Sunday, April 15, 2007


For the most part, a nation is a shared experience. The borders which encircle us may demarcate our place in the world. The lands we inhabit might dictate how our lives are lived and our livings earned. The laws we evolve can define our core values to those beyond our borders. But our shared experiences, our history is what tells us who we really are.

Every child wants to know "who" they came from; needing to trace the winding bloodline that has culminated in their own life, seeking to understand how that long trail of DNA, that has now made them the incredibly unique person they are, managed to survive past cataclysms, leapt great oceans or crossed continents to somehow connect with another similar line in a smoky bar and result in their arrival in the world.

From there we move to where our line intersects with those around us. Sometimes that's just a desire for proof that we really are a princess left among these crazy people by gypsies. More often it is the beginning of discovering our own path to the future.

There is pride and comfort to be drawn from knowing "your father's grandfather planted this tree" or "we've always earned our living from the sea".

Those first definitions of our family and place evolve into "My town's where the telephone was invented", "My team won the Stanley Cup four years in a row", or "The kid who grew up in that house across the street is a movie star".

Our shared experience is our history. And in Canada, our history is being kept from us.

The Post below this recounts my Grandfather's experiences at Vimy Ridge, a WWI battle fought 90 years ago this week. The day that battle was being memorialized at home and abroad, a survey conducted by the Dominion Institute was published. This survey found that 59% of Canadians didn't know anything about the battle acknowledged as the moment their country came of age.

This would be the equivalent of Americans not recalling Pearl Harbor or the Alamo.

If that's not bad enough. Only 40% knew John McRae's poem "In Flanders Field", barely a third had heard of one of our great heroes, Billy Bishop -- pictured below.

And it gets worse. One in four Canadians apparently believes General Douglas McCarthur is a local, while 1 in 10 also think US president Ullyses S. Grant carried a Canadian passport.

Additionally, the number of Canadians who had a firm grasp of their own history declined 5% from the last time the Dominion Institute did a similar survey in 1998.

Looks like Rick Mercer could find just as many stupid Canadians as Americans for his next TV special.

"We seem to be a nation of amnesiacs with very little in the way of shared heroes and defining events." said the Dominion Institute's Executive Director, Richard Griffiths, adding, "At this rate, in 50 years, Billy Bishop will have been swept into the dustbin of history."

There are probably a lot of reasons for this. But I blame television.

In particular, I blame the people running Canadian networks who do such a good job of making sure our shared experiences and defining events are seldom, if ever, recounted or dramatized.

Will Dixon has a great POST detailing the recent outing of The History Channel, which has been running "CSI:NY" as content of historical importance because it represents "post 9/11 NY" a definition that would (luckily for them) also apply to "Sex in the City", "The King of Queens" and most episodes of "The Sopranos".

The History Channel faking it isn't exactly news. Bill Carole, a popular morning man on CFRB in Toronto, does a semi-regular bit on all the recent History Channel programming he's seen that doesn't remotely have anything to do with history.

He also does a great impression of Anne Medina's post movie wraps. I always get a kick out of watching this once highly regarded foreign correspondent squirm through one justification after another of the channel's presentations of J.Lo and Clooney in "Out of Sight" or "Sneakers" featuring Dan Aykroyd.

And "CSI:NY" is far from History's furthest stretching of its regulatory mandate. Their ten year run has so far featured "JAG", "China Beach", "Tour of Duty", "Twelve O'Clock High", "Carnivale" and "Deadwood".

Small wonder Canadians don't know much of their own history or may be confused about what actually went on in somebody else's.

But in a lot of ways, "CSI:NY" makes as much sense on the History Channel as "Dog, The Bounty Hunter" does on Arts and Entertainment or the endless "Die Hard" and Steven Segal reruns on the Aboriginal network.

What this really reveals is that (as always) its all about the money and if Atlantis Alliance can sell its own product to itself, it can make more money.

Back in 1999, David Duchovny attacked this kind of "corporate synergy", alleging that FOX had syndicated "The X Files" at an unfairly low price to its own affiliates. This reduced the fees owed to the actor, who had foregone a chunk of his up-front salary for a piece of the back end. Fox settled for an undisclosed amount and also had to allow Duchovny to dictate terms on the 8th and final season of the series. Needless to say, he didn't turn up for work too often.

The same process of "corporate synergy" is at work here, reducing the money paid to producers and private investors (and in the process eliminating the royalties due writers and other artists). It has gone a long way toward undermining the industry for more than a decade. But don't hold your breath waiting for the CRTC commissioners to delve into that one.

As their decision in renewing the licenses of History and other Specialty services through 2010 states..."The most frequently expressed view among the licensees of the 1996 services themselves was that the Commission should not penalize their entrepreneurial success by imposing requirements for Canadian program expenditures and exhibition that are any more onerous than those that currently apply. Many of these services, supported by their industry association, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), argued that any across the board increases would be inappropriate due to the challenges the industry now faces as a result of increased competition, audience fragmentation, and uncertainties associated with the transition to digital distribution. Licensees also suggested that the specialty industry has matured, and that subscriber revenues and advertising revenues earned by specialty services have reached a plateau."

