A Part of Our Heritage?

by | February 12, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Pop Culture

Part of Our Heritage Screen Capby Jarrah Hodge

Most Canadian kids of the 80s and early 90s will remember the “Part of Our Heritage” ads produced by Charles Bronfman’s CRB Foundation that seemed to run almost non-stop. As much as we enjoy mocking them, we learned from them. We learned why the Bluenose is on the dime (it beat the US in a race), that Winnie the Pooh was named after Winnipeg, and that a Canadian invented basketball by suggesting cutting a hole in the bottom of a basket to save going up the ladder to fetch the ball.

I can’t remember exactly what exactly triggered it but the other day I was prompted to re-watch the ads on YouTube. I noticed a lot of things I hadn’t thought about when I was 7 or 8 and thought I’d take a post or two to do a little bit of retrospective analysis. I realized Heritage Minutes didn’t just teach us Canadian history factoids: they presented certain views of race and gender that occasionally challenged but more often reinforced popular stereotypes.

Heritage Minutes on Women

I’ll start with the Heritage Minutes that looked at white women’s history, because they’re actually fairly good. My favourite of all of them is the story about how women attending medical school faced harassment:

The Jennie Trout ad acknowledges an issue with our past and uses a level of humour in order to be memorable. In a similar vein we have a tribute to Agnes McPhail, Canada’s first woman MP who was the driving force behind penal reform in the 1930s:

A recognition of midwifery is also progressive as it shows the historical importance of women in delivering babies:

Another that presents a positive view of women in Canadian history is the story of Marion Orr, the first woman to run a flight school.

What it doesn’t acknowledge is that if the Canadian military had had its way, Marion wouldn’t have been working as a pilot in a WWII scenario like the one depicted in the ad. The RCAF refused to hire women instructors and Marion went with a friend to England where they were hired to ferry military aircraft for the RAF as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary.

A couple more ads focused on stories of Canadian women performing heroic wartime feats, including Laura Secord warning of an American attack in the War of 1812,  one on Mona Parsons, who had participated in the Dutch resistance during WWII, and one on Paulette Vanier, wife of Governor General Georges P. Vanier, who served as Canada’s ambassador to France in the years following WWII. Working for the Canadian Red Cross she set herself to the task of helping returning refugees (the subject of the ad).

Some other “exceptional” women deemed worthy of ads were Montreal singer Mary Travers, a PEI teacher who persuaded her school board to embrace new methods in the 1880s, and painter Emily Carr.

The final ads I’ll look at relating to women’s history tell the story of Canadian first-wave feminists fighting for equal rights for women.One looks at Nellie McClung’s push for women’s votes in Manitoba:

Though it’s not totally clear whether the last interaction in the ad is fabricated, since McClung had already moved to Alberta by the time Manitoba granted women the vote.

The second looked at Emily Murphy, another of the “Famous Five” who secured women’s rights as “persons” under the law:

On the one hand, it’s nice to see McClung and the rest of the Famous Five recognized for their incredible impact on women’s rights in Canada . On the other hand, taking these and the ad about women in medical school together, it’s possible to learn that sexist injustice is a thing of the past.

When it comes to the Heritage Minutes on white women’s history, the CRB didn’t do too badly. It’s true more ads featured men protagonists than women, but they managed to show some of the sexist barriers women faced in the past and traced some key rights we take for granted today back to strong and courageous women.

But I have to put the caveat on that I’m referring to white women. Not a single ad featured an individual woman of colour. In the next post I’ll look more at how the Heritage Minutes depicted race, particularly their treatment of First Nations people.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what memory you have of the ads and which one was your favourite growing up.

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