Historians and filmmakers dissect CBC’s maligned doc series ‘The Story of Us’

Historians dissect CBC's 'The Story of Us'

TORONTO — The CBC attempted to cram 150 years of Canadian history into the 10-hour docu-drama “Canada: The Story of Us.” By many accounts, it’s not doing so well.

But this isn’t the only series that has failed to capture our rich and varied past, celebrated historian Christopher Moore said Wednesday, lamenting a general “fear of historians” that has marked “almost every film project and television project” he’s been involved with.

Moore, who was not a part of the CBC production, blamed the downfall of such shows on “producers and directors who essentially are determined to become instant experts.”

“They want to get the imprimatur of historians, but they really don’t want to listen to them,” complained Moore, a two-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner for “Louisbourg Portraits: Life in An Eighteenth Century Garrison Town” and “From Then to Now: A Short History of the World.”

“The people that are making these films, they’re willing to talk to you, but they’re not willing to listen to you so I find myself walking away from them fairly quickly.”

The Toronto-based writer added his voice to a chorus of complaints plaguing “Canada: The Story of Us,” which premiered March 26.

The CBC took the rare step of apologizing Tuesday, noting “we fully recognize that not everyone will agree with every perspective presented.” The broadcaster said future episodes will include the perspectives of those who have sent emails, called or taken to social media with criticism.

Critics have included Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who complained the series said the country’s first permanent European settlement was established in 1608 near what is now Quebec City. McNeil countered that Canada started three years earlier, when French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded a settlement at Port Royal, N.S., which is part of his riding.

Meanwhile, in Quebec’s legislature last week, the Opposition Parti Quebecois said the history of First Nations, Acadians and Quebecers deserved better than “this contemptuous commentary.”

Executive producer Julie Bristow has said the series was not intended to be a typical, comprehensive historical documentary series. Instead of telling a linear tale, it is comprised of 50 short stories “about some of the extraordinary individuals who helped shape our nation.”

She asked viewers to stick with the series. 

“We necessarily left out huge swaths of history. We recognize the notion of ‘Us’ in a nation as diverse as Canada is challenging,” she said in a statement issued Monday, adding they “regret that some people felt misrepresented.”

Film and television producer Kevin DeWalt knows how hard it can be to dramatize history.

In 2006, CBC pulled his movie “Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story” from the schedule because it strayed from accepted historical record in the portrayal of an adversary.

Controversy swirled around how former Saskatchewan premier James (Jimmy) Gardiner came off in the eyes of viewers and Gardiner’s family, who were upset with the interpretation.

DeWalt said he still stands by the film but points out that interpretations of a historical figure will often vary widely — and sometimes even conflict.

“You have to make the best decision you can based on what you heard and what you learned and what you’ve read. It’s a creative choice,” added DeWalt.

“We’re storytellers, and you have to tell a story in a certain way to work.”

DeWalt said he was impressed with “The Story of Us” and understands the challenges they faced.

“You make creative choices based on the flow of the story. You make creative choices based on the budget,” he said from Kelowna, B.C., where he was in pre-production on his next dramatic feature, “Distortion.”

Longtime producer Kenneth Hirsch said there should be room for some interpretation on the part of writers, directors and producers.

“There is a certain responsibility to the facts, but you’re always going to bring a point of view to the table. I don’t think that’s avoidable and I don’t think that’s a bad thing either,” said Hirsch, who spent 10 years at the National Film Board of Canada and has a slew of doc credits including a series of historical biographies called “Extraordinary Canadians.”

While Moore complained of “The Story of Us,” including celebrities Paul Gross, Christopher Plummer and Lorne Cardinal, Hirsch saw room for other collaborators.

“When you’re interpreting history to television or to film, what you’re looking for are great storytellers,” said Hirsch, who’s working on another leg of “Extraordinary Canadians” set to air in June.

“It’s absolutely fair to rely on a diversity of voices to do that.”

Concordia history professor Ronald Rudin questioned whether “The Story of Us” was diverse enough, complaining it took a mere four minutes for the Europeans to arrive, suggesting nothing interesting happened before they showed up, and 20 minutes for the first woman to appear onscreen. He was mostly bothered by the fact the Acadians don’t exist at all.

“A case of ethnic cleansing didn’t seem to warrant attention. I find it pretty weird in terms of choices they made in 2017,” said Rudin, who is working on a multimedia Canada 150 project called “Lost Stories.”

Moore also questioned the series’ reliance on historians John English, a primary consultant, and Robert Bothwell, calling them both specialists in late 20th-century political history. “Again, there’s that sense of any old historian will do.”

But he was willing to hang in a bit longer to see if he changes his mind on the series.

“If they chose to cover Quebec rather than Port Royal, I think you can justify that. What you have to look at is the whole sweep of the series. Do they just go for the familiar old chestnuts and the kind of big-market stories all the time? Or do they get some balance over the stretch of the series?”

Viewers appear to be dropping with each episode. CBC says 831,000 tuned in for Episode 1, while 612,000 caught Episode 2. Early data shows 584,000 watched Episode 3.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press