Samuel Mercier is a lecturer in Literary Studies, L’Université du Québec à Montréal. Anne Caumartin is an associate professor of French & Quebec literatures, Royal Military College Saint-Jean. Laurent Turcot is a professor of history, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Catherine Leclerc is an associate professor of French Language & Literature, McGill University
The CBC’s new series, Canada: The Story of Us, demonstrates that telling the story of a country divided as Canada is a challenge. The many groups and interests that are at its core make it nearly impossible to impose a single storyline of the country’s history. These competing narratives are bound to clash with each other when they are condensed in a single TV show.
The creators of this new televised national narrative have overlooked key events and have been neglectful in weaving this new version of Canadian history. We, as a group of scholars, wish to remind the CBC of some of the people they have forgotten by adopting a strictly Anglo-Canadian perspective.
We can see the positive intention behind the inclusion of First Nations in the story of the first episode in the series. However, 12,000 years of aboriginal history are condensed into a few minutes. Then, 150 years of New France follows, the two compacted into a single episode, the first out of 10. (The second episode airs Sunday night.) Furthermore, the series’ attempts at inclusivity through self-representation demonstrates clear mistakes when Joseph Boyden, whose Indigenous ancestry has been questioned by many in the past few months, intervenes as a key commentator of the First Nations’ fate.
Such minimal precautions, clumsy as they are, were not even taken when it comes to representing francophones. Every specialist interviewed on camera is an anglophone, and of the celebrities that discuss history during the show, only two are francophones themselves: Louise Lecavalier, a dance star, and mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre, who comments on the battle of the Plains of Abraham.
This francophone invisibility would be problematic enough on its own, but it is furthermore combined with carelessness. Many of the actors involved in the depiction of French individuals can’t even speak the language properly, despite Canada’s considerable pool of francophone actors to draw from. In addition, the representation of historical figures such as Champlain and Radisson could be clearly labelled as offensive, especially if put into contrast with the way English figures are presented.
In one scene, Champlain – who was a colonial administrator – meets a Wendat diplomatic mission. He has already been depicted as a dark and intriguing figure but, in this segment, his clothes are filthy. Even considering the different standards of hygiene in the 17th century, an official meeting would have warranted more decorum. Similarly, Radisson and Des Groseilliers cross the Atlantic as traitors to convince London to help them establish the Hudson’s Bay Company. When they meet the noble Englishmen, who are dressed formally, the French are wearing furs.
These representations of the French further contrast with the depiction of General Wolfe, shown as being cunning, intelligent, and…clean, even after having climbed Cap Diamant. It is as if the civilizing power of the English came from their reason and superior morals, while the French are depicted as vicious, treacherous, and persistently dirty.
It is appalling that the Prime Minister of Canada gave his support to this series by pleading for national unity in the opening. It is also a serious concern that the producers insist on using this one-sided and biased narrative as a teaching tool in schools across the country. As scholars, we are strongly opposed to this program being used as such, as it would only serve to perpetuate existing prejudices and would not be promoting unity.