When the CBC broadcasts history, politics is sure to follow by Konrad Yakabuski

Apr 5, 2017

Source: Globe and Mail

The first problem with the CBC’s half-hearted attempt at interpreting Canada’s history “for a new generation” is the title. The Story of Us – the 10-part series whose yawn-inducing opening episode nevertheless managed to insult much of the country east of Ontario – is the kind of name you’d expect on a propaganda video, not a serious history of a creation as fraught as Canada.

The story of Canada is that there is no one “us” in this country, but many of them. Most Canadians outside of Ottawa and Toronto see nothing wrong with that. It is what it is.

Problem number two is the cringeworthy introduction to the series by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Do the folks who run the CBC’s English network not get how inappropriate and politically loaded this is? “We know that a strong prosperous nation can be as united as it is diverse,” Mr. Trudeau tells viewers in a voice as sticky as Canada Grade A maple syrup. There are places for speeches like this. A history series on the public broadcaster is not one of them.

The third problem with The Story of Us is the choice of historian John English as one of two primary consultants on the series. Prof. English, a Liberal MP under Jean Chrétien, was chosen by the Trudeau family to write an authorized biography of Pierre Trudeau. No matter his academic credentials, he can’t claim neutrality. How can you ask Quebeckers to trust a history of Canada overseen by someone who fought for the No side during the 1995 referendum and, like it or not, is seen as sympathetic to the Trudeaus?

Therein lies the fourth problem with this endeavour. The Story of Us was never intended for Quebeckers’ eyes. The English CBC decided to go it alone, commissioning a history to mark Canada’s 150th birthday without involving Radio-Canada. A joint production with the public broadcaster’s French-language network would have avoided some of the most glaring screw-ups, such as the paucity of francophone commentators, the use of anglophone actors for French-speaking parts or the depiction of Samuel de Champlain as badly needing a bath while showing James Wolfe emerging prim and proper after scaling Cap Diamant to the Plains of Abraham. More important, a French-English co-production would have provided the checks and balances that enabled Canada: A People’s History, the 32-hour history series broadcast in 2000 and 2001, to win such admiration.

The Story of Us is nowhere near as rigorous as that opus. Since the 2015 disbanding of the CBC’s in-house documentary unit, headed by the visionary Mark Starowicz, the public broadcaster has farmed out such programming to independent production companies. Some of them, like Story of Us producer Bristow Global Media, are conveniently headed by former CBC executives.

The broadcaster, which refused to disclose how much The Story of Us cost, may blame this outsourcing on budget cuts imposed by the previous Conservative government – cuts that Mr. Trudeau’s government is gradually reversing. But the Tory cuts were nowhere near as big as the machete Mr. Chrétien’s Liberals took to public broadcaster between 1993 and 1997, when the CBC’s budget was slashed by 33 per cent. That did not prevent Canada: A People’s History from being made. So, it’s a question of priorities.

Serious public-affairs programming is not a current CBC priority. The first episode of The Story of Us glosses over the history of New France with more superficiality than an episode of Real Housewives of Toronto. The second episode was no deeper. For history buffs, it’s a massive waste of time. For anyone else, it’s just plain boring. “We’re calling it a history for a new generation,” executive producer Julie Bristow told The Canadian Press. Apparently the “new generation” doesn’t want its history from historians, but from celebrities such as Paul Gross and Colm Feore. They’re fine people and all, but their gooey enthusiasm for their subject cheapens the credibility of the final product.

“The Story of Us is not meant to be a comprehensive and linear account of Canada’s history nor a definitive history of Canada,” CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson explained, while noting that about 75 real historians were consulted on the project. “It’s a docudrama that highlights the often untold stories of just a few of the extraordinary people and events that helped shape our nation.”

If that sounds oddly like a disclaimer, maybe it’s because this disappointing series needs one.

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