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Re-enacting History

Canada: A people's history is essentially reality TV: real people, real stories, real life, from really long ago. The challenge for the series producers was to tell those stories in a way that will make the characters and events come alive.

"The biggest challenge I think the series had was to try to depict history in a way that was believable, in a way that gave people a feeling that we could put them in the time in which this stuff took place," says Laine Drewery, director of Episode 5: A Question of Loyalties. "The trick is to try to make it look and feel as though we caught it on the run."

It wasn't an easy trick to accomplish since most of the action in the first set of episodes takes place before the advent of film and photography. The events, based on written records of the stories and the people who lived them, had to be recreated with the help of some of the keepers of Canada's history: reenactment societies from across the country.

"We had very good research on what people wore, on what they ate, on where they lived, on the tools that they used to work with, and the military history has been quite well documented," says Drewery. With the help of the reenactment groups, the team was able to put it all on screen.

Peter Twist, a military consultant on the series and re-enactor with Toronto-based The King's Regiment in the Canadas, helped the producers make the leap from the historic text to realistic on-screen action. "In addition to bringing colour and action to the series, re-enactors bring an extraordinary depth of knowledge and expertise," Twist says.

More than 200 hobbyists from more than 20 organizations across the country were involved in the reenactments, representing various times, places and groups of people in Canadian history. The re-enactors would often bring their own basic equipment, including shoes and firearms, mimicking the past down to the last detail. Many of the re-enactors appeared in several different re-creations, portraying battles in the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the 1837 Rebellion, the Fenean Raids and the 1885 North West Rebellion.

Members of the Société de reconstitution historique du Qu�bec participated in eight different battle and invasion scenes, including representations of both the French and British armies in the dramatic portrayal of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Authentic artillery and the flags and colours of each regiment made the scene look as lifelike as possible. It was enough to make Mark Starowicz, the series' Executive Producer, feel as if he were there: "When those cannons went off and the field filled with smoke, you were there, I mean you were scared, you really got an idea of how terrifying it was to see battle from down there."

Consultant Peter Twist says the role of the re-enactors is to create a visual sense of what an era looked like, down to the mannerisms particular to the time. People behaved very differently 300 years ago and that had to be portrayed on the screen.

Those differences were even more of a challenge for the actors who portrayed specific characters in the series. Christopher Jacot, a Toronto actor who played the young Pierre Boucher in Episode 2: Adventurers and Mystics, says it was difficult to make the old words in the script seem natural.

"When I first read it ... I thought there was something wrong with the translation. Because it's different phonetically than the way we would write now ... the way it sounded, it was just completely different from what I normally read," Jacot says.

The use and delivery of those original words - the words not only of Boucher in New France but also of ordinary soldiers, of ordinary settlers and of generals and political leaders during many of the country's significant moments - give the series its mantra: Canadian history, through the eyes of the people who lived it.

"And yes, it's kind of haunting," says Jacot. "You're in this dark studio with these cameras all around you and you can't really see anything ... and I'm standing there in the mirror and I've got this wig on and all of a sudden, I'm speaking these words that [Boucher] wrote. It's an eerie experience."

More than 200 actors from across the country play major roles in the series, making the familiar characters from Canadian history seem more real and introducing others whom we may never have heard of. Gail Carr, casting agent for the series, says she was impressed by the response of so many Canadian actors and the way they cared about the project. Many of them, she says, travelled long distances and played their roles mostly for the love of Canadian history.

The series directors worked closely with the actors in order to get beyond the historical legends, to portray more of their true character. Director Laine Drewery says in some cases it was a matter of sharing one anecdote or example to illustrate the nature of the character. "For example with [General Isaac] Brock, it's saying, Brock wasn't just a soldier and a hero, as he is in Canadian history now ... He was the sort of guy who, if two or three of his men deserted, he would go out himself and hunt them down and have them shot in front of the rest of the men. You tell somebody a story like that and it changes the way they're going to perform that character."

Besides struggling with awkward language and trying to understand a character in the historical context, actors and extras in the series faced some other unexpected trials. Claude Berardelli, an extra and also a researcher who plays the non-speaking parts of Samuel de Champlain, says the historical costumes were sometimes an extra burden. "I had to wear armour that weighed about ten kilograms, in front and behind. The helmet weighed at least two kilograms and under the helmet I had to wear a wig and a toque. Imagine wearing all this in August, when it's 30 degrees. It felt like you were in an oven. I have a lot of respect for Champlain.
Laine Drewery, Director of Episode 5: A Question of Loyalties.
Laine Drewery

Director of Episode 5: A Question of Loyalties.

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Little-known stories about historic figures helped the actors to portray their true character.

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