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‘Sausage-machine TV’: Commons committee wants CBC to answer for controversial history series


OTTAWA — A House of Commons committee is asking CBC representatives to testify about the controversial history docu-drama Canada: The Story of Us.

The 10-episode weekly series, which began airing at the end of March, is supposed to recount Canadian history in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of confederation.

It has faced a public backlash over its representation of francophones, indigenous people and some regions of the country. The premier of Nova Scotia, for example, criticized its failure to acknowledge Samuel de Champlain’s first settlement in Port-Royal. While some called the series’ view of history “whitewashed,” or “anglo-centric,” its defenders said it’s impossible to avoid offending anybody when history is dramatized and retold.

At the crux of the issue for MPs is the fact CBC is a public broadcaster, using public money to fund and present programming. The series is also connected to Canada 150 celebrations and featured an introduction from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

New Democrat MP Pierre Nantel successfully moved last week to have the House heritage committee ask CBC to appear. In a statement Thursday, CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson said the broadcaster is aware of a pending committee invitation but hasn’t yet received one. “When we do, we will work with the committee to set a date,” he said.

The motion is worded broadly, asking CBC “to discuss the efforts of the corporation, by virtue of its mandate, to ensure the representation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and of francophones, and concerning the corporation’s activities in the context of the 150th anniversary of Canada.”

But MPs understood in committee that they were really talking about The Story of Us and whether or not it paints an accurate picture of Canada’s early days.

“I think it’s been very lazy,” Nantel said of the series, and “a big mistake.” In an interview Thursday, he said he wants to ask the public broadcaster, “How can a decision be taken so lightly?”

The CBC did apologize earlier this month, saying in a statement “our intention was never to offend anyone or any group, nor diminish the importance of any of the stories that were not included.” Though post-episode “live digital conversations” were announced, no changes to the program are anticipated.

Nantel is especially incensed about how francophones are portrayed, and that Quebec actors weren’t hired to play francophone characters. He complained translations weren’t done in the province either, so translated lines are in the accents of French-speakers from France.

PostmediaNDP MP Pierre Nantel

“How can you not hire French-Canadian (actors) to play French Canadians?” he asked as well. “How can you bear to have a filles du roi speak with an English accent? It’s a super joke.”

The series was produced for CBC by Bristow Global Media Inc., headed by CBC veteran Julie Bristow, in partnership with United Kingdom-based company Nutopia. The latter has used an “internationally successful format,” a Bristow press release says, to put out similar Story of Us programs in the U.K., the United States and Australia.

Nantel said this is “sausage-machine TV” — though he acknowledged it’s probably “good TV” — and suggested CBC shouldn’t have gone for an international format that may have “led to some compromises.”

In an emailed statement Thursday, Bristow said the show was never intended to be a “typical, comprehensive historical documentary series.” Instead, the series is trying to tell “50 short stories about some of the extraordinary individuals who helped shape our nation.”

“We necessarily left out huge swaths of history. We recognize the notion of ‘us’ in a nation as diverse as Canada is challenging,” Bristow said. “We invite viewers — including those who have been disappointed or angry with the first episodes — to watch more of the series and share their views.”

Although she regrets that some people feel misrepresented by the show, Bristow said “this kind of public conversation is a good thing” — even if it’s “thorny, complex, and even sometimes painful.”

CBCA scene from the CBC docu-drama Canada:The Story of Us, portraying Cayuga warrior John Tutela and Laura Secord during the War of 1812.

Conservative MP Peter Van Loan, for one, said he’s “quite enjoying” The Story of Us and thinks it’s accurate.

“The reaction to the series has been a series of complaints from people saying, ‘Well, I don’t like the series because I don’t see my story reflected in it.’ And the understandable answer from the producers of the series is, ‘Well, we’ve only got 10 hours, you can’t do everything in 10 hours,’” Van Loan said Thursday.

He said he supported Nantel’s motion because it’s an opportunity to discuss “the broader lack of such broadcasting on CBC,” focused on topics including Canadian history, geography and culture.

Liberal MPs also agreed CBC should appear. Seamus O’Regan said in committee he takes issue with the program’s omission of St. John’s as the oldest European city in North America, and the motion was broadly-worded enough to quell his “hesitation about the state making programming decisions.”

Another Liberal, Darrell Samson, said, “I would like the CBC’s work to be professional, and the corporation should ensure that the information it provides is consistent with the facts. I think that an institution like the CBC really has no excuse for having made such big mistakes.”

A 45-day time limit was struck from Nantel’s motion and because the committee has a lot on its plate — including studying islamophobia, per the famous M-103 — it’s unclear whether CBC will appear before the summer break.

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