Interesting choice of words describing Canadian content there -- onerous...

But what about our other broadcasters? Why aren't they doing more programs that deal with Canadian history?

About a month ago, Denis McGrath started a CONTEST over at his place, looking for great "unproduced" Canadian scripts. The example he uses sounds eerily like something I wrote a few years ago about the creation of the Stratford Festival. Not only a damn fine script (and don't take my word, I've got a ton of glowing studio and network readers reports) but we managed to package a signed cast that included "20 - Count 'Em - 20" of the biggest Canadian names in Hollywood, all of whom either launched or confirmed their careers at Stratford.

Nobody would touch it.

I remember a meeting at the CBC with a guy who was getting Canadian stories going about the right to die, company towns that had been closed and disappeared, and project after project that promised "BLEAK AND DEPRESSING" in giant letters. He just couldn't embrace the fact that my script had a happy ending. To him, that meant it just couldn't be historically important.

In the last year, we've been shopping around another script that deals with a uniquely Canadian event that happened in 1959. Everybody who reads it gushes with praise. We have commitments from two international names to star.

Nobody will touch it.

We got close on one deal, until the guy on the other side of the table said, "Wouldn't it be better if the kid dies at the end?"

No -- it wouldn't. Because -- he didn't.

I thanked them and moved on.

I've put a lot of this down to people who just don't want to work with me. But it must be more than that, because I've read some wonderful scripts lately about the Franklin Expedition and the Whitby Dunlops and John Jewitt and Billy Bishop -- and nobody's doing any of them either.

You go into any network meeting here and the first words are almost always "No Period" followed by a discussion of how much they're enjoying "Rome" and "Life on Mars".

Why? I wish I knew. Because I think the lack of commitment to recounting our shared experiences and defining events will take us down the road we're already so clearly on -- not knowing where we came from and having no idea where we're going.

And since there's a good chance there will never be a film about Billy Bishop before he is completely forgotten -- here's a taste of the story that will be lost.


Diane Kristine said...

I know where you're coming from, but this screams for a reform of our school system rather than our TV industry to me. Are they not teaching this stuff anymore?

blueglow said...

While I agree with some of what you're saying I'm a little confused about some of the points you're making.

While I agree that right now at the CBC Canadian Historical drama is not top priority (lets see how long the Stepford Wives stick around) there has been plenty of it over the years. Plenty.

Trudeau X 2, Canada Russia, October Crisis, the wierd ass Quebec fascist family, Butterbox Babies, the thingee in NFLD about the bomber squadron, Avro Arrow, Levesque, the wierd ass thing about Hemmingway fighting Callahan, tommy douglas, halifax harbour explosion etc...

whether they were any good or not is another question but some of them were "uplifting" (even though I tend to agree with you that us Canuck's see a happy ending as either the kiss of death or ultimate sell out.)

also you can't make a TV movie right now if it hasn't been ripped from the Canadian headlines so I'm not sure the networks are completely responsible for making a nation of amnesiacs because they have, over the years, given us our fill of Canadian history and news stories in a dramatic form.

I'd also be curious as to how many big event series and MOW's are done about American history -- I remember North and South and Roots but that was a long time ago...

Dwight Williams said...

I am NOT giving up.

Working in comics, not TV or film, but I am still NOT giving up.

Been wanting to be a comics artist since I was four, and everyone's gotta pick a specialty and run with it, right?

jimhenshaw said...

Diane -- I agree with you. it's never just one thing. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with education and the fact that a large part of our population has a greater awareness of events in Asia, Africa or Eastern Europe because that's where they're originally from. But perhaps all the more reason to ramp up what these new or school age Canadians can learn from television.

And Blueglow, you're also correct, but your list covers more than a decade of production -- what're we averaging 2-3 prgrams a year? And have you noticed how many of those projects are bios of politicians or political issues.

Jennifer Smith said...

I just finished composing a 500 word response to this that I very nearly inflicted on you as a comment.

Thankfully, I thought better of it and decided to post it on my own damned blog instead.

The gist: tell the stories of ordinary/extraordinary people like your grandfather, in school or on TV, and the awareness and understanding of events like Vimy will follow.

I will also point out that while most Americans may have heard of The Alamo and Pearl Harbor, I wouldn't lay odds on how many can tell you anything about these events beyond the movie titles.

(BTW, I’m guessing the script idea I had about my great-grandfather's 19th century heresy trial doesn’t have hope in hell?)

Anonymous said...

Contrary to what the Who said, the kids are not alright. And it is largely our fault, through the school system. Kids aren't our future, they're just more targets for advertising. Ratings begets advertising and it is hard to see the forest for the trees, or the content for the commodities...

Riddley Walker said...

Billy Bishop, Victoria Cross...

No-one wants to make a movie of this?

We’re seriously screwed.