The Canadian Experience: Lessons from the Canadian History Project
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 28 Jun 2001, p. 89-104
Starowicz, Mark, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The extraordinary four years which brought together 100 historians, created a joint French-English unit of the best journalists and cameramen, and embarked on an improbable journey. History as a very powerful instrument, and how that is so. Canadians' attitude to their history. History as the process of sorting out the experience of the past and setting aside what we consider to be valuable, and what traumas and triumphs we choose to identify as defining our character. Some illustrative examples. A review of the program. Common denominators of all Canadian communities. A comparison of our experience with that of Australia and Australians. Up to us to renew again the ties that bind the arteries of communication and art that will allow us to share the extraordinary Canadian experience.
Date of Original
28 Jun 2001
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Full Text
Mark Starowicz
Executive Producer of the CBC's "Canada: A People's History"
A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch
Chairman: Bill Laidlaw
President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Edward P. Badovinac, KH, Chairman, The Good Neighbour's Club of Toronto (a day centre for the older, homeless and unemployed man), Director, The Empire Club of Canada, Chairman, The Empire Club of Canada Yearbook and Council Member, The Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch; The Reverend Vic Reigel, Christ Church, Brampton; Anne Gravel, Grade 11 Student, College Francais de Toronto; Adam Ostry, CEO, Ontario Media Development Corporation; John S. Smith, Senior Manager, Private Banking, Royal Bank of Canada, Freeman of the City of London, Immediate Past President, British Canadian Chamber of Trade and Commerce; Dr. Ramsay Cook, Adjunct Professor of History, University of Ottawa, General Editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biographies and Senior Advisor, "Canada; A People's History"; Major The Hon. Joseph H. Potts, OStJ, CD, QC, Former Judge, Superior Court of Justice in Ontario and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Jocelyne Cote-O'Hara, Principal, C20 & Company and 3rd Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Kathryn O'Hara, Former CBC TV and Radio Broadcaster and Holder of the CTV Chair in Science Broadcast Journalism at Carleton University; R. Doug Hogan, Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer, The Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company; and Noreen Clement, Chair, The Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch and Adult Educator, Burnhamthorpe College.

Introduction by Bill Laidlaw

When I was growing up I had the good fortune of having parents who felt it was important to expose their children to all aspects of culture. One of their true loves was history--North American history. That meant that during our public and high school years my brother, sister and I visited virtually every museum, fort and battlefield on this continent.

These experiences led me to a lifelong interest in history and specifically Canadian history. It was the only subject that held any real interest for me in high school and university. It was not coincidental that upon leaving university I became a history teacher. The subject of history and its importance to Canada is critical for our understanding of this great nation of ours.

It is my pleasure today to have one of Canada's great recorders of history as our guest speaker.

The Canadian Encyclopedia describes Starowicz as the creator of the most influential news programmes in Canada since 1970. These include "As It Happens," "Sunday Morning" and "The Journal," which he created and guided with the late Barbara Frum through its 10-year history.

History has been a passion for Starowicz all his life. It was such a passion that he couldn't stay in the classroom; he had to live it. He graduated in History from McGill in 1968. He stayed a year longer as editor of The McGill Daily, where he was involved in the rich social and political debate of the period.

He has won the Gemini Award for best information programming six times. He has written extensively. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, has been co-editor of The Last Post, a journalistic magazine of the sixties and seventies and has been a reporter for The Gazette and The Toronto Star. He has delivered papers on the future of broadcasting in Washington, San Francisco, Naples and Paris, and is considered one of Canada's experts in the history and evolution of broadcast communications.

Over 25 years his hobby has been to assemble an extensive collection of original historical newspapers dating as far back as 1644 and includes papers edited by John Milton. The only earlier copy of The Oxford Gazette than his is in the British Museum. He has the complete Globe coverage of the Riel Rebellion.

Being raised in the midst of evolving history influenced his love of it. His heritage is also probably responsible for his interest. His father was a Polish bomber pilot with the Royal Air Force and won the Polish Cross of Valour four times. His mother was in the Polish Resistance, was imprisoned in a German internment camp and was finally liberated by Canadian Forces. She was awarded the Cross of the Warsaw Uprising by Polish President Lech Walesa. Mark has two daughters: Caitlin, whose name reflects their mother's Celtic roots, and Madeleine-Magda--his mother's code name in the Warsaw Uprising.

