Arts

In Canada, Sesame Street taught kids more than the ABCs

Before the show turns 50, learn the story of how an American TV show wound up shaping Canadian identity.

C is for CanCon. How an American TV show wound up shaping Canadian identity

The cast of Sesame Street circa 2006. (AP Photo/PBS)

On Nov. 10, Sesame Street turns 50, and to state the obvious, plenty has changed — even if Big Bird's still learning to count that high. In 1969, kids actually watched a thing called television. Oscar the Grouch? He was orange. And Cookie Monster's diet sure didn't look like Captain Vegetable's.

But over the decades, Sesame Street's educational bent has never wavered, remaining as constant and true as a loyal rubber duckie. Generations of preschoolers have learned their ABCs watching Sesame Street. They've learned about friendship and kindness and the consequences of eating in bed. And for kids growing up on this side of the border, there was a bonus lesson snuck in: Sesame Street taught us how to be Canadian. 

W is for what?!

Matthew Hayday is a history professor at the University of Guelph who researches Canadian children's media, and he's studied the show's influence on national identity. In 2016, he published a paper on the topic. (Its spot-on title? "Brought To You by the Letters C,R,T, and C: Sesame Street and Canadian Nationalism.") And the paper charts the twisted journey of how Sesame Street, a staple of just about every North American childhood, even made it to our airwaves.

Sesame Street in 1969. The series marks its 50th anniversary on Nov. 10. (Getty Images)

Surprised by all that? He was, too. So let's rehash a bunch of the details.  

It's not like Sesame Street itself is Canadian. Oscar occasionally talks up his family from the Maritimes, but sure as you won't find a Brooklyn brownstone in Vancouver, that bit's obvious. The show's a U.S. creation, developed by the New York–based Children's Television Workshop (CTW), and it was first broadcast on American networks. Indeed, it wouldn't officially hit Canadian TV until Sept. 28, 1970, when CBC and its 32 affiliate stations around the country picked up the show, then billed (in a CBC press release) as a "revolutionary educational series."

Here's some old footage of Lloyd Robertson announcing that news on CBC. (He throws to a clip of O.G. Sesame Street, too — and through 2019 eyes, it's like something from another dimension.)

Lloyd Robertson announces some big news for the fall 1970 TV schedule. Sesame Street is coming to Canada, and this was the exclusive first look. 0:56

By 1973, the episodes of Sesame Street appearing on CBC were including Canadian-made content. Segments from the American episodes were redubbed in French. Americanisms were eliminated, replaced with our own linguistic quirks ("zees" were now "zeds," etc.). Original clips were produced, designed to reflect Canadian life. And if you were a toddler any time between the '70s and the '90s, you probably know as much. Surfing between the morning CBC broadcast and the one on PBS (if you happened to have cable), those were the telltale signs distinguishing the show's regional flavour, the dab of maple syrup in Sesame Street's all-American apple pie.

How'd he get to Sesame Street?

Hayday's previously written about language policy and the history of Canada's national character. "It all dovetails around this theme about how Canadian identity is constructed," he says, talking about his work. A few years ago, he was researching the influence of Canadian TV, when his focus turned to homegrown kids' shows. And to him, it seemed few programs, if any, had shaken the definition of "Canadian content" quite like Sesame Street.

In 1968, the year before Sesame Street's debut, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was established, and with it came some new rules for regulating TV and radio, including quotas for Canadian-made fare. There was already a veritable Tickle Trunk of Canadian kids' shows available. (That old Lloyd Robertson clip even names a bunch of them.) But Sesame Street was an international phenom upon arrival, and people were still desperate to see it in 1971. (To wit: this clip from a 1971 CBC documentary about — you guessed it — Sesame Street.)

In 1971, CBC visited the Children's Television Workshop in New York to get the story behind a "unique, experimental series" called Sesame Street. The documentary originally aired on the CBC series Telescope. 1:52

The show had its critics. Some were suspicious to the point of loathing. As reported in a 1971 Globe and Mail story, the BBC vowed not to show it, declaring it "authoritarian" in tone and a "dangerous use of television." But in January of 1970, mere months after its American premiere, Hayday says the CBC was already meeting with CTW, talking about bringing it to Canada.

Sesame under siege

If you can still remember your preschool habits, you might recall the constant presence of Sesame Street — like a televisual security blanket that would appear five days a week, never ceasing its gentle mayhem for a commercial break. The segments were specifically designed to look like ads, sure, but the show didn't sell anything beyond the 3Rs. And it never overlapped with other Sesame broadcasts in a given region, meaning a kid could sing along to "The Alligator King" multiple times a day. Those were the rules laid out by CTW, and if a network wanted the show, it would follow them.

But even one hour of Sesame Street is a lot of American content — a lot of American content that a station can't turn into ad dollars — so within months of Sesame Street's CBC premiere, its longevity (at least on Canadian TV) was under threat, as CBC affiliates struggled to afford it. And when the public got word, they took action ... often dragging their kids along for some mommy-and-me activism.

