Nova Scotia

'I need these baskets back': New podcast explores history behind Canadian Heritage Minutes

A new Halifax podcast, Minute Women, explores the full Canadian history behind the popular Heritage Minutes from Historica Canada by blending comedy and research.

'They can't say everything in one minute. What else is there to the story?'

Miali Buscemi, left, and Koomoatoo Mathewise on the set of Kenojuak Ashevak's Heritage Minute in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. The Inuit artist is the subject of one of the first Minute Women podcast episodes. (Historica Canada)

A new podcast wafting in on the smell of burnt toast and nostalgia is aiming to tackle the full Canadian history behind iconic Heritage Minutes.

Two Halifax friends in their 20s, Grace McNutt and Linnea Swinimer, go on a deep dive into the past with their new project: Minute Women.
 
"They can't say everything in one minute. What else is there to the story?" McNutt said in a recent interview alongside Swinimer.

The 60-second films became fixtures in Canadian households starting in the 1990s when they popped up between TV shows.

Most Canadians can recite their favourite Heritage Minutes quotes on the spot, whether it's Vince Coleman's heroic "Come on, come on, acknowledge" in his attempts to save a train full of people before the Halifax Explosion, or a grumpy peach basket owner telling basketball inventor James Naismith "I need these baskets back," or "I smell burnt toast" as Dr. Wilder Penfield examines a woman's brain to map where her seizures are located.

"Especially the really early ones, there's just so much comedic value in them," McNutt said. 

"Personally, I just think they're really funny to watch, and they're so melodramatic and I think that's part of the reason they're so loved."

McNutt and Swinimer, who met as curling teammates in a very Canadian moment of their own, knew they wanted to do some kind of history podcast in collaboration with producer Marc Boudreau of BNV Media.

It was McNutt, who has an undergraduate history degree and is currently taking a master's degree in Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary's University, who came up with the idea of focusing on Heritage Minutes as a "common thread through Canadian history" that people generally think of fondly.

Swinimer said when McNutt brought her the idea, she immediately quoted four Heritage Minutes on the spot.

"[McNutt] was like, 'OK, you're in,'" Swinimer laughed.

Each episode revolves around the same premise: McNutt comes armed with research to teach Swinimer about the historic details behind a certain Heritage Minute — and Swinimer doesn't know what they'll be discussing until the episode starts.

Linnea Swinimer, left, and Grace McNutt, hosts of the Minute Women podcast, are blending comedy and history to get at the full stories behind the popular Heritage Minutes. ( Ryan Williams/BNV Media)

Both hosts grew up watching Heritage Minutes, with their favourites ranging from Montreal's Expo '67 (McNutt) to Superman (Swinimer).

On car trips, McNutt remembers a family game that involved naming as many Minutes as possible, while Swinimer is connected to the Halifax Explosion thanks to a background appearance in the 2003 Shattered City miniseries.

When the hosts were planning out the first few months of the podcast with Boudreau, Swinimer joked a main goal was to find out how actor Pierce Brosnan ended up in the Grey Owl Heritage Minute.

"I mean, it's things like that. There's moments in these minutes that you just look back at, and you're like, 'Whoa, why is this happening,'" Swinimer said.

A history of the Heritage Minutes

Philanthropist Charles Bronfman created the first generation of Heritage Minutes after being disappointed in a survey showing how little national history Canadians knew, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. In 1986, Bronfman's CRB Foundation created a series of these public service announcements, structured as dramatic narratives. 

The short films were originally released in five rounds between 1991 and 2000. In 1999, the CRB Foundation created the Historica Foundation of Canada to continue building awareness of Canadian history.

A new wave of videos has also been released in recent years, including one on Nova Scotia civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond. Historica also releases educational videos, and just last month launched one about how the city's black community of Africville was bulldozed in the 1960s.

Beyond Canadian history itself, the podcast will also touch on those early vignettes.

"Just going through the catalog and figuring out like, at what time are they choosing to produce certain Minutes? I think it says a lot about the objectives of the organization that is producing them," McNutt said.

Historica's reaction

The team did approach Historica to give them a heads-up and see if they'd like to partner on the podcast, but the organization declined.

Swinimer said a silver lining about being independent is that they can have more creative liberty and fun with the project.

But Historica did suggest they use the podcast to pitch their own Heritage Minute ideas, and McNutt said she has many she'd love to see.

For example, Nova Scotia's own Joseph Howe, who argued for freedom of the press and responsible government, would make an "amazing" subject, she said.

While many Heritage Minutes are light-hearted and a little cheesy, many deal with tragic moments in Canadian history like the life of Chanie Wenjack, an Indigenous boy who died after running away from a residential school in Ontario.

McNutt said they started out with Heritage Minutes that skew on the lighter side, since they are aiming to be a comedy podcast. However, if a serious subject matter comes up they will not avoid it, because she said doing so would be the same as saying it didn't happen.

"Going forward, we're not going to be concerned with approaching some of the heavier topics and treating them the way that say they should be treated," McNutt said.

There are new Minute Women episodes each Wednesday, with four already out (Sir John A. Macdonald, Irish Orphans, Kenojuak Ashevak, and Basketball) on streaming platforms like Spotify, iTunes and Google Play.

With more than 90 Heritage Minutes produced, McNutt and Swinimer said they have lots of material to pull from to build a following, before adding in some episodes about other "iconically Canadian things."

And a very important part of the team's five-year plan? Get Pierce Brosnan as a guest — or one of the other popular actors appearing in the series like Letterkenny's Jared Keeso (Winnipeg Falcons), or Allan Hawco (Home from the Wars).

"That would be the dream," Swinimer said.

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