Mark Starowicz is the head of the History Project, a team of over 30 directors, producers, researchers, cameramen and editors from CBC and Radio Canada, that is compiling the largest documentary series in Canadian television history about Canadian history.

The series, entitled "Le Canada: une histoire populaire" or "Canada: A People's History," will run over two years and began last September. It comprises 30 hours in each language, covering a time span that stretches from the migrations across the Bering Strait to the doorstep of the digital age. It is broadcasted in parallel on the English and French networks, so audiences can see it at approximately the same time. It will become a boxed set of videos that students will undoubtedly turn to for a generation.

Mark describes this as a most exhausting and challenging assignment. He is working with some of the finest names in French and English television, public and private: Mario Cardinal and Hubert Gendron at Radio Canada, and Gene Allen, Gordon Henderson and Sally Reardon at CBC. All are veterans of the flagships of their network fleets.

It is my pleasure to introduce Mark Starowicz.

Mark Starowicz

I have had an extraordinary experience over the past four years the experience of being part of a team trying to recuperate our past, and recast it into the grammar of the television and Internet age. Furthermore, we've also done it, for the first time, for both Canadian language communities simultaneously. "Canada: A People's History" ("Le Canada: une histoire populaire") has been an adventure which meant living with ancient documents like the Jesuit Relations on the one hand, and on the other living with dual-language websites, books, DVDs and electronic curriculums for children who haven't even been born yet. One foot in the past and one foot in the future.

What can I tell you this afternoon about these extraordinary four years which brought together 100 historians, created a joint French-English unit of the best journalists and cameramen, and embarked on an improbable journey? A journey which took us to the farthest reaches of the Arctic, to communities I barely knew existed; a journey in which we opened the vaults of memory and confronted every toxin in Canadian history. I thought I knew this country reasonably well, having been a journalist for 35 years. But if I spent 10 years trying to write an account of this expedition to the past, I couldn't capture everything I learned.

History is a very powerful instrument, because it is the basis of culture and of self-definition. The first thing a totalitarian regime does is rewrite the textbooks. The Chinese Revolution rewrote history, as did the Russian Revolution and Nazi Germany. History is like plutonium; it has the power to unleash extraordinary forces. One of the ways you dominate or conquer a people is by hiding their history from them.

I remember when Hanya, my cousin 10 years younger and like a sister to me, left Poland under martial law and began life again in France. She is a lawyer and a very educated woman from an established old Polish family. When she came to France, she finally learned the history of her own country, Poland, and the history of the War that shattered our family. Entire battles, entire legions of Polish fighters and entire resistance movements never existed for her. The communist regime had simply omitted half the reality of the twentieth century from an intelligent university-educated woman in the age of direct-dial telephone and satellite communications. Don't believe all this Internet mythology. It is possible to delude a nation of people in one of the oldest and most cultured civilisations in Europe.

I wanted to do the history of Canada in a broad and sweeping epic, because it was the single most subversive thing I could think of doing. After 35 years of working in French and English Canada, years that were dominated by "As It Happens," "Sunday Morning" and "The Journal," I began to feel we were constantly moving in the same patterns. The country seemed crankier than ever after Meech Lake, Charlottetown and the last referendum. There was a growing uncertainty and anxiety as Canadians were being drawn into uncertain economic and political constellations and faced a technological revolution that seemed to challenge the very idea of the nation state.

The country seemed more regionalised and polarised than ever. The apartheid of French and English seemed as watertight as ever; our airwaves more American than ever.

