Ranking Every Canadian Heritage Minute: #25-11

We’re now at the point where virtually every Heritage Minute doesn’t just reflect a famous moment in Canada’s history—they’re often a key part in how people identify with the subject itself. The Minutes in this batch aren’t just unintentionally hilarious or intentionally inspiring (and often both at the same time!) — they’ve influenced popular perceptions and culture for an entire generation, raising new questions over national identity.

Man, doesn’t that sound like a boring thinkpiece? Let’s get to the clips and the gifs. It’s time to celebrate standard time, not being racist, and beating the Americans.

(A reminder of the scoring system: Each Minute is ranked out of 10 on the Heritage Factor—silly facial hair, contrived conversations, abrupt transitions, “Burnt Toast Moments”, and everything else unique about the medium’s form—and out of 10 on the Canadian Factor—which is to say, whether the thing it’s discussing/celebrating is something that only Canadians would be really proud of)

#25: Sanford Fleming (14.5 points)

The plot: A railroad is being surveyed, and there are beards a’ plenty. One person is particularly excited about the nation-building possibilities.

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That’s Sanford Fleming! He then goes to a work cabin, where he grouses about that “between Halifax and Toronto, there are five separate time zones.” He says there must be a better way, but a flunkie is skeptical.

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Fleming says “We’ll have to make them understand…even if it takes years.” I guess it’s time to learn how he convinced people!

Or he could walk from the cabin into a time machine that transports him to an award ceremony.

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Inspirational music, full compliments by the narrator, and we end scene.

The takeaway: If convincing people takes time, it’s not worth showing.

Heritage Factor: 7.2. This pretty much hits all the marks of a quality Minute, though it doesn’t have much spark aside from the time machine. I do enjoy how often Heritage Minutes gloss over the most important part of Canadian accomplishments—how they actually happened. Granted, you only have a minute, and that’s the least dramatic part, but you could basically make a meme at this point:

1. We get to know the person
2. They want to do something
3. Someone (preferably a Powerful White Man) is skeptical
4. Person gives a reason for doing it
5. ???
6. FAMOUS!!!

Canadian Factor: 7.3. DID YOU KNOW A CANADIAN INVENTED STANDARD TIME?!? We made sure everything was nice and orderly!

#24: John A. Macdonald (14.5 points)

The plot: We’re on a boat before the Quebec Conference of 1864, where apparently John A. Macdonald’s plan to woo delegates is to give them plenty of alcohol. Because John A.

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I like how Macdonald looks just slightly unhinged. Anyhow, Macdonald, Cartier, George Brown, and Some Other Guy Not Named talk about why Canada’s a good idea. Better united than divided, Americans like war, coast to coast railway, yadda yadda.

Then we’re suddenly three months in the future at Charlottetown. Cut to a fancy conference room.

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And that is how Canada Happened.

The takeaway: Our country began the same way Cool Runnings ended: With an epic slow clap.

Heritage Factor: 8. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s been impressive how the new Heritage Minutes have paid homage to the classic form established, while upping the production values. I also can’t get enough of the slow clap: It’s as though the writers knew they had to talk about the birth of Canada, couldn’t find one defining moment, and did the screenwriting equivalent of throwing up their hands.

Canadian Factor: 6.5 DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAS A STORY OF INDEPENDENCE TOO?!? LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT IT! WAIT, WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!? Of course, the reason for the slow clap is because Confederation was pretty boring when you compare it to the origin story of pretty much every other country. Still, you’ve gotta have one and you’ve gotta tell it—and Canada’s version, one of incremental pragmatists and earnest reformers finding common ground, pretty much fits our collective bill.

#23: Marconi (14.6 points)

The plot: It’s a windy day in Newfoundland and people are playing with a kite…or so it seems.

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An antenna for what? It’s never mentioned. But we get the sense that we’re waiting for something important to happen.

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The machine makes a sound! I guess something happened. Again, we’re not told what. “This is going to your world a lot different then the one I grew up in,” says an old dude to some kids, and JUST TELL US WHAT IT IS.

Finally, the old dude tells us that they’re hearing a sound that comes across the ocean—“isn’t that right, Mr. Marconi?” he asks.

And then Guglielmo Marconi, who just created the first transatlantic radio message, has this to say:

Feel the excitement.

The takeaway: Radio is pretty boring.

Heritage Factor: 6.8. This one takes a while to get going, but between never explaining what’s happening, and Marconi’s complete lack of enthusiasm for his invention, this one is pretty solid.

Canadian Factor: 7.8. DID YOU KNOW CANADA WAS THE PLACE WHERE THE FIRST TRANSATLANTIC RADIO CROSSING WAS?!? Wait, Canada didn’t even invent this? It just took place here?

Yep. Marconi was Italian. He didn’t even live in Canada, and Cape Cod was actually his first choice for the transmission. Still, it happened in Canada!

Except it was 1901, so Newfoundland was still part of Britain.

#22: Louis Riel (14.7 points)

The plot: We start in tight. Really tight.

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So yeah, it’s intense. We slowly zoom out so we see Riel’s entire head, as justifications for his rebellion are interspersed with comments from a judge sentencing him to death.

“Insane? I have battled an insane and irresponsible government,” he says.

“Perhaps I am a prophet. I suffered enough.”

Now the background sounds are in latin.

“I struggled not only for myself, but for the rights of my people, the Métis.”

Then this happens.

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The takeaway: You will be asked to debate Louis Riel’s actions in a high school history class, and you will find no easy answer.

Heritage Factor: 7.2. So this is the only Heritage Minute that ends with a hanging. We’re in different territory here, despite the undeniable quality of it. I almost feel like a teacher who got an assignment completely ignoring the rules, but brilliant in its own right—I can’t give it more than a C+.

