Canada 2017·Opinion

I ranked all the Heritage Minutes. How do the new ones compare to the old?

As they grapple with its past, the minutes balance celebrations of national archetypes with more diverse and honest portrayals of how our country came to be.

(Disclaimer: I'm a fan of all things hokey and awkwardly scripted.)

One of the newer Canadian Heritage Minutes is of Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope. (Historica Canada/YouTube screenshot)

It's no secret that Canada's celebrating 150 years since Confederation. So far we've seen festivals, concerts and all kinds of retrospectives. 

But I can't help but wonder if any one celebration will have the cultural impact of Heritage Minutes. Yes, I'm talking about the series of educational commercials with inconsistent production values that first launched in the 90s. 

Heritage Minutes are … well, part of our heritage at this point. The minute-long vignettes about significant Canadian people, inventions and events were first made in 1991 and to this day, there's still a fanbase around them.  

Perhaps it's because they counted for 90 seconds of Canadian content for regulators, meaning they were replayed early and often during commercial breaks on children's programming. 

But I suspect it's also because they hit a sweet spot of earnest and silly, entertaining and educational, with a unique form that created plenty of memorable moments.   

I know, because for some stupid reason, I watched, rewatched, analyzed and ranked every single Heritage Minute. 

'Some kind of Canadian joke?'

I can't really tell you what compelled me to rank all the Heritage Minutes and write about them three years ago.  

What I can say is that if you watch each one again and again, you start to notice certain things repeat themselves.

The music/costumes/hairstyles are deliciously over the top. The fact something is happening in Canada, or to a Canadian, is clumsily relayed through a bit of exposition masquerading as dialogue. Often, a powerful white man is skeptical that a less powerful person can complete their goal. 

(Spoiler alert: the person usually completes their goal)

'I'm an American, you can't do this to me'

And near the end, everything slows down so that the point of the minute comes through — sometimes with someone uttering a phrase like "Come on, acknowledge!" or "I can smell burnt toast!" — in a way that's obvious enough for children to understand. 

But what's equally interesting is the types of stories told in these Heritage Minutes. Of the 75 originally-aired minutes, 10 are based around Canadians serving in combat, 12 are based around Canadians inventing or inspiring something (or Canadian bears, in the case of Winnie the Pooh), and 8 are based around Canadians beating Americans at something, being less violent than Americans, or being less racist than Americans

By the same token, just two were about people or events in British Columbia, along with two from Alberta. Just one was about Asian immigrants. All three stories about Afro-Canadians or Americans focused on racism from Americans. And of the seven stories involving Indigenous Canadians, six were told from the perspective of white people.

 

New minutes more inclusive

Those are the old minutes. After a years-long hiatus, new productions started being released in 2012, and while the first ones spoke to traditional themes — hockey, beating the Americans, and 19th century politics in Upper and Lower Canada — recent ones have portrayed a part of the Canadian experience less explored in this medium. 

Racial discrimination. Broken treaties. Residential schools. And the most recent minute, on Vietnamese refugees fleeing to Canada.   

The new minutes aren't as hokey or awkwardly scripted. They're usually less geared towards kids than their predecessors. But they're powerful, and play off a generation's worth of equity and nostalgia for Heritage Minutes to get attention on parts of Canadian history worthy of discussion. 

How we tell Canada's story evolves

Trying to say whether the new Heritage Minutes are "better" than the old ones is difficult. 

I'm a sucker for nostalgia and cringeworthy dialogue, so the old minutes will probably always have a higher spot on my list.  And while the new shorts are effective for my generation, I wonder whether they will be as effective with kids who know less about the weighty history that surrounds them. 

Yet whether you like the new or old ones more, it's noteworthy that the way Heritage Minutes tell the story of Canada continues to evolve. 

As they grapple with its past, the minutes balance celebrations of national archetypes with more diverse and honest portrayals of how our country came to be.      

Which, in itself, is a story that is part….

You know the phrase. 

Do you have a favourite Heritage Minute? Which vignette would top your list? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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