I said it was the most subversive thing I could think of doing and I meant it, because there was something very particular about Canadians' attitude to their history. It is one of the only countries in the world where people will tell you that their history is boring. Now think about this. You won't hear an Irishman, an Englishman or a Frenchman say that about their history. Nor an Italian, a German, a Pole, a Mexican, a Brazilian. Certainly not an American. They don't know their national history any better than we know ours, I find. Somebody in Arkansas is not better schooled in history than someone in British Columbia. You'll look long and hard before you find an ordinary citizen in any of these countries say his past is boring. It won't take you longer than five minutes to find an English-language Canadian who will say our past is not very interesting, and at best a tepid story. In its most benign form, you'll find people say that it's dull because we are a peaceful and industrious people, and we didn't have the horrors and civil wars of other countries. Either way, the common denominator is that it's a pretty lukewarm story.

We then blame the school system and the teaching of history, though I find it hard to believe that empirically, we have a higher proportion of bad textbooks and poor teachers than the average industrialised country. Instead, we constructed the myth of the absence of history and added to this myth such barnacles as: "We're a meek, polite people, slow to anger, a bit apologetic; not only is our history dull, but we're kind of dull."

History is, among other things, the process of sorting out the experience of the past and setting aside what we consider to be valuable, and what traumas and triumphs we choose to identify as defining our character. Vimy is an example of that. Dieppe. But more Canadians died in Ortona than Dieppe, and I'd bet a week's salary that 90 per cent of the members of Parliament, and a larger number of people passing by outside right now have never heard of it and it happened less than 60 years ago.

It's not a healthy thing to avoid defining what we value and what we don't of our collective experience. It is a form of denial; a cognitive dissonance. We don't have to agree on Riel, for example, but to fail to confront that defining moment in our history is to deny the existence of a race of people, the Metis. It's a fundamental breakdown in a very important social dialogue.

The most dramatic moment in our first episode (and we have hundreds of letters telling us this) is when the camera shows a map of North America in aboriginal times and reveals a jigsaw puzzle of more than 50 major nations and territories of people. North America on the eve of contact was a more complex mix of nations than the map or Europe today. Fifty distinct languages were spoken here. To not know this about the past is an obstacle to the development of the present.

There is a chapter in the first episode about the ritual burial site at L'Anse aux Moor in Labrador which seems routine enough until the script says the following: "Before Rome, before Babylon, before the pyramids of Egypt, before the invention of the wheel in Mesopotamia, a sombre and ritual procession of people stood here to bury a child." A history of peoples and languages that predates the pyramids and Babylon? I didn't know that. All the maps in my textbooks at school and in my memory show where Jacques Cartier landed, the Port Royal, Quebec, and the rest of the continent is blank.

I didn't know there were two battles of the Plains of Abraham. The second one was fought on the same spot six months later, with even bigger armies, and the French won. I didn't know that. Most Quebecers don't know that.

That was the single most recurring phrase in the series. The producers were always saying it. Then the audience by the millions were saying it.

I remember telling his Excellency Romeo LeBlanc about how ashamed I was that after 35 years of journalism, with a degree in history, I had never heard the remarkable story of the fireboats. When Wolfe's fleet arrived off Quebec, the French launched 100 ships and rafts all chained together in a necklace a mile wide. Each boat was charged with explosives and drifted down the current to engulf the English fleet. A mile-wide chain of blazing volcanoes, as one British officer described it. I said I've got a degree in history and I didn't know that. He said: "Mark, I'm the Governor General, and I didn't know that."

History is fascinating. Why wouldn't it be? It's mathematically impossible to have 30 million people and not have an interesting history, if you think about it.

What is going on?

How did this extraordinary and dangerous myth take such deep root?

Part of the answer lies in our colonial past, when the histories are written from the imperial, metropolitan point of view. It took a long time for us to see our history as a North American history, and seen from this side of the ocean rather than the other. But that disappeared with the Second World War and the Canadian historians came to the fore, so it's no longer a satisfying answer to the puzzle.

But I think the real answer does contain a major colonial ingredient. I don't think it's our schools, or our teachers, or our historians. I think it is our national communications system. I think it's television and cinema. If you look back over the past 59 years of our electronic culture, you will find us largely absent. Our television system is essentially a branch plant of the American communications system and one of its striking characteristics is the relative absence of the Canadian experience.

I've been obsessed over the past four years with trying to distill the Canadian experience and to find what shaped us. Here are some of the thoughts that came out of our four-year adventure.

