Heritage Minutes II: Part of Whose Heritage?

by | February 16, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Racism

Heritage Minute Canada Screencap

by Jarrah Hodge

In my last post I wrote about how Canadian Heritage Minutes talked about (white) women’s history. I did a quick calculation based on Wikipedia’s list of the ads and estimate that the number of ads featuring women was about 22%. So not amazing but not insignificant.

Where we get into more problematic areas are the Heritage Minutes that feature people of colour, particularly those dealing with First Nations history.

Heritage Minutes on Race

But let’s start with some more positive examples. In this first one, a man tells a First Nations legend to his (I’m guessing) granddaughter. While the production values are about at the level of an original series Star Trek episode, it nevertheless is one of the few Heritage Minutes that is actually told in the voice of a First Nations person:


Next, black Canadian Maurice Ruddick tells the story of being trapped in a mine in Nova Scotia in 1958:

Another one that’s more honest about the racism in our history is this ad about the Chinese people who built the Canadian Pacific Railway:

“Damn it, that’s the third one we’ve lost this week,” says one of the white supervisors in the clip, showing how Chinese workers were treated as expendable objects.

The rest of the ads dealing with people of colour and First Nations people fall into two categories: those that put white Canada on its high horse about its history of tolerance (especially compared to the US), and those that have a voyeuristic feel, telling the stories of people of colour from a white perspective.

The best example of the high-horse group is the ad about the Underground Railroad:

The escape of African-American slaves to the Northern US and Canada via the Underground Railroad is unquestionably a key event in Canadian history. The Historica Dominica lesson suggests the white woman in the ad is a Quaker. Given that Quakers helped lead the anti-slavery movement among whites, it’s not totally inaccurate. But if the ad just ends up signifying white Canadians more generally, it could imply that all or most white Canadians accepted and facilitated the Underground Railroad.

On the contrary, the official response was mixed. Immigrants and refugees to Canada were given land or provisions by the government, but this was not extended to those who arrived via the Underground Railroad. In addition many former slaves received hostile and openly racist treatment from white Canadians upon arrival. The systemic racism experienced by black Canadians today should further limit our ability to toot our own horn about our supposedly tolerant past. Another ad that shares this issue to a lesser extent is the one about Jackie Robinson playing for the Montreal Royals.

In a similar holier-than-thou vein, this ad about Sitting Bull features the famous Hunkpapa Lakota leader extolling the virtues of the North West Mounted Police while stating a distrust of the American forces. At least this one has a short disclaimer-like sentence at the end, something many of the others could’ve benefited from.

The second group of ads have a voyeuristic feel, using white voices to tell the stories of people of colour and First Nations.

Heritage Minutes Screen Cap "Canada"In The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, author Daniel Francis notes how Canadian school textbooks constructed a frozen image of what First Nations people and their history were made of: “The textbook Indian* is very much a figure of the past, frozen in time like a butterfly in amber. Textbooks implied, if they did not state outright, that the important business of civilization went on without them.”

Some of the Heritage Minutes carry on this unfortunate tradition, showing First Nations in stasis and usually denying them agency by telling their stories through white eyes. Take, for example, the story of  how Canada got its name, or how white people learned to make maple syrup:


Other examples are the ad about Inuit building an inukshuk on Baffin Island, watched by a white RCMP officer, and the ad about Emily Carr. The only more modern story of a First Nations person – Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal war veteran Tommy Prince – is also told in the form of a eulogy given by white people.

The two episodes that deal with Canada’s work in Africa have the same issue. One looks at Canadian surgeon Lucille Teasdale’s efforts to build a hospital in Uganda in the 1960s. The other shows Canada’s peacekeeping role in the 1963 Congo civil war:

All of these are remarkable stories that deserve to be shared. The issue is that by having only white people take the lead in telling them, it belies the idea that we’re a truly multicultural nation giving everyone equal voice and importance.

In the third and final instalment I want to talk a little bit more about the cultural significance of the Heritage Minutes and share some of my favourite parodies. Let me know if you’ve seen any you think I should consider. I’d still really like to know which Heritage Minute you find most memorable so please comment below!

*Francis explains that he uses the term “Indian” when he is describing the view of Indigenous people held by non-Indigenous people. 

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