Take A Minute To Reflect

This week, Historica Canada dropped its latest Heritage Minute, featuring Canada’s liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II. What makes Heritage Minutes so iconic? Why are they engaging? What works and what doesn’t? And which ones do we like best? We’ve discussed all these questions and more in our latest dialogue post.

By Lilia Lockwood & Serena Ypelaar

LRL: “I can smell burnt toast.” To a generation of Canadians this phrase means one thing. No, not that our breakfast got away from us. It means that Dr. Penfield has made a breakthrough in seizure treatment. It means … Heritage Minutes!!! I’m among those who grew up watching Heritage Minutes, which first hit our TV screens in 1991 (read more about their history here). Each 60-second video presents an aspect of Canadian history, with topics ranging from scientific achievements to wartime efforts to social issues. Before we get too deep I’ve gotta be honest here: I’m a fan. My laptop bag displays a “But I need these baskets back” button, I own the complete collection on DVD, and I donated to Historica’s D-Day minute fundraiser in 2018. So I’m very excited to chat with you about these minutes that are sometimes cheesy, sometimes moving, but always educational.

Screencaps from Heritage Minutes. Photo: Historica Canada

SVY: Agreed! Heritage Minutes offer so much in the way of historical interpretation. Condensing a history into one minute – while providing the context we need to understand the significance – isn’t an easy task. Minutes range from sombre to funny to patriotic, each provoking a different reaction (for better or for worse, as in the 1992 Vikings minute where I could only say “WTF?”). While I don’t boast any cool Heritage Minute buttons (where did you get yours?) I also grew up seeing these spots on TV. I remember which ones stuck with me: I’ve always associated the Laura Secord minute most strongly with Heritage Minutes.

Something about the succinct narrative and memorable imagery of Secord trooping through the mud lodged itself in my memory. Interestingly, the War of 1812 later became one of my focus areas as a history major. Likewise, I often remember the Jacques Cartier minute, as silly as it is, when I reflect on my profound interest in New France history. I wonder if these minutes had anything to do with that – I love accessible storytelling, so “Canadian history in a nutshell” can be pretty effective. Are there any minutes you’d consider “classics” in the sense that you remember them from childhood?

LRL: For sure, those old minutes bring up a lot of nostalgia (that Vikings one might best be described as a … cinematic experience …). One that stayed with me was the Nitro minute, about Chinese labourers’ dangerous work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s memorable for its dramatic explosion, and also because it ended with a grandfather telling his grandchildren about the experience, just the way my grandfather would tell us stories about his life. Suspenseful moments like Laura Secord running her mission and the Chinese workers setting explosives capture our attention. But it’s then the small, relatable details that make the minutes sink in.

Looking back on this Heritage Minute now, though, there’s a different aspect that makes it stand out. It’s one of only a few of the original minutes that presented the histories of ethnic minorities in Canada. Since Historica Canada started making a new series of minutes in 2012, the topics have been far more inclusive, reflecting broader contemporary trends in historical study and interpretation. The Vancouver Asahi and Kensington Market minutes are great examples of this. What are your thoughts on the older vs. the newer minutes?

SVY: I completely agree! Alongside more diverse content, perhaps the most widespread shift is in the newer minutes’ narrative voice. For instance, Heritage Minutes tended to present Indigenous histories from a European settler point of view, as seen in the minute on Sitting Bull. But then you have the Louis Riel minute from 1991, which despite being an earlier minute shares the story of the Métis leader in a much more active voice: Riel tells his own story directly to the viewer. Later, the Heritage Minutes “renaissance” reframed stories, finally tackling the trauma of residential schools in the 2012 Chanie Wenjack minute. Likewise, we see the Battle of Queenston Heights from the perspective of Mohawk warriors Teyoninhokarawen (John Norton) and Ahyonwaeghs (John Brant), though it’s worth noting that only their English names are used in the 2013 minute – the minutes still have a ways to go in terms of moving away from that colonial lens in favour of deepening ethical representation.

Nevertheless, the stylistic narrative developments join modern cinematography to create more polished minutes across the board. We learn about Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Acadian Deportation in a similar way – directly from the perspective of the people involved. Instead of “they did/experienced this”, the storytelling favours “I did/experienced/felt this”. This approach plays on our empathy, and I find it’s a key instrument of memory – I’m more likely to remember something that made me react emotionally (like the Terry Fox, Jim Egan and Winnipeg Falcons minutes). 

LRL: I had similar thoughts about the changing way Indigenous histories are presented in the minutes. It’s worth watching Inukshuk and Kenojuak Ashevak back-to-back to appreciate the difference. The Kenojuak Ashevak minute was also the first to be made in a language other than English and French (Inuktitut), which is an important step in making minutes more accessible for the communities they engage with. Another aspect that creates that emotional connection is for people to see their own stories shared in the minutes as part of a nationwide narrative. I’m happy you brought up the Winnipeg Falcons minute, because it accomplishes exactly that (and is one of my favourites). On the YouTube page for the Falcons video, viewers commented that this minute made them proud of their cultural heritage, whether Icelandic or Western Canadian.