The first common denominator to all Canadian communities is the rejection of class, rank and hierarchy, and the insistence that everyone possesses the same rights. It's striking. As I've said before, it is unacceptable to be rude to a waiter or waitress in this country because your son and daughter are going to be one some day. And there is no greater blunder than to pull rank. We are a profoundly egalitarian society, and the roots of this are perceptible from the very origins.

Per Kalm, a very early Swedish traveller in New France, observed that: "Unlike the American colonies, everyone here calls each other Monsieur and Madame, everyone bows in the street as they pass. Here they can hold land, they can hunt, which they can't do in Europe, and they can hold title to their land. This breeds an individualist spirit. In fact, this individualist spirit is complained about in all the parish records by priests."

Contrary to the myth of a priest-ridden society, as one cure wrote: "They come to church only for baptisms and marriages, and ignore the dictates of the church. Everyone here considers himself a prince in his own domain, and accepts no authority. How can we maintain order when they can go into the wilderness any time they want?"

This runs like a constant through every immigration, from the Irish to the Ukrainians to the Scots, and is firmly planted in the Canadian character, and it is sharply different from any European country today.

The second common denominator you can't escape from is the profound effect of climate. It is striking how we are shaped by the winter. As individualistic as we are, it is ingrained in the Canadian experience to collaborate as communities. The common water supply, the school system, fishing co-operatives, the collective construction of grain elevators, mills, and homes for the elderly and our jealous protection of medicare are simply second nature. Look at the extraordinary flare up in Ontario over public funding of private schools. The climate naturally shaped us into tightly knit communities which are operated by a town-hall meeting culture. Our closest American soulmates are New Englanders, and other strong community cultures of the snow belt.

Third, I am struck how we are an archipelago of distinct communities. I've just returned from two funerals for colleagues who died this year in the Canadian history project. One community service was in Shediac, New Brunswick on the Acadian shore, the other on the Magdalen Islands. They were extraordinarily moving experiences and I was struck, as I have been through the whole series, by the depth of community and roots in every Canadian's life. Everyone has a very clear idea where home is. A key to understanding the Canadian political process is that this country is very much a parliament of individual communities and identities, a community of communities as Joe Clark said, which will bristle at any infringement of their community rights, probably more than any country in the industrialised world. I would not have dreamed, at the beginning of the project, how strong, vibrant and intact that reality of Canada still is, despite television and Internet, and internal migration for jobs.

Fourth, and above all these common denominators, was this: Almost everywhere we went, almost any diary we read had the common experience of refuge. Almost all of us, apart from the First Nations, have at the core of our being the experience of refuge. Any French Canadian will tell you from whom he descends--sometimes back to the 1600s. Many will name the first mother. Some will even name the ship. But they will never go farther back than that. The ancestor is the one who came. Who the great grandfather was in France doesn't matter. Scratch most Canadians--Loyalists, Ukrainians, Jews, Scots--and you will find the story of the passage. Almost always, it is a story in three stages. First is the trauma, the adversity from which they fled, be it the highland clearances, the famines of Ireland, persecution in Eastern Europe, Blacks fleeing the American south, or the draft dodgers of the sixties. There are three stages to the story--the adversity, the passage and finally, after the hard first years here, the redemption, the planting of the new root. Canadians compete to tell each other how hard they or their ancestors had it, and they describe the hard winters at the beginning, only to end the story with the successful taking of root. This is not the case in most of the world. It is very much a new world experience. It is written in the maps. Cap de l'Esperance. Cape Redemption. Port Hope.

We are an archipelago of refugees. New France, abandoned by her empire, and traded to the British for the sugar island of Guadaloupe, lives today in the character of Quebecers who are acutely aware they were abandoned and fiercely proud that they survived as a nation of people against all odds. They celebrate their roots in the filles du roy, the abandoned children of Paris, the unwanted and rejected debris of France. The second pillar of the country are the Loyalists, a civilisation of people virtually driven out by their Republican neighbours. The country was founded on two unwanted peoples--one abandoned and the other driven out. And it grew by waves of the unwanted, the starving of Ireland, the Scots driven out of the Highlands, the English of Susannah Moodie's generation who were marginalised as a class after the Napoleonic wars were over and nobody wanted the soldiers any more. They are followed by the Ukrainians, the Mennonites, the Dukhobors, the Sikhs, the Japanese and Chinese, the wartime emigration of Jews and Poles and peoples of the Balkans.

