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One Story, Many Perspectives
"C'est presque impossible."
That's what senior producer Hubert Gendron says he thought when the CBC/Radio-Canada co-production of the history of Canada got underway in 1997. "History is a very powerful subject in this country. So the notion of doing exactly the same show in French and English and striking everybody's responsive chords seemed like an incredible challenge."
But if anyone could pull it off, Mark Starowicz --
30-year CBC veteran and the force behind some of the corporation's most successful programs in radio and TV -- had a good chance of doing it.
And for Claude Saint-Laurent, the general news director at Radio-Canada, it was about time. "For once," he told Starowicz in an initial meeting about the project, "let's put the same story on both networks at the same time and let both of our people see the same story." So, the co-production, with one story, one executive producer, and one team was born.
A group of experienced journalists charted the editorial direction of the series with two senior producers: Gordon Henderson in Toronto and Hubert Gendron in Montreal. They oversaw the creation of 17 episodes with 14 production teams. Gene Allen, a CBC journalist with a doctorate in Canadian history, directed the research. Louis Martin, editorial director and Mario Cardinal, editorial adviser, guaranteed the journalistic quality of the series.
Even with the team's experience and expertise, Gendron was right. They faced a challenge. "One of the really interesting things about this series has been trying to come up with something that's going to play in English to an English-speaking audience and is going to play in French to a French-speaking audience," says senior director of research, Gene Allen.
Allen says the challenge was partly overcome by the collaborative process of discussing how a story should be presented and by making all the decisions by consensus. "At some point the colleagues in Montreal will say: 'you know, there's not enough on this aspect of the story that will be of interest to our French Canadian audience' and we'll listen to them and we'll say to them at times: 'there's not enough on this aspect of the story that's going to be of interest to our English Canadian audience,' and they'll listen to us."
Beyond the difficulties of trying to find one story to play to the two language groups, the project faced the task of addressing the perspectives of each of Canada's provinces.
"There's no such thing as a national Canadian history ... every region has its own myths," says Gendron. The team had to weave each province's strong sense of its own history into one historical narrative.
But there was no way to tell every Canadian story in the 32 hours of the series, so choices needed to be made. "The main thing is, we approached this as journalists," says senior producer Gordon Henderson. "We focus on what are the most important stories the most interesting stories, human stories ... and then politics don't matter and agendas don't matter."
The choices won't necessarily please everybody, but that's part of what the team bargained for.
"It's obviously the case that any piece of historical writing is going to irritate some people, please other people, provoke a third section of people," says Ramsay Cook, general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and adviser on the project. "I hope that most people are provoked, that they're neither put off by it, nor find it absolutely their point of view, because that's what, I think, the study of history is. It's thinking about the past, provoking questions about the past."
For Jean-Claude Robert, another adviser on the project and head of the history department at the Université du Québec à Montréal, the series succeeded in presenting different perspectives.
"In Canada there are at least three versions of history: that of the English, that of the French and that of the Native peoples. Soon there will also be that of the immigrants, those who are neither French, nor English, nor Native. It's a matter of taking all these interpretations into account. I think that we have managed to reconcile at least two of the principal points of view and in that sense, it's a success."
Some viewers will hear certain stories and certain points of view for the first time. Beyond provoking questions about the past, Starowicz says the stories are likely to provoke a human response in the audience.
"That, for me, is the dramatic centre," Starowicz says, "that if you're in Calgary, you will be moved by the story of the dispossessed and the wretched of Paris that came here with nothing but a wilderness. And that if you're in Quebec City and in St. Jerome, the story of the Selkirk settlers is just as moving and just as extraordinary as the story of the filles du roi, because it's human ... just the drama of hope and love and war and loss.
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