Sesame Street complicated understandings about what Canadians wanted to do in terms of protecting Canadian culture.- Matthew Hayday, professor of history at the University of Guelph

In February of 1971, the Globe and Mail ran a TV column breaking down the basic conflict. According to the story, ("Can CBC keep Sesame Street?") the CRTC looked the other way during the show's first season on CBC. But the show was devouring a fifth of CBC's allowed foreign programming, and if they wanted to keep it on the air going forward, the network would have to chop some lucrative American shows from the schedule. The writer pitches a solution: Send a "flood of letters" to the CRTC, "demanding that Sesame Street be retained no matter what exceptions have to be made."

And that's not the only example of a rallying cry in the media. Hayday turns up some similar instances in his research, including some unusually effective pleas out of Calgary. By February 1971, the same month that Globe column ran, the CRTC received more than 8,000 letters from Calgary alone. And concerned moms were sending letters to the editor, too. A Mrs. Elizabeth Crawford — president of the Don Mills Save Sesame Street Society (!!!) — wrote the Toronto Star that same month: "Of course, I agree that there should be a limit on foreign content on our Canadian TV stations, but surely let's not remove one of the best programs we have just because it comes from across the border."

Politicians were squawking about it, too. Hayday writes about the chatter in Parliament, and how Progressive Conservative MPs from Alberta and New Brunswick wound up weaponizing Sesame Street while arguing over CRTC restrictions. The CRTC's CanCon definition was too strict, they argued. To keep Sesame Street from Canada would be to deprive the nation's children of "one of the finest educational tools ever devised," they wailed, demanding that "programs of international renown" get a pass. 

Gordon and Susan hang out with some of their Muppet neighbours in 1970. (Getty Images)

"In a period of very heightened nationalism, Sesame Street complicated understandings about what Canadians wanted to do in terms of protecting Canadian culture," says Hayday.

But by September of 1972, the high cost of Sesame led more than half of the CBC affiliates to drop the show. The locals revolted. Hayday mentions a few examples from around the country, including a protest in Kingston, Ont., where parents and toddlers picketed the station. (Actual things written on actual signs: "Bring Back Bert!" and "Where is Ernie? I Miss Him.") A day later, the station program manager bowed to demands.

"That was all new to me!" says Hayday. "I had no idea that Sesame Street was basically a test case for Canadian content regulations that were being imposed in that period, and that there would be such vehement parental interest in it was also a surprise."

New lesson plan

While parents were leading pro-Sesame demonstrations, a solution was already in the works. In 1972, CTW gave CBC the go-ahead to produce their own segments. Those Canadian-made clips would add some CanCon to the broadcast, theoretically freeing up a few precious minutes on the schedule for (money-making) American shows.

But that wasn't the only objective. Producers were out to teach kids about being Canadian, and in the early '70s, so much about Canadian culture was (technically) brand new. Multiculturalism? It was declared an official policy in 1971. Bilingualism? That was made official in 1969. Even the maple leaf flag was a baby. (It was introduced in 1965.)

"Language is first and foremost. That was one of the big priorities," says Hayday. "Multiculturalism was a big piece of what they wanted to do, especially as you got to the late 1970s. Indigenous content." According to Hayday, one of the earliest Canadian-made clips was about a Cree boy, Peter John, who lived in a Manitoba reserve community. It was one part of a series of vignettes that dropped in on kids all over the country. "You had these sort of segments to expose Canadians to different ways that Canadians lived."

Clips about things like coins and provincial flowers and other iconography were thrown in the mix, Hayday explains. "So, very basic elements of Canadian-ness," he says. "It wasn't anything grandiose, necessarily. A basic introduction to Canadian symbols, issues and Canadian values around diversity and linguistic duality were being put forward in those segments." And those values synched up with Sesame Street's inclusive ethos nicely.

CBC's Canadian Sesame Street Muppets. That's Basil, Louis and Dodi (L-R). (CBC Still Photo Collection)

"There's a major difference between people who grew up in the '50s and '60s and the '70s and '80s about the extent they just absorbed bilingualism as almost a motherhood value of Canada. And multiculturalism, the same way," says Hayday. Of course, Big Bird's not entirely responsible. (Neither are Basil, Dodi and Louis — the Canadian Muppets who eventually debuted in 1987.) Says Hayday: "As a historian, I'm not really equipped to judge what the reception of it was." But he knows what his own experience has been.

"The reason that I'm open to language learning and English–French relations is because I would have learned how to count my numbers in French by watching Sesame Street," he says. 

"I implicitly accept multiculturalism and diversity because there were images of parents and children from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds being presented to me from when I was very small, so that was normal to me. It really speaks to the power of children's television to normalize different things that you never think to question."

Now that it's 50 years old, it seems impossible to imagine a world without Sesame Street (which is probably how most four-year-olds have felt about it, no matter when they were watching). So it's interesting to think that the show introduced the youngest Canadians to the country's newest ideas about national identity. 

Maybe it had an impact. Or maybe the only lasting effect is nostalgia.

Either way, if you grew up on the show, you probably remember this song.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.