Television

Everything old is new

A People’s History seems more relevant than ever

Brian Bethune October 8 2001
Television

Everything old is new

A People’s History seems more relevant than ever

Brian Bethune October 8 2001

Everything old is new

A People’s History seems more relevant than ever

BRIAN BETHUNE

Television

Tall burning buildings collapsing on top of firefighters. Assaults on a visible minority among us whose ethnic counterparts overseas have launched a devastating surprise attack on the United States. Sharp divisions among Canadians on how their nation should respond. An American president and a Canadian prime minister meeting to discuss a common perimeter defence in the face of “a new world order.” Not current events, but scenes from the Second World War, as presented in The Crucible, episode 14 of the CBC’s monumental Canada: A Peoples History. History is always alive in this country—that’s something the series’ producers found last year when they aired episodes that took the national story from its beginnings through Confederation, laying bare the roots of continuing FrenchEnglish and white-native tensions. But those are issues that have receded—for a time, at least—from Canadians’ minds in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Now it is the powerfully resonant events from 60 years ago that make everything old look menacingly new again. In recent years, the wartime fate of JapaneseCanadians—fellow citizens reviled and assaulted on the street, uprooted in the greatest forced migration in Canadian history, their property effectively stolen—has been widely viewed as a national disgrace. “Up to a couple of weeks ago it would have been so easy for viewers to just express automatic outrage over what happened,” says Crucible director Susan Teskey. “But since Sept. 11, easy judgments about the past are not as easy. Now we see how quickly war disposes of tolerance, how close beneath the surface some of our worst nature is.”

The CBC’s thought-provoking, wartsand-all history of Canada, derived primarily from the experiences of regular people who lived through it, has proved a triumphant success for the beleaguered public broadcaster. Almost three million people watched the opening episode last year, and more than two million regularly tuned in for the other eight. Those ratings brought a huge sigh of relief to the network, which had a lot riding on A Peoples History. The brainchild of producer Mark Starowicz, who created As It Happens and The Journal, the series is the largest production ever mounted by its documentary unit, and its first-ever FrenchEnglish joint production. Then there were the spinoffs, including the companion book of the same name. Published in English by McClelland & Stewart and in French by Les Editions Fides, the first volume was also a best-seller last year. (The publishers will release the second volume in November.) Above all, there was the cost: $25 million, a significant sum for the pared-to-the-bone CBC. But relief has come on that front as well. The audience numbers have enticed Bell Canada Enterprises to join last year’s corporate sponsor, Sun Life Financial—a particularly sweet catch, given BCE’s ownership of the CBC’s rival, CTV.

None of that guarantees smooth sailing for A Peoples History’s final season, which began its Sunday evening broadcasts on Sept. 30 with episode 10, Taking the West (1873 to 1896). Even before the terrorist attacks brought more recent history alive in a new way, Canadians were bound to cast a more critical eye over this year’s episodes. For one thing, they look different. The enthralling spectacles of the first season, like pitched battles on Queenston Heights or the Plains of Abraham, were made possible by an alliance of low-tech re-enactors—aficionados who dress in period costume and stage historical events —and high-tech wizardry. Digital compositors expanded tiny model boats into great armadas and made cannonballs fly out of guns that no longer work. But that’s over now as the series moves into the age of photography and film, and more critically, into the era of living memory.

Director Teskey is well aware of the pitfalls, and opportunities, of changing conditions. Especially in the case of the Second World War. Memories are as fresh in the CBC over its 1992 documentary The Valour and The Horror as they are among the veterans outraged by it. “When you do history where there are living sensibilities, you have to take that into account—and be aware of why you make the choices you do,” allows Teskey. “But you can’t be looking over your shoulder all the time.” Teskey’s choices were determined partly by her source material, including a “bias for stills, which carry an emotional weight of their own,” over moving images, and particularly over the surprising amount of colour footage her researchers unearthed. “Colour has an air of unreality, because in our memories, the Second World World is a black-and-white war; colour we associate with movies about it.”

But primarily her choices flowed from her focus. The Crucible is not a history of the war, but of Canada during it. So there is less on the military struggle abroad than on the domestic front, where Teskey covers the mass entry of women into the workforce and the early stirrings of the welfare state, as well as providing one of the best English-language explanations available of the French-Canadian side of the conscription crisis. Her topic is so vast, the director admits, that “you can’t do any more than skip a stone through the pond and pick out one ripple, one story.” What absolutely had to go in, she says, were contemporary developments in Canadian history’s enduring themes. Hence the Japanese-Canadian experience, which speaks to the heart of the rights-based culture Canadians have attempted to build in recent decades, and the push-pull of Canada-U.S. relations—two of the sections that make The Crucible, slated for Oct. 28, seem so eerily prescient.

But the new approach adopted by Teskey and her fellow second-season directors has not affected the series’ underlying strength. A People’s History remains as mesmerizing as ever. The focus on ordinary „ people makes them—and us, their desceñid dants—participants in an endless epic ^ drama, one in which we see ourselves as I never before. Nowhere is that more clearly I expressed than in The Great Transformation (Oct. 7), which deals with what may be Canadian history’s overarching theme—the continuing evolution of who “we” are. That episode chronicles the first great flood of “non-traditional” immigrants, mostly Eastern and Southern Europeans, who came here in the decades before the Great War. Those newcomers eventually changed Canada forever, from a place where “we” meant British or French to a nation that welcomes people from all over the world. The events detailed in The Crucible showed how hesitant our steps down that path still were a half century ago; the immediate future may test how far we’ve come. E3