Secret Life of Canada

The Secret Life of Canada wants a word with your history teacher

This unconventional podcast is for "people who want to have a critical discussion about Canadian history — but not fall asleep," according to Leah-Simone Bowen and her co-host Falen Johnson.

Hit indie podcast about Canada's hidden histories has joined CBC Podcasts

Falen Johnson and Leah-Simone Bowen co-host The Secret Life of Canada, a history podcast about the country you know and the stories you don't. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

Falen Johnson can't tell you what she learned about Indigenous histories in high school.

All she remembers from her "Native Studies" course was watching Black Robe — a film about a Jesuit missionary in New France — and drawing movie posters. It wasn't until college that she questioned that curriculum.

"I was like: 'Wait … I don't know anything about myself','" said the Mohawk and Tuscarora playwright from Six Nations.

Her fascination with history began as an attempt to fill in the gaps.

Similarly, fellow playwright Leah-Simone Bowen felt that there had to be more to Canada's story.

Along with producer Katie Jensen, they launched The Secret Life of Canada in 2017, an indie podcast about this nation's untold and under-told histories.

Apparently, they hit a nerve.

"Almost immediately after we launched last year, teachers started emailing us," said Bowen, a first generation Canadian from Alberta with roots in Barbados.

The team is now set to join the CBC Podcasts family for its second season. In the lead-up to their CBC debut (coming Tuesday, Oct. 2) the co-hosts spoke with the CBC Podcasts team to discuss their creative process and where they hope to take their podcast in the future.

The Secret Life of Canada's new logo features the co-hosts deep in research mode. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

What spurred you to start this podcast last year?

Leah-Simone Bowen: Two reasons: Canada 150 and the immediacy of podcasting. As Canada marked 150 years of Confederation in 2017, we saw a lot of projects celebrating the same Canadian history moments that most of us know — the War of 1812, bringing home the Constitution, etc.

Meanwhile, we had all of this research from playwriting that told a very different story about our history and we wanted to get it out there as fast as possible. Most plays take two to seven years to produce. Podcasting seemed accessible and quick.

Falen Johnson: Going through the Canadian education system, I learned next to nothing about my history. Teachers were ill-equipped most of the time to speak to Indigenous history, and who could blame them? They went through the same education I did and theirs was even more outdated.

I want to be a part of the shift I see happening. I think in many ways, Canada's past has been slowly revealing itself. We are in a post-Truth and Reconciliation country, and we are living in a time when there is a bit more reflection happening.

What is this place that we live in? What happens next? I wanted to be a part of that revealing, that conversation.

Johnson reads a rare book that must be handled with gloves while on a research trip to Banff. She and Bowen have spent countless hours in the stacks. (Leah-Simone Bowen)

What can people expect when they listen? Who is this podcast for?

LSB: It's a weird podcast. So expect some quirky moments because it blends really difficult history with random conversations about pop culture.

FJ: Yeah, serious research with a sprinkle of Beyonce.

LSB: Like all history, it's curated. We pick the stories we feel are under-told and we have very specific viewpoints, so it's more of a conversation about history than a history lesson. It's for people who want to have a critical discussion about Canadian history — but not fall asleep.

FJ: Right. Curious people living in Canada who might question, "How did we all end up here together?" But it's not just for Canadians. I think Canada shares a similar history to other colonized countries and that there is something in understanding those intersections.  

We are in a post-Truth and Reconciliation country ...what happens next?- Falen Johnson

What are your thoughts on history? Is it one narrative with lots of layers, completely different competing versions, or something else?

FJ: History is so layered. It is multiple perspectives on top of one another but many of those layers are unseen or unheard. For so long only one layer was heard and now there are more and more Canadians interested in understanding or knowing what is underneath that first layer.

You can see it in all the land acknowledgements happening across the country. Many people are now thinking, "Wait a second … where the hell am I? What is this place?"  

How do you avoid the pitfalls of saying this is the right history and that is the wrong history?

LSB: It's complicated and of course there are so many perspectives to take into consideration. I think the word "narrative" is key. A narrative is an account of an event, so that means by definition there is a perspective and a lens through which we receive our stories.

Most often in early history, we learn things from the point of view of a select few literate men. You always have to think about who was recording events and their perspective.

For us it's not about right or wrong; it's about piecing together all of the other people who were left out of the narrative and offering an expanded view.

You made your first few episodes of The Secret Life of Canada with Passport 2017, then continued independently. What did you learn from making that first season?

LSB: I learned that people need a bit of light to wade through the darkness. I was nervous about our first episode because I wondered how people would react to the humour, but they really liked it. I also learned to never let Falen trick me into singing on an episode again.

FJ: You're welcome, Leah.

Don't forget that we had to learn the actual ins and outs of making a podcast, how to use basic equipment and mics properly, how to script a podcast, and how to approach strangers to get them to chat with us candidly. (Pro tip: farmers markets are golden.) It was a new medium for me and Leah, we leaned on our producer Katie a lot in the early days.

What do you think will be different under CBC Podcasts? And what will stay the same?

LSB: Well, we recorded the first season in a blanket fort, so really looking forward to being in an actual studio with air conditioning. But the thing I am especially excited about is getting access to CBC's archival and research material. That's such a nerdy answer, but I own it. It's true, every word.

FJ: I welled up when I saw all the resources. 

Our tone will stay the same though. We are us and I think it's important for us to maintain our voices because I think (or hope!) that is why some listeners listen.

Left to right: Bowen, Johnson and producer Katie Jensen record a promo at CBC headquarters in Toronto. 'Season two will be richer in sound and research,' says Johnson. (Fabiola Melendez Carletti/CBC)

What can you tell us about your fact-checking process?

LSB: It's layered. It begins with something we have already uncovered, usually through playwriting, and then we go back in for a deep dive. We usually spend a month hidden in the Toronto Reference Library to make notes to form the script. Then we find experts, elders and historians to interview and to solidify any research we have. After that is all done, we have a fact checker comb the script for any inaccuracies.

I am especially excited about getting access to CBC's archival and research material. That's such a nerdy answer, but I own it. It's true, every word.- Leah-Simone Bowen

FJ: There's a period of time I like to refer to as The Armageddon of Notes. The lead goes back through and addresses the notes. Then we record and try to lift the script off the page, we improvise and reword on the fly so it doesn't feel like we are straight reading.

Okay, last question: Why should we care about history? (No pressure.)

LSB: I always think of an Alice Walker quote from her early writing: "All history is current; all injustice continues on some level, somewhere in the world." I believe that is true. I don't think anything lives solely in the past. The joy and pain of lives lived, decisions and structures that were put in place hundreds of years ago, they still impact us. So if you want to get a better understanding of now, you need to look into the past.

FJ: Specifically, Canadian history is still being uncovered and reclaimed in a really interesting way. The story is still being written and still coming into the light. It's a really exciting time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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