At the core of the Canadian character is the collective experience or ancestral memory of refuge and redemption. We are the abandoned, the expelled, the persecuted, the economically marginalised who have, at the root of our being, the same story--that we shall find sanctuary in a new world. We are mistrustful of ideology and of extreme nationalism, because many of us are victims of ideology and extreme nationalism. We are jealous of our individual space, because ancestrally we lost, or never had, our individual space. We are wary of governments, because many of us are here because of arbitrary governments. We are capable of considerable military prowess and valour, but we will liberate, not invade.

Beyond the common experience of hope and redemption, there is another unifying common denominator. We are the children of the debris of history. That is the as yet unexpressed nobility at the core of the Canadian experience. The country is founded on two nations--one abandoned and the other driven out. On that foundation of two rejected peoples are the building stones of the hundreds of peoples who came here fleeing racism, political persecution, starvation, or simply the basic human search for an honest living and a better future for their children. Yes, there were adventurers, entrepreneurs, romantics and zealots, and some people arrived on business class, but 90 per cent of us have in our common experience that we were unwanted where we came from.

That is at the core of the Canadian character. That, in my experience, is what underpins what I've found. It underpins the striking egalitarianism and disdain of rank and class. It underpins the fierce insistence on survival of community, language and particularity, that reinforces the tendency to collective community resource and self help. We take care of our own, because we have ingrained in our genetic memory that we had to take care of ourselves and each other.

And that leads to the fifth and last striking characteristic of Canadian history--civility. The history of Canada doesn't lack violence and massacre and racism. But what is most striking is 400 years of political and social accommodation. From the Great Peace of Montreal that ended the French-Indian wars, to the Quebec Act that established the duality of Canada's character, to a Confederation of very intricate checks and balances, Canadian history is marked by a genius for accommodation and negotiation. It is a platform placed on 1,000 countervailing stabilisers and gyroscopes that assure nobody ever gets the upper hand. Fatiguing as it is, we are unique among nations to be able to say that since the War of 1812 and the Northwest Rebellion, more people die in road accidents on a Labour Day weekend than have died in any battle on Canadian soil. And to the frustrated question: "When are we finally going to settle this argument?" the answer of course, is: "Never. That's not the problem, that's the point."

Australia, the country which most closely resembles our experience, spent most of its history denying its convict past, until some 20 years ago, when Robert Hughes wrote "The Fatal Shore," a book which transformed the Australian psyche and made them embrace the fact they were born of the prison ships of England.

What has eluded us is the sheer nobility of the idea that we are the debris of war and empires and famines, that we are rooted in the dispossessed. Take the victims of the Highland clearances, the escaped slaves of America, the abandoned colony of France, the Selkirk settlers, empty the dying Ukrainian villages, take the refugee camps of post-war Europe and Uganda, the bobbing rafts of boat people on the South China Sea, and place them on the second-largest land mass on the planet. Sanctuary. What an extraordinary concept for a nation of people. And that the children of the unwanted should be those that returned to the old world in convoys and troops ships to liberate Italy and France and Holland and the countries which didn't want their ancestors is an idea that's almost Shakespearean.

When the Canadian history series was aired last September, I learned the biggest lesson of all, which I will share with you.

We would have been satisfied with half a million viewers. The first episode got 2.5 million viewers. And with every ensuing episode it was like being hit by a hurricane of letters, e-mails and phone calls. The book of the series, which cost $69, became the best-selling non-fiction book in Canada. The website was swamped. The video boxed set had to go into four printings. In my wildest prayers I never imagined that we would be able to say that Canadian history documentaries, two hours long, beat the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and that the lead paragraph in the Ottawa Citizen would read "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" plunges by one million under withering fire from the Canadian history series. It was the most viewed documentary in the history of Canadian television, even going back to the days when we only had one channel in this country.

