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The iconic Heritage Minutes collection captured captivating moments in Canadian history

It was a wonderful Christmas at our house on Monday. Good company, good food, good cheer, good presents and a good amount of rest and relaxing. The weather wasn’t very Christmassy in Toronto, however. One of the greenest in my lifetime. Not a drop of the white fluffy stuff to be seen. El Niño’s warming effect could turn this into one of Canada’s milder winters. Hence, many Canadians weren’t able to take a walk in the snow. This includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – and in more ways than one. There’s a long-standing association between Canada’s political leaders and taking a walk in the snow. Why? In a nutshell, if someone in the former category is struggling in some capacity (ie. significant drop in the polls, keeping the party caucus united), he or she should take a walk outside in the snowy weather – or any type of weather – to contemplate his or her political future. The first Canadian politician who took this walk was the PM’s late father. Pierre Trudeau famously recounted his fateful walk in a winter wonderland during a press scrum on Feb. 29, 1984, the day he announced his decision to leave political life. “I walked until midnight in the storm. Interesting, eh? And then I went home and took a sauna for an hour and a half. It was all clear. I was to leave. I went to sleep, just in case I changed my mind overnight, and I didn’t. I woke up, great. To use the old cliche, this is the first day of the rest of my life – and here we are.” CBC reporter Bill Casey, who was at that scrum, noted Trudeau “first attracted national attention as a sort of philosopher-politician” and it seems “he wants to leave the same way.” Moreover, the PM “looked for signs of destiny in the sky” in the storm that night, but “there were none – just snowflakes. So, he listened to his heart. And his heart, it appears, told him it was time to go.” In reality, it was a combination of several factors. Trudeau had been Prime Minister from 1968-1984. Joe Clark’s short-lived Progressive Conservative minority government between 1979-1980 served as the only interruption. The Canadian public, who had witnessed his leadership for years, was getting tired of him and his Liberal government’s policies. Brian Mulroney, who beat Clark in the 1983 PC leadership election, certainly sensed this. “My party was soaring in the polls – Gallup had us at 56 percent, with the Liberals trailing at 27 percent in a poll published on December 1,” he wrote in Memoirs: 1939-1993. “I knew he wouldn’t want to risk another election defeat.” There were many things to dislike about Trudeau, from left-leaning statist ideas to poor economic thinking. His vision of the country had its admirers, but wasn’t shared by all Canadians. Which is naturally the case for all political leaders. His intelligence and political savvy weren’t in dispute, however. The long walk in the snow Trudeau took that stormy evening, whether real or imaginary, confirmed what he had likely suspected in private for a while. There comes a moment when every leader realizes the final steps of a political journey have been taken. When your ideas are tired, policies are stale and personal popularity has sunk to depths that can’t be easily rejuvenated. The layers of snow on Trudeau’s boots provided those indications – and more. Which brings us back to his son. Justin Trudeau has been in a state of political decline for several years. The reasons are plentiful, including three older instances of wearing blackface, two ethics violations, political scandals and controversies involving several Liberal MPs and cabinet ministers, spending taxpayer dollars like a drunken sailor, and situating Canada at the foreign policy kiddie table. That’s why he’s been trailing Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives by double digits since late September. Will Trudeau depart before the next election? It seems unlikely. Terry DiMonte, a former radio host and Trudeau’s friend, recently said to him during their annual hour-long holiday chat, “You have a lot of fight in you. You’re not going anywhere, are you?” The PM responded, “You know, everyone talking about, ‘Oh, maybe it’s the walk in the snow this coming week’…it’s like, Jesus Christ! Come on.” Is this an act of defiance and stubbornness? It’s possible. Does he want to prove he can muster up another political recovery and stay in office? It could be a motivating factor. Or, does he want to prove he’s not in the shadow of his late father? Ay, there’s the rub. History has shown that Justin Trudeau doesn’t have Pierre Trudeau’s political sense and communications skills. He didn’t have them to begin with, and hasn’t spent any discernible amount of time in developing them. He simply plodded along, spent most of his time focusing on fluffy rhetoric and pet projects like a federal carbon tax, and systemically destroyed Canada’s economy and political culture. Not that he believes this has happened, mind you. “With the challenges that people are facing right now, with the way the world is going now and everything that we are doing that’s making positive differences in a very difficult time that isn’t done yet, I wouldn’t be the person I am and be willing to walk away from this right now,” he told CBC’s Rosie Barton on Christmas Day during their year-end interview. Yes, you read this correctly. Our mediocre and ineffective Prime Minister actually feels he’s the nation’s saviour. A political role that virtually no-one believes he’s ever assumed, and even fewer would want him to assume. He’s taken delusional thinking to a whole new level. The son, unlike the father, doesn’t realize when it’s time to pack it in. A long walk in the snow isn’t in the cards. Canada will therefore trudge behind him even when the powdery material finally reaches terra firma.You never know what you can find in a public library.

