While I’ve spent a bit of my early blog time talking about Canadian television shows, I couldn’t describe the TV viewing experience for my generation of Canadians without bringing up a key component of my early exposure to mass media – specifically, the Canada Vignettes produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
They frequently appeared during the commercial breaks of CBC’s children/youth programming in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, eventually migrating to other Canadian broadcasters. Three of the 114 Canada Vignettes also received theatrical exposure in the ’80s, as the NFB struck a deal with Cineplex Odeon to run the trio of short films prior to the main feature, whether or not that movie happened to be made in Canada.
Commissioned by the CBC and bankrolled by the federal government as Canada’s answer to the “Bicentennial Minutes” that had appeared on American television in 1976, the NFB Canada Vignettes were definitely a mixed bag. Some were enlightening and informative, others emotional and evocative. Occasionally the vignettes made me laugh; on rare occasions, they freaked me out. But it’s plainly obvious that they made their mark on all who had the good fortune to see them, to the point that they are still remembered and even treasured and beloved today.
For example, consider two animated music videos for songs created by Canadian folk-singer Wade Hemsworth, “The Log Driver’s Waltz” and “The Black Fly Song.” I somehow missed seeing these on CBC (or anywhere else) during my childhood, but my wife Cathy remembers them fondly, as do several friends in their forties and fifties. The NFB Canada Vignette version of “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” featuring segues from live action to animation and a lovely vocal arrangement by the Quebec duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle, frequently shows up on our friends’ Facebook pages and always results in a torrent of nostalgic enthusiasm whenever it does. Small wonder, then, that it remains one of the single most popular NFB Canada Vignettes, with over 1.3 million views on the NFB’s YouTube channel and over 200,000 views on the official NFB Web site. It was also one of only three Canada Vignettes chosen for theatrical runs in the ’80s as part of the NFB’s deal with Cineplex Odeon.
The Canada Vignettes version of “The Black Fly Song” features Hemsworth himself, singing the legendary folk number that he based on his experiences as a survey crew member in northern Ontario, hired in the run-up to the construction of a dam that would eventually become part of the Abitibi Canyon Generating Station. I wouldn’t discover the song until the mid-’90s, when the Irish-Canadian duo Evans and Doherty recorded it as part of their album Shine On Brighter, a collaboration with Liam Clancy. But when I started singing it in my own pub sets, eventually reaching Cathy’s ears, she immediately recognized it from her love of the NFB/Hemsworth collaboration of the late ’70s.
The earliest memory I have of the NFB Canada Vignettes, however, is based less on music than on something even more basic: the human face. Two of the productions, both directed by Paul Bochner, draw the viewer in with lushly-produced portraiture of faces that quickly dissolve into different variations of the human race, representing nearly every age, culture, and skin colour, along with varying levels of facial hair. The first, “Faces,” features a lovely flute piece underneath dozens of visages melting into and out of each other before ending with that of a baby. The NFB itself insists that the Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, is among the faces; one YouTube comment-poster has also insisted that author Farley Mowat and former Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi are also visible – I’ve come up empty on all three, unfortunately. It’s still a striking short film, whether or not you recognize anybody (including yourself) among the “Faces.”
Bochner’s second face-driven vignette, “The Maple Leaf,” is just as memorable but strikes up the intensity in its music, theme and overall tone. It begins – and ends – with the red maple leaf so widely associated with Canada, but builds on the theme that, in the right light and/or frame of mind, that leaf can look strikingly like two faces, particularly two faces locked in a debate. Late in the piece, after we’ve been treated to several pairs of smiling faces of various ages (including, unlike “Faces,” several friendly animal heads), we do indeed get an argument between a male and female who are obviously in a committed relationship. The woman turns away; the man whispers a short phrase that’s likely some variation of “I’m sorry,” and all is forgiven as they kiss before dissolving into the maple leaf. A metaphor for Canada’s two solitudes, perhaps? Given that we’ve simultaneously found new means of bridging cultural gaps and creative ways to alienate each other in the following four decades, perhaps “The Maple Leaf” was a bit of self-fulfilling animated prophecy.
