Telling the Story|
The narrative outlined in Canada: A People's History begins more than 15,000 years ago and follows the evolution of the men and women who established themselves on the northern half of the North American continent until the end of the 20th century.
It's one of the many possible ways to tell the story, according to series Executive Producer Mark Starowicz.
"You could do it thematically, with one episode on labour, another episode on women, another episode on ethnic groups. But we chose to do it chronologically ... because the central unifying idea of Canadian history is once there was nothing here ... and that's why we chose to do it as the growth of an entire united nations of peoples."
The team of series producers decided to use the direct testimony of these people, as expressed in their letters and personal journals. Some of these observations may be surprising or even shocking for the modern public but the producers decided to have them appear as they were written.
"It would be a violation of our journalistic approach and of our historical approach to denature those comments," explains Gene Allen, director of research. "These people did see the world differently, they had attitudes that are not the attitudes we see today. We're not saying they're right, we're just saying those are the attitudes they had."
In reproducing the historical events the team faced a risk that arises with any historical re-enactment: the possibility of sacrificing reality for fiction, in search of a more spectacular production. In this case, the series' journalistic approach, enforced by the team's editorial consultants and historical advisers, guarded against fictionalization. Along with the other producers, editorial director Louis Martin and editorial adviser Mario Cardinal kept watch over the many re-enactments in the series, making sure they were carried out with the strictest attention to detail, staying true to the facts.
Despite the invaluable collaboration of the historians over the course of the project, none of them appear on screen. The production team wanted to avoid interrupting the narrative. Gordon Henderson, Senior Producer in Toronto explains the rationale: "We don't have historians that come on and say 'now what you just saw, let me put it into perspective for you.' We don't have that ... we tell you the stories. ... We keep driving the narrative and don't stop to look at a person in a tweed suit with a bookcase behind, who'll give you his or her analysis. We let you choose what you think, we let you the viewer pull your stories out."
Episode 1: When the World Began... has a unique narrative style because it was partly built from the legends and stories of Canada's native peoples. Director Andrew Gregg explains the difficulty of creating an authentic reproduction of this time based only on the oral traditions, some several thousands of years old. "We had to find the usable oral histories that helped give a sense of what the native world was like before the Europeans got here. We don't want to say that this is what it was like ... we want to give a sense of it."
An important part of the story, Gregg says, was conveyed by images of the land itself. "So we went to North Baffin Island, the central Arctic, southern Alberta, Vancouver Island, north Yukon, out to the east coast. We went and we used the landscape because in a lot of instances in Canada the landscape hasn't changed in thousands of years."
To produce an authentic historical reconstruction and to make the viewers feel as if they had travelled back in time, the team sometimes spent several weeks scouting for locations, costumes and props that would best suit the period of an episode.
Peter Ingles, director of Episode 7: Rebellion and Reform, ran into a problem on one of his shoots, because technology has changed things so much it was difficult to find anyone doing things the old way. "The beginning of the 19th century marks the transition from the fur trade to the logging industry. One of the most important elements was the log drive, the time each year when the loggers would float all the felled wood down the river to be milled, we don't do this today."
"Reconstructing this sequence was complicated. Just as we no longer see log drives, we also don't cut wood in the same manner. During the period we cut 16-foot logs, today they're only eight feet long. It took a good three weeks to find a logging operation that could provide us with 16-foot logs, drive them into the water and transport them to a suitable location for the shoot. Then we had to find some men who could participate in the log drive, like they would have during the period. We finally found two young men who did this type of log rolling at agricultural fair demonstrations."
The series couldn't have seen the light of day if it wasn't for the cooperation of numerous historical sites, both public and private, where many of the scenes were shot. Some segments were filmed on the site were the film Black Robe was shot (in Saint-Félix-d'Otis, Quebec), on location at Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (Parks Canada), at Upper Canada Village in Ontario, or at the Village québécois d'antan in Drummondville.
"If we hadn't had access to these sites," says Hubert Gendron, Senior Producer in Montreal, "we would have had to build the sets."
"To be able to showcase these sites was very helpful and I hope that it will somehow raise the profile of the people who are responsible for these sites. We are very grateful to them.
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