The myth that Canadians were not interested in their history died that night--October 22, 2000. What emerged instead was that we had starved Canadians of their history. We had so deprived them of their stories and their experiences, and substituted an imported system of American mythology, that we had deluded our own people, through omission, into believing they didn't have one. That is the single staggering lesson to be taken from this project.

If Canada is the archipelago of communities and identities that I believe it is, it is starving from the need to learn everyone's story, starving from the need to find the links that bind and the need to see others on the screen. What Canadians are saying is: "Link us, bind us, hear our stories, show me everyone else's."

Instead, through decades of bad policy and haphazard regulation, we created a national communications system that has preserved the solitudes, preserved the FrenchEnglish apartheid, and pumped the American experience to Canadians. Out of 76 channels in Toronto, three--CBC, Newsworld and TVOntario--are public-sector channels transmitting in English. Everything else is ruled by the iron law of the marketplace, which will always favour importation over indigenous production.

Think about it again. Last fall and winter, you witnessed a nation of people surprised and thrilled to discover it had a rich history. That is the legacy of a culturally colonialised communications system.

A country that is shaped by so many particular experiences in so many particular communities will survive in direct proportion to how the experiences can be shared. A country which is a constant negotiation of its constituent parts to maintain its stability needs to have the arteries of communication and dialogue. Communication and discourse is the sine qua non of Canada. We can still lose it. In six months, we will be celebrating the founding of public broadcasting in Canada and the vision of men like Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt who understood we must use this new technology of radio to preserve Canada.

I pray that as we face an equally titanic communications revolution today, there will emerge the visionaries who understand that we must use it to link our people and share the Canadian experience.

I went into this project with a sense of an eroding country.

Four years later, on the eve of our 134th birthday as a nation, I have seen a tremendous force building out there, as if we were drilling in the fields of memory and hit a titanic dome of yearning and pride that blew us away.

I think it came to me when I was watching the rushes of the Loyalist flights to Nova Scotia, as transport ships from New York dropped thousands of families onto the rocky beaches to face the impending winter. It looked identical to the scenes in Kosovo, which was on the news at the time we were filming. Then came these quotes over the achingly lonely scene of huge ships departing on the horizon:

Sarah Frost: "It is, I think, the roughest land I ever saw. But this is to be our city they say."

Sarah Tilley: "I climbed to the top of Chipman's Hill and watched the sails disappear. Although I had not shed a tear throughout all the War, I sat down on the damp moss, with my baby in my lap, and cried."

I have no connection to them; it would be 200 years before the Starowicz family came here. But I found my eyes moistening and I tried to hide the fact from the rest of the staff in the theatre. When the lights went on, I saw that I wasn't the only one overcome. The researchers in the theatre that afternoon were French, Chinese, Jewish, English. It's then that I got the point of why it struck us all. This was our story too. The experience of refuge, the experience of arrival in a strange and alien place of terrifying beauty and the fear of an uncertain destiny are the common links in the Canadian experience. We are not linked by blood. But we are inextricably linked by the common experience of refuge, hope and redemption.

You cannot imagine the power and the pent-up energy waiting to be released out there. The profound, pent-up conviction to discover and assert who we are, and the willingness, in fact the hunger, to adopt each other's heritage into a collective memory.

The people I met know exactly who they are.

It is up to us, now, to renew again the ties that bind the arteries of communication and art that will allow us to share the extraordinary Canadian experience.

Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Noreen Clement, Chair, The Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch and Adult Educator, Burnhamthorpe College.

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The Canadian Experience: Lessons from the Canadian History Project

The extraordinary four years which brought together 100 historians, created a joint French-English unit of the best journalists and cameramen, and embarked on an improbable journey. History as a very powerful instrument, and how that is so. Canadians' attitude to their history. History as the process of sorting out the experience of the past and setting aside what we consider to be valuable, and what traumas and triumphs we choose to identify as defining our character. Some illustrative examples. A review of the program. Common denominators of all Canadian communities. A comparison of our experience with that of Australia and Australians. Up to us to renew again the ties that bind the arteries of communication and art that will allow us to share the extraordinary Canadian experience.