Other animated Canada Vignettes alerted us to long-forgotten moments in Canadian history, and whether by accident or design, did it in segments so entertaining that we were quoting them on the schoolyard during recess time. Without the vignettes, for example, I wouldn’t have learned that it was Bill Miner – captured and imprisoned after a botched 1906 train robbery in British Columbia – that originated the phrase “Hands up.” (The very entertaining Bill Miner vignette somehow fails to mention that he was born, and died, in the U.S. and only spent about six years robbing Canadian trains, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Bizarre as Bill Miner’s tale seemed to us Canadian kids, that was small potatoes compared to the vignettes celebrating two of our proud nation’s greatest screw-ups – specifically, the ill-fated 18th-century construction of Fort Prince of Wales on Hudson Bay and the short-lived 19th-century Republic of Manitobah in Portage la Prairie (a town that still exists, of course, in the actual province of Manitoba). The clips commemorating these moments in time seem equally rooted in Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes adventures for Warner Brothers and Don Martin’s output for MAD Magazine, with their zany voices, frenetic antics and low-level cartoon violence a stark contrast to the droll narration outlining the actual historical facts in each case. “Fort Prince Of Wales” (above, right) has a special place in my heart because my cousins were fond of randomly yelling “FORTY-TWO, SIR!” in a British accent (it’s at the 28-second mark of this YouTube clip); “Spence’s Republic” is still a sentimental favourite because the already-insane concept of Thomas Spence’s ill-fated attempt to launch a tiny Confederation-era autocracy is elevated to ridiculous proportions, particularly in the trial scene. (It frequently aired during reruns of The Muppet Show on CBC in the ’80s; at times it felt like Jim Henson himself might as well have written the script. And if anybody from the NFB is reading this, trust me, that’s a compliment.)
See, that was the genius of the NFB vignettes. I thought I was looking at a pretty picture or being entertained, and all of a sudden I had learned something. I watched “Riverdale Lion,” an animated adaptation of a lovely poem by John Robert Colombo, and all of a sudden I had a heightened awareness of the practice of raising animals in captivity to display them in Canadian zoos. I took in “The Egg,” which saw a frustrated egg trying to prevent itself from cracking open via such methods as Band-Aids, glue and haphazard shelters, and soon it dawned on me that we gain nothing by isolating ourselves from each other and creating our own realities. (That’s a lesson we could all re-learn today, especially on social media.) And of course, after repeated viewings of the wacky animated short “Logger,” I had the innate knowledge of Canada’s woodlands that prepared me to write multiple news stories about the pulp and paper mill in our neighbouring community of Point Tupper, Cape Breton. (No, of course I didn’t. I just laughed. But you played along with me, and that’s all that matters.)
On a serious note, the great legacy of the NFB Canada Vignettes may be the fact that they planted a seed in a generation of young Canadians that made us want to share it with each other and learn more about ourselves along the way. Unlike their obvious heir apparent, the Canadian Heritage Minutes that filled our screens in the ’90s and 2000s, the vignettes were less about in-your-face historical dramatisations and more about stirring our youthful curiosity and picking at little bits of our Canadian hearts, minds and psyches.
If you’ve ever caught yourself humming “The Log Driver’s Waltz” or humming the wordless sea shanty from the “Voyageurs” vignette (above, left), you know what I’m talking about. (During a quiet moment in my Grade 10 English class at St. Peter’s District High School in early 1988, I inexplicably started humming the opening deep notes from “Voyageurs” and was pleasantly surprised when the student in the seat behind me picked up the “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la” line that followed it, trying to stifle a laugh as he sang.)
If you owe your earliest knowledge of Fort Prince of Wales or “The Black Fly Song” to the NFB, you get my point. Years before I even knew who The Men of The Deeps were, I was hearing the legendary Cape Breton choir sing “Coal By The Sea” on the national CBC airwaves via the group’s own NFB vignette; I nearly fell down when I found the piece in a Nova Scotia songbook several years later and had memories of the chorus come flooding back.
So here’s to the CBC, the National Film Board and the hundreds of people who celebrated our country through the NFB Canada Vignettes. Whether you’ve enriched, enlightened or entertained us, or simply warped our minds into the shape of a maple leaf (with a face on each end), baby boomers and Generation X-ers from across this great land salute you.