Part of our heritage: Ottawa couple aims to road trip all 87 Heritage Minutes

An Ottawa couple who are super fans of the 60-second segments are on a coast-to-coast quest to visit a location related to each of the 87 Heritage Minutes.

'This is extra nerdy. This is very nerdy,' says Minutes road tripper Jim Ellwood

Ottawa couple Jim Ellwood and Rebecca Bartlett are on a quest to visit a location associated with every single Heritage Minute. Here they are in the mine at the Springhill Miners’ Museum in Nova Scotia, inspired by the Heritage Minute about Maurice Ruddick, an Afro-Canadian coal miner who survived the 1958 mining disaster. (Jim Ellwood)

There have been homages to the beloved Heritage Minutes since they first aired more than two decades ago: there are fan-made posters, lists ranking every single minute from best to worst, carefully crafted musical tributes, even PhDs penned about them.

But an Ottawa couple who are superfans of the 60-second vignettes are hoping to top all that — Rebecca Bartlett and Jim Ellwood are on a coast-to-coast quest to visit a location related to each of the 87 Heritage Minutes.

They started in Quebec City in March and have already whizzed through 32 stops; from birthplaces and tombstones to museums and statues.

The minute about inventor Guglielmo Marconi and the first transatlantic radio message took them to Signal Hill in St. John's, where that message was received. For the Avro Arrow minute, the couple visited the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, where bits of the scrapped plane are stored.

The couple visited Cape Bonavista, N.L., in early June, home of this John Cabot statue and a lot of fog. The explorer's Heritage Minute is set on a boat off the coast of the province. (Jim Ellwood)

For the more abstract Minutes — like the ones about midwives or orphans — it was a lot harder to pin down a location.

"There aren't any plaques or any specific people we could visit or places we could visit that have any sort of important significance," said Ellwood, a software designer. "Some of them were pretty contentious in the grand scheme. So we had to do some research for some of them."

'This is very nerdy'

They've plotted out a daunting Newfoundland to British Columbia itinerary, which they hope to finish by the end of 2018; their rules are the spots can only be in Canada and have to be road trippable from Ottawa. 

They could do it faster, but it's expensive (they are self-financing) and they travel on their vacation time.

Saint John, N.B. is home to the Paris Crew, a group of oarsmen who won a world rowing championship in France back in 1867. Elijah Ross, one of the members of the Paris Crew, was a lighthouse keeper at Fort Dufferin. Here's the view he would have seen and the harbour where the crew practised. (Jim Ellwood)

"We realize that this is very nerdy. We spent a lot of time on this and you don't spend a lot of time doing something like this. And the research took hours," said Bartlett, whose job as a GIS (geographic information system) librarian has come in handy.

"Going through 87 minutes takes time and we did it on our free time and then planned these trips, so yes, this is nerdy."

Heritage Minutes in review: what the superfans think

  • Ellwood's favourite Minute is the one on Sam Steele, a Yukon Mountie who served during the Klondike Gold Rush.
  • Growing up, Bartlett loved the Minute on Second World War pilot Marion Orr. "I basically just wanted to be her," Bartlett said.
  • Bartlett's new favourite is the Minute about Nova Scotia civil rights icon Viola Desmond.
  • The couple both hate the same Minute the most: the one about Joe Shuster, who created Superman. They question the extent of his Canadian ties. "That's not a popular opinion from what we understand."

They are a tad worried Historica Canada — the group who makes the Minutes — will roll out a new one based in a far-flung place they've already visited.

"We almost have to just sort of race to finish so we don't get caught with a Minute," Ellwood said.

'Our people on the road'

The staff at Historica Canada have been tracking the couple's travels and have a few nicknames to refer to them around the office — "day trippers," "road trippers," "our people on the road."

"We've kind of adopted them in spirit because of course they are undertaking something so close to our hearts," said Anthony Wilson-Smith, the group's president and CEO.

It may look insignificant but this Toronto post actually marks the birthplace of standard time, proposed by Sir Sandford Fleming (who was given his own Heritage Minute). Here, Historica Canada's Anthony Wilson-Smith poses with the post but the plaque marking the event is missing. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

He thinks they are the first people to do a full-out road trip with the Minutes as their guide. The couple dropped by the Historica office when they were in Toronto and reached out for some advice while planning.

"It's a desire to learn about the country, to explore, to find out about Minutes from different eras and ... to expand their knowledge in doing that," Wilson-Smith said. 

"I think it's the ultimate cool thing."

History of epic road trips

The next stop for the couple is Montreal, where they will be able to scratch another 10 Heritage Minutes off their list. After that, Ellwood's itching to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., for Laura Secord's house, who happens to be his "great great great great great aunt."

While the trip may sound intense to some, Ellwood and Bartlett said it doesn't come as a surprise to their family and friends. Ellwood once swam all five Great Lakes in a day.

"My parents are sort of like 'aw, not again,'" he jokes.

They both grew up watching the Minutes on television and have a certain nostalgia for them. Historica Canada said they still show on TV about 115,000 times a year but the audience has largely shifted online.

For the Heritage Minute on orphans, the couple decided to visit Quebec's Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. Many orphans came into Canada through the quarantine station, one of the main entry points for immigrants during the 1800s. (Jim Ellwood)

"Fifteen years ago, I bought a DVD of the ones that then existed and I've put it on at parties," Ellwood said. "Everyone sits there and watches. It's amazing and they quote them." The couple figures they have watched every single minute five or 10 times, and they believe they will never tire of them.

"No one has questioned our sanity," Bartlett said.


Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.