One of the reasons I personally like this minute is the way it ties together so many threads of the Falcons’ story. It doesn’t just show them as the first Olympic ice hockey gold-medal-winning team, but also as members of an immigrant community and veterans of the First World War. The amount that people can learn (and retain) from a one-minute clip shouldn’t be underestimated, when it is done well. Also! This minute highlights one of the fun sides of Heritage Minutes: celebrity cameos! This one is a double-whammy, starring Jared Keeso and narrated by George Stroumboulopoulos. Other minutes feature Colm Feore, Joy Kogawa, Dan Aykroyd, Graham Greene, Adrienne Clarkson, Pierre Houde, Allan Hawco, and – I’m not kidding – Pierce Brosnan. In fact, you may recognize the narrator in the newest heritage minute as well …

SVY: Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned celebrity cameos, because I was trying to think of a way I could weave in the fact that Pierce Brosnan appeared in a heritage minute (as Grey Owl, if you’re wondering). And I am a big fan of Stratford legend Colm Feore, so to see him playing John McCrae is incredible. Including celebrities from Canada and elsewhere provides another great layer of engagement, sparking connections for people (fun fact/brag: I’ve attended a concert in George Stroumboulopoulos’ living room! haha). And as per your hint at the newest minute, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Peter Mansbridge narrates toward the end!

This minute, featuring the liberation of the Netherlands, is near and dear to my heart because I am a Dutch-Canadian. My Opa was ten years old and living in Holland during World War II – he experienced the Nazi occupation firsthand. Just over a decade later, he immigrated to Canada, met my Nana, and they married in 1961. For me, the emotional parallels in this Heritage Minute really highlight how powerful a condensed snapshot can be when it hits just right.

As Lilia pointed out, it’s amazing that the minutes allow us to see ourselves within them; to feel woven into Canadian history and unified by events that shaped our nation, whether they’re tragic like the Halifax Explosion minute, hopeful like the Boat People minute, inspiring like the Richard Pierpoint and Edmonton Grads minutes, or divisive like the Sir John A. Macdonald minute. We see, and hopefully will continue to see, our stories reflected back at us as Historica Canada continues producing Heritage Minutes that reflect the diversity of people that live here.

A March Through Time: The Continued Appeal of Re-enactments

How do spectacles like historical re-enactments help place us at the scene of a major historical event? By using sensory stimulation, historic sites ensure visitors keep coming back (in time) for more.

By Serena Ypelaar

I love military re-enactments. There’s just something about showing up at a historic fort and catching sight of thousands of redcoats, canvas tents, musket fire and cannon blasts that offers pure indulgence for any history buff, especially one who grew up in the Upper Canada region. I’ve been involved with the history of the War of 1812 since I was a kid, having slept in the soldiers’ barracks at Fort York (Toronto, ON) twice for Girl Guides camp. Later, as a teenager, I started volunteering at the Fort; I also wrote my IB Programme thesis on Tecumseh’s Indigenous Confederacy before and during the War of 1812.

During the bicentennial commemorations of the War of 1812, I could be found at the Battle of Queenston Heights, the taking of Fort George, and the Battle of York re-enactments. It’s been six or seven years since I last attended an event, so when I returned to Fort George yesterday it felt like a long-awaited homecoming.

Re-enactors at Fort George National Historic Site, 13 July 2019. Photo: Nicholas Ypelaar

These kinds of events tend to draw a huge crowd, for obvious reasons – the performances are almost like 200-year-old action movies. People love loud bangs and smoke, music, and (I say with a wry smile) violence – all of which are sensational elements of performance. Complete with lemonade served in a corked glass bottle, regimental fife and drum corps, and a sutler’s row, the immersion level at Fort George yesterday was off the charts.

Military re-enactments offer the sights, sounds and smells of battle, which, though a dynamic and exciting prospect, should also be treated with respect. The Battle of Fort George re-enactment included a lament performed by the musical corps to honour the victims of the war who fought and died at the site – as well as Indigenous peoples who supported either the British or the Americans and yet were not compensated with their promised outcomes. Certainly, military conflict isn’t actually something to shout “huzzah!” about – it’s a grim product of colonial interests. But by portraying early military combat at the original site of its happening, interpreters and re-enactors can educate visitors on the scale, impact, and ongoing legacies of battles.

American troops attempting to invade Fort George. Photo: Nicholas Ypelaar

Re-enactment is an active form of interpretation which immerses the visitor and offers what I call a “passive” visitor experience – passive in a way that indicates that on-site interpretation is excellent. The more organically information is presented to me as a visitor, the less I have to work to picture the historic site in use – meaning I can be passive during the learning process since I’m provided with plenty of interpretation and storytelling. I don’t even need to read text during a re-enactment – I’m shown, not told, what happened. The spectacle aspect creates emotional reactions, and the impressive visuals are what I remember. At the Battle of Queenston Heights re-enactment, when British-Indigenous leader John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) emerged to lead the Mohawk warriors into battle, the audience applauded its heartiest – something which intrigued me, and which I haven’t ever forgotten.

There are numerous complicated perspectives in the War of 1812, and it can be a lot to grasp. What I found excellent at this year’s Fort George re-enactment was the commentary provided throughout. When the two interpreters first started narrating the battle, I thought it would be annoying, but it was actually so informative. I learned tactical insights about what was happening on both sides – the invading American contingent and the defending British & Indigenous forces. Visitors from both sides of the border had come to attend, and I found that hearing the context imparted valuable knowledge to the audience, myself included. It also demonstrated the re-enactors’ commitment to authenticity, as actions such as “flanking” the invaders were explained, and so on. It gave the battle meaning, and I felt confident I could then share my tactical understanding of the history with others in the future.

Re-enactments animate historic sites, meeting visitors where they’re at – in the 21st century. I didn’t have to struggle to picture the broad expanse of grass as a battlefield because it became one, simulated before my eyes. I was transported into the early 19th century, with historic vendors selling historic wares and wearing historical clothing. And the re-enactors themselves get to explore historical research in a thoroughly hands-on way – stepping into the soldiers’/warriors’ shoes and living history.

That’s why I jump at the chance to go. I get to witness history … or at least the closest thing to it.