CBC’s Canadian History

Reviewed by Sherrill Grace

If you’ve been a CBC fan for years, as I have, you may have wondered about the ways in which Canadian history is packaged and produced by our national television broadcaster. If you’ve been puzzled or irritated, as well as informed and entertained, then you should read this book. MacDonald has done a fine job of describing and contextualizing five major CBC history programs, beginning with Explorations in 1956 and ending with Canada: A People’s History in 2000-2001.

The trajectory MacDonald charts follows the evolving mandate of the CBC over almost fifty years and illustrates changing approaches to historiography and the rise of professional journalists who gradually took over the telling of our history from academic historians. Leading historians of Canada, like Donald Creighton and Ramsay Cook, played key roles in the creation of the CBC’s programs until the 1970s when this shift began. For many reasons, which MacDonald explains (competition, commercials, American influence, audience ratings), professional journalists supplanted the perceived stuffy professors, and Canadian history, which remained an important element in CBC’s programming, continued to be produced to entertain, as much as educate, viewers. MacDonald is careful to note that over the years the CBC has often underplayed or neglected contributions to our national history from the West and the Maritimes, and she identifies perspectives that were often ignored, such as women’s and First Nations’ voices. The result has been a national story dominated by white male exploits and nation-building, which is only today, almost twenty years after the end date of her study, being addressed.

Of the five case studies she examines, I found The National Dream (1974) and The Valour and the Horror (1992) the most compelling. The National Dream, based on books by Pierre Berton, signalled a start in that shift away from academic to popular history sources. Berton, already a recognized journalist and writer, insisted that history must be privileged over the dramatic presentation of a story, and he controlled as much of the production as he could. The Valour and the Horror, written and narrated by CBC journalists Terence and Brian McKenna, created considerable controversy with veterans’ groups, military historians, and some members of the public because it was considered too fictional and, hence, not accurate history. MacDonald’s analysis of the distinctions between documentary and docudrama film methods and goals clarifies why the series met with such opposition. The tension between these modes of filmmaking remains with us, but within the history of Canadian television’s programming, the McKenna’s series marked a watershed moment for the CBC and forced it to review its policies and practices.

There is much to learn from Recasting History about how television series are made, by whom, and with what consequences. MacDonald’s claim that the CBC has shaped our history is a convincing one; it is also one we should all take seriously and examine critically.

This review “CBC’s Canadian History” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jan. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.