TORONTO – The term surrounded by history came vividly to life last July as film crews worked along the shores of Lake Ontario to recreate several key moments in Canadian history.
One involved dozens of actors dodging explosive blasts as they ran up the shore in full battle gear, depicting Canadian troops landing at Juno Beach during the D-Day invasion. A couple of hundred metres away, several other actors and crew members were shooting a scene from the mid-70s when “boat people” from Vietnam arrived on Canadian shores.
Nearby, an explorer was becoming the father of New France.
“There’s Champlain,” said one of the producers.
It’s all part of “Canada: The Story of Us,” a sweeping CBC docu-drama series celebrating Canada’s heroes and presenting the stories behind the nation 150 years after confederation.
Samuel de Champlain, played by Toronto-based actor Greg Zajac, was in full costume and enjoying a Coke between scenes in a makeshift cafeteria. A few days earlier, Zajac shot a scene where he beheaded a shipmate in Canada’s first coup.
“It was quite a power play,” said Zajac. “He put it on a plank and left it out for everyone to see.”
It’s a historical detail Zajac did not know and neither will most viewers.
“It’s the right show at the right time on the right channel,” executive producer Julie Bristow said of the show, which premiers Sunday. “We’re calling it history for a new generation.”
This isn’t just a collection of “Heritage Minutes.” The 10-hour series boasts a cast of thousands, plenty of CGI graphics showing forts, settlements and stampeding buffalo herds with more than 100 contemporary stars providing surprising insight and commentary.
Weighing in, for example, on Gen. James Wolfe’s daring surprise attack at the Plains of Abraham, is mixed martial arts star Georges St-Pierre.
“It’s very important to use surprise,” he says, because, “what you don’t see coming, that’s what knocks you out.”
Gen. Rick Hillier adds his insights as well, along with CBC stars Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Rick Mercer. Former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie tips his hat to tough pine industry pioneer William Hazen. Also heard are Tatiana Maslany, Lorne Cardinal, Roberta Bondar, David Suzuki, Sarah Gadon, Peter Mansbridge, Rick Hansen, Colm Feore, Clara Hughes and Christopher Plummer.
Bristow, CBC’s former head of factual programming, had worked in the past with Jane Root, the former BBC executive whose company Nutopia produced similar docu-dramas for the U.S. and Australia. The countdown to Canada’s 150th anniversary seemed like a most opportune time to mount a similar venture here.
The plan was ambitious: tell 50 stories depicting Canadian heroes and moments. Tell them with historical accuracy and make it all come alive for the YouTube generation.
Bristow had her own doubts but was heartened to see her two teenage daughters get hooked on a rough cut she brought home. It dramatized Laura Secord’s heroic walk through enemy lines to warn the British of a pending American attack during the War of 1812.
The series is really about “acts of extraordinary and ordinary people,” said Bristow. “Without something they had done, Canada would never have been the same.”
It was important to Bristow and others to make sure female and indigenous stories were a big part of the mix.
“History is very white and male,” she said. “The Story of Us” sought to avoid the traditional “history as almost as an instrument of colonization” approach.
Checking the facts was a team of historians led by two primary consultants: author and historian John English and Gerald McMaster, a Plains Cree and Blackfoot curator, artist, and author.
English gets why many Canadian students are more dazzled by American history.
“We’re so overwhelmed by American pop culture,” he said. “But you have to remember that we were there at many of the same events. We get left out of their history. They can’t get left out of ours.”
He feels new Canadians may be the most intrigued by the show.
“Many people who do not come from an English, French or aboriginal background are intrigued by what Canada was,” he said. “And, of course, by what it will become.”
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.