After dropping off my son at school one day last week, I headed to a library near our home. I hoped to find a copy of a magazine I’d meant to pick up a couple of months ago for research purposes.

My search was unsuccessful. On the plus side, I found something rather fascinating that piqued my interest almost at once.

There, tucked away among some DVDs of no particular significance that were for sale, was a brand new copy of Historica Canada’s Heritage Minutes. In the original shrink wrap, no less.

When I went to purchase it, the librarian looked at the DVD, smiled and said, “I remember enjoying these years ago!” I responded in kind, paid the (not so) princely sum of one dollar and went on my merry way.

heritage minutes canadian history
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The Heritage Minutes collection is a series of short films of 60 seconds in length depicting important moments – or snapshots, if you like – in Canadian history. They’ve been shown on TV, in movie theatres and during VIA Rail trips for over three decades.

As noted in The Canadian Encyclopedia, which operates under the auspices of Historica Canada and President/CEO Anthony Wilson-Smith, Heritage Minutes were the “brainchild” of philanthropist Charles Bronfman and the CRB Foundation. It conducted a national survey in 1986 to find out how much Canadians knew about their history. “Less than half the respondents could name the country’s first prime minister,” which would have driven Sir John A. Macdonald to drink – or, to be perfectly honest, drink more. Meanwhile, “nearly one-quarter could not name a Canadian event or achievement of which they were proud.” From an array of accomplishments in politics to sports, that’s pretty discouraging.

Bronfman was also discouraged. “He set out to create a series of history-focused public service announcements,” and the Heritage Minutes “were designed to capture attention in the manner of an advertisement. They were similar in length to commercials yet structured as dramatic narratives.”

The initial series was produced by Robert-Guy Scully, directed by Richard Ciupka and narrated by the talented broadcaster Patrick Watson. Three pilot episodes were produced in 1988, and the first 13 were released in 1991. Canadian actors like Dan Aykroyd, Graham Greene, Allan Hawco and Kate Nelligan have made appearances, along with other narrators like broadcasters Lloyd Robertson and Peter Gzowski. Funding came from organizations like Canada Post, Power Corporation of Canada and the federal government. The National Film Board of Canada participated, too.

In fact, Heritage Minutes serve the same purpose as public service announcements like the NFB’s Canada Vignettes. Without beavers meticulously building a dam, visiting a blacksmith’s shop, watching an imaginary 19th-century “episode” of News Canada and humming along to the animated short The Log Driver’s Waltz.

The DVD contains 78 of these brilliant snapshots of Canadian history. (There are now 100 in total, with the release of last year’s short film about female baseball star Mary “Bonnie” Baker.) Some would be recognized immediately. Others are a bit more obscure.

Here are but a few.

Explorer Jacques Cartier’s historical blunder of misinterpreting the Iroquois word “Kanata” (village) for Canada. Wilder Penfield’s treatment of seizure disorders, in which a female patient remarked, “I can smell burnt toast!” African American slaves taking the Underground Railroad to Canada and freedom. How a Canadian soldier’s bear, Winnie, led A.A. Milne to create a popular children’s book series. Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne discussing responsible government. Jackie Robinson’s first baseball game with the Montreal Royals. The battle of Vimy Ridge. Robert Harris’s famous painting, A Meeting of the School Trustees, coming to life. James Naismith’s invention of basketball. Emily Murphy’s campaign to give women the vote. Cartoonist Joe Shuster’s famous creation, Superman.

“Heritage Minutes presented Canada’s history in a new and accessible way,” Craig Baird, host of the Canadian History Ehx podcast, recently told me. “For those who grew up in the 1990s, like myself, it sparked an interest in Canadian history. They showed Canadian history could be interesting. It is all in how you present it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Watching a 60-second short film obviously won’t teach you everything that you need to know about Canadian history. It barely scratches the surface. Nevertheless, even the smallest amount of exposure to topics like politics, sports, medicine and the military can open new doors for both young and old. If it helps encourage them to read and learn more about great Canadian moments, figures, discoveries and accomplishments, then Bronfman’s original mission has been accomplished.

You can watch Heritage Minutes at Historica Canada’s website and on YouTube. Or, if you get lucky, you’ll find a copy of the DVD for sale in a public library like I did.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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