish citizens in a poor light. The producers responded that the Minute simply explored Canada’s role in peacekeeping and that no slight to Turkey was intended. 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 that the Minute treated his country unfairly, though the producers have said this was not a factor in the decision to pull it from circulation.
The Minutes were also sometimes viewed with suspicion in Québec, where some observers — particularly in sovereigntist circles — 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. (The Minutes were aired during commercial breaks on Scully’s program.) This occurred amid the growing sponsorship scandal, and critics pointed out that some of these Minutes were sponsored by the federal government. For their part, the films’ producers pointed to the independent nature of the production process, by which the Minutes were produced without any engagement by the funder in preparation of the script or any other aspects of production.
Second Generation Heritage Minutes
The Historica-Dominion Institute (renamed Historica Canada in September 2013) began to create a new generation of Heritage Minutes in 2012. The first two new Minutes, produced by Fifth Town Films, focused on the War of 1812. “Richard Pierpoint” (released in October 2012) tells the story of the important Black Loyalist. “Queenston Heights” (released in June 2013) re-enacts the efforts of the Grand River warriors at the Battle of Queenston Heights. These two Heritage Minutes were funded by the Government of Canada’s War of 1812 Commemoration Fund. They can be viewed online alongside classic Heritage Minutes.
In January 2013, the Department of Canadian Heritage announced funding for two more Heritage Minutes produced by Historica Canada. These Minutes treat the contributions of two of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier, in commemoration of the bicentennials of their birth. They were produced by Collider Films and released in January 2014.
Also in 2014, Historica Canada secured funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage to produce seven new Minutes, an average of two each year until 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
“Winnipeg Falcons” (released in November 2014) tells the story of a team of Icelandic-Canadians who served in the First World War before winning the first gold medal in Olympic ice hockey. “Nursing Sisters” (released in May 2015) depicts an air raid at the No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital in France in May 1918. A Heritage Minute about Terry Fox was released in September 2015, during commemorations for the 35th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope.
In February 2016, Black History Month, Historica released a new Heritage Minute on Viola Desmond, a pioneering black activist who, in 1946, refused to leave her seat in the Whites only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was arrested for her actions but was finally pardoned by the lieutenant governor and the government of Nova Scotia in 2010. In December 2016, it was announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman depicted on the face of a Canadian banknote (see Women on Canadian Banknotes).
On 21 June 2016, National Aboriginal Day, Historica released two new Heritage Minutes. “Naskumituwin (Treaty)” depicts the treaty-making process in Ontario, specifically highlighting Treaty 9. The other tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy from Ogoki Post, Ontario, who died attempting to run away from a residential school.
On 20 October 2016, Historica released a new Heritage Minute on famed Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak. Known for her graphic prints, including the Enchanted Owl (which was featured on a Canadian postage stamp in the 1970s), Ashevak was a founding member of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative’s Kinngait Studios, an organization that continues to promote internationally acclaimed Inuit art.
On 8 March 2017, International Women’s Day, Historica released a new Heritage Minute on famed women’s basketball team, the Edmonton Grads. Once described by James Naismith as “the finest team to have ever stepped out onto the floor,” the Grads still hold the best winning record across all sports: 502–20. Pioneers in women’s athletics, the Grads helped to popularize women’s participation in sports across the country and represented Canada at international competitions in Europe before women were allowed to participate in the Olympics.
Released on World Refugee Day, 20 June 2017, the “Boat People” Refugees Heritage Minute follows a family’s escape from Vietnam, their journey to a Malaysian refugee camp and finally to their new home in Montreal. The first animated Heritage Minute was released on 25 October 2017. It explores the rich immigrant history of Toronto’s Kensington Market, using animation to transform a single shop into five different cultural enclaves. The Minute received an award at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and was nominated for a Heritage Toronto Award.
A Heritage Minute on Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery was released on 8 March 2018, International Women’s Day. The voice-over in this Minute, pulled entirely from Montgomery’s own journals, recounts how she battled depression, rejection, and sexism to become known around the world for Anne of Green Gables.
The first LGBTQ2 Heritage Minute, on pioneering gay rights activist Jim Egan, was released on On 13 June 2018. Egan publicly challenged a culture of rampant homophobia in the press starting in the late-1940s, when it was dangerous for a gay man to speak out. In the late-1980s, he challenged the Government of Canada to receive spousal benefits for his life partner, Jack Nesbit. Their case ensured that sexual orientation would be protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a landmark victory for the LGBTQ2 community.
Full List of Heritage Minute Topics
Click here to view all of the Heritage Minutes.