Why Hinterland Who's Who, a nostalgic sliver of Canadiana, still matters today
'They were an early warning system that we now recognize,' says author Andrew Burke
A familiar flute melody, short profiles of animals native to Canada and a call-to-action to learn more featuring the Wildlife Service Commission at the end.
If nostalgia is kicking in, you probably grew up watching Hinterland Who's Who, made by the National Film Board of Canada, in the 1960s and 1970s.
"It's incredibly evocative … one of those things from the past that has stuck so tenaciously in people's memory over the course of decades," said author and TV historian Andrew Burke.
The shorts featured animals such as the woodchuck, caribou, snowy owl, and Canada goose.
Burke's latest book, Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory, and the Canadian 1970s, delves into various forms of cultural memory that are related to the little everyday things that were part of the Canadian cultural landscape.
"Hinterland had a purpose, which was to teach people about the natural environment, but also to create a sense of urgency about the need to save it, because there was a very real risk of it being lost," he told Piya Chattopadhyay, host of The Sunday Magazine.
Here is part of their conversation.
What kind of feels do you get watching Hinterland Who's Who?
[They] were in some ways completely mesmerizing in their slow, deliberateness of the delivery of information about these animals.
How was Hinterland conceived?
It came together because the Canadian Wildlife Service saw the opportunity with television to provide information about animals and the natural world, but also about a specifically Canadian nature that they had obviously a political investment in informing the public about, but also protecting. I think that was the initial motivation: harnessing the power of television as a kind of educational medium for the nation.
One of the things that marks the Hinterland series is that the shorts are very formulaic. They start out with that familiar theme song. The animal is introduced [with] shots in its natural environment and facts given by a voiceover narrator. Then we always have that invitation at the end — if viewers are interested in such and such animal, why not write the Canadian Wildlife Service, Spark Street, Ottawa? So one of the things that makes it very memorable is the formulaic-ness of the shorts.
A few <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCSunday?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCSunday</a> listeners have been in touch to ask what you actually got if you wrote to Ottawa to get a more complete story of the animals and the answer is Hinterland Who's Who brochures! Here are a few of my favourites. <a href="https://t.co/48RLL4XbpG">https://t.co/48RLL4XbpG</a> <a href="https://t.co/dDnBD5CfQk">pic.twitter.com/dDnBD5CfQk</a>—@aabwpg
You write that these shorts were educational, but also political.
The first series was in 1963 — the Silent Spring, Rachel Carson era. The glimmerings of a modern environmental movement are relatively simultaneous to the development of the Hinterlands ... By the time you get to the 1970s, the decade is fraught with environmental anxieties and even deep fears of ecological catastrophe. There's a strange way in which the Hinterland shorts are in deep dialogue with those fears and anxieties that people had about pollution, the degradation of the environment, the loss of natural habitat and even the extinction of species. That comes out at least a little bit in the melancholic, elegiac tone that the Hinterland shorts have.
Hinterland Who's Who is a riff off an actual book called The Who's Who about notable cultural, social, political Canadians.
That in some ways is the perfect example of it being a government project or product — that it riffs on the name of a book resource that names important people. And these are the important animals in Canada, too. So the joke works at a pretty profound level.
What were some of the alternative titles under consideration?
A whole bunch, largely circling around the idea of the backwoods of Canada, the wild or wildlife — Backwoods Census, Sixty-Three Naturaliste, Sixty-Three Wildlife Census, Wildlife Parade, Untamed Residents, Backwood Citizens, Citizens of the Wild.
Finally, they got onto Who's Who and were clearly playing around with the variations they could generate from it in Canada's backwoods … you can almost see the process by which they eventually get around to Hinterland Who's Who.
Why do you think Hinterland had such lasting power?
They were a bit unusual and unsettling, even though they had a positive political message behind them — about [paying] attention to the environment, the need to take care of these animals and their natural habitats. There was still a kind of menace behind them, an anxiety that we might not be able to do this. It might already be too late. The world might already be heading towards a catastrophic environmental situation. So it had this combination of educational programming with a hint of the atmosphere of '70s sci-fi … That overall mood, tone or atmosphere is quite common in people's memories of these shorts and how they still feel for them today when they see them again.
How relevant are the ideas Hinterlands put forth to Canadians today, to our current ecological and cultural identity and identities?
They come back into play at least in part because they were an early warning system that we now recognize in the present that we didn't heed. We maybe didn't listen closely enough to the melancholic voice that was alarming us to the fact that things have to change if we want life on Earth to continue, if we don't want to degrade the environment.
There's something more for me as a television historian, thinking about the ways in which the traces of the past and the televisual past persist, not simply on tape, film and archives, but in people's memories as well … Their memory is populated by all kinds of other stuff — the everyday, incidental and even fairly minor stuff that was just interstitial to real life, to the actual programming on television. But the fact that it was interstitial doesn't mean that it didn't have a huge emotional and cultural impact.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Jessica Linzey.