Canadian Factor: 7.5. DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAS AT LEAST ONE MORALLY GREY HISTORY LESSON?!?

#21: Laura Secord (15.1 points)

The plot: We see a lady running.

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We’re told it’s Laura Secord. She’s in Queenston, which has been taken by the Americans. For reasons not explained, she’s right next to some Americans who are planning a new attack.

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She decides to warn her fellow proto-Canadians. She starts running to FitzGibbon. Then she faints. Then she wakes up.

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The takeaway: Laura Secord helped Canada.

Heritage Factor: 6.7. Generally, if a Heritage Minute is set outside, it will tell a single, linear story. If it’s inside, there will be lots of fancy jump cuts and ridiculous conversations. And while I favour the latter, this one is undeniably a Heritage Minute, from the frantic running to the faux-dramatic ending.

Canadian Factor: 8.4. DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAD A LADY HERO IN THE WAR OF 1812 (IN WHICH WE BEAT THE AMERICANS)?!? I could grumble about how the War of 1812 was manipulated for nationalism long before its bicentennial, how the educational focus on Brock (white General), Tecumseh (aboriginal warrior) and Secord (lady hero) is too simplistic, or how my favourite legacy of the war is a Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie song. Every country needs origin stories, every country needs a Goliath to fight, every country needs an anonymous hero…and every country needs a Laura Secord.

#20: Marshall McLuhan (15.3 points)

The plot: “TV sucks the brain right out of the skull,” says Marshall McLuhan at the beginning of this TV spot, and if you’re not a fan of such over-the-top storytelling you should move on to the next Minute right now.

A seminar is wrapping up, and he’s rambling as students leave his class. A student asks “are you telling us the medium is more important than the message that it carries?”

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We get a full on dramatic pause. Then..

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McLuhan is pretty pleased with his turn of phrase. Which considering its eventual impact, is fair.

“What does that mean?” asks one of his students (along with every other first-year undergraduate for decades to come).

It’s never explained. Instead, McLuhan rambles to himself and getting all meta with the viewer.

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The takeaway: Don’t leave your class as soon as the bell rings. You might miss your teacher stumbling upon one of the most cultural insights of the 20th century.

Heritage Factor: 8.3. Cedric Smith, the actor playing McLuhan (and also Professor X in the 90’s cartoon version of X-Men) just chews the scenery here to delicious ends, and the dramatic pause to introduce the catchphrase is excellent.

Canadian Factor: 7. DID YOU KNOW A CANADIAN CREATED AN IMPORTANT ACADEMIC CATCHPHRASE?!?

#19: Rural Teacher (15.6 points)

The plot: A lady teacher asks her students to leave the classroom. They do. Let the sexism begin!

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Powerful White Man is upset about something. Next to him is a guy we’ll call Crazy Beard. He’s quiet. Too quiet.

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Back to lady teacher. She wants independence in what she teaches. You’ll be shocked to know that a Powerful White Man is Skeptical.

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Lady teacher then wants Powerful White Man to look at something his son wrote. “It is a difficult passage,” she says. “It is from the Bible.”

Ominous music plays, and Crazy Beard finally speaks.

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Bluff, called.

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The takeaway: Illiterate men should never tell lady teachers what to teach.

Heritage Factor: 9.6. This Minute is so good, it inspired a shot-for-shot parody centred around Crazy Beard drawing out the word “read”. It’s so good that a Powerful White Man gets to be skeptical twice, and owned twice, in the span of 40 seconds. It’s so good that even though the Minute is a dramatic re-enactment of a famous painting (Robert Harris’ “The Meeting of the School Trustees”), I guarantee you more Canadians know more about the Minute than the painting. It’s so good.

Canadian Factor: 6. DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAD ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSES?!? The only reason this isn’t higher is because the Minute doesn’t shed light on anything fundamentally Canadian. Sure, there were more rural one-room schoolhouses in Canada than other countries and more people with crazy bears and over-the-top accents, but there’s no great statement on the Canadian condition here. Just larfs.

#18: John Humphrey (10.1 points)

The plot: We’re in the office of a John P. Humphrey of the United Nations. A bunch of people are yelling at him for this “University Declaration of Human Rights” thing he’s writing for a committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. International leaders don’t like the idea. Humphrey is as cool as a cucumber.

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Jump cut 40 years into the future. We’re now at the European Court of Human Rights where people are arguing a case. There are plenty of people watching. Two staff members notice one guest in particular.

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Why yes, that IS the Canadian who wrote the (first draft) of the Declaration of Human Rights. End scene.

The takeaway: International Law Court people can look at any senior citizen and immediately know their nationality and greatest accomplishment.

Heritage Factor: 8.3. The entire thing is a not-so-subtle attempt to sway your understanding of history. Humphrey says “Mrs. Roosevelt and I only drafted the declaration” as a way of telling the audience “Hey, remember that thing you thought Eleanor Roosevelt did? WELL A CANADIAN DID IT WITH HER.”

Plus that ending. Oh, that ending. Would anyone actually say “Isn’t that the Canadian who actually WROTE the Declaration of Human Rights?” They’d probably go “Oh, isn’t that the guy who helped write the Declaration. What’s his name again?”

And then that might say “John Humphrey!” and then, and only then, might they get around to the Canadian part.

This Minute was delightful.

Canadian Factor: 7.5. DID YOU KNOW A CANADIAN ACTUALLY WROTE THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?!? This would be higher, but the Heritage Factor already accounted for the fact they made the subtext the text.

#17: Nitro (16 points)

The plot: “Alright, who wants danger pay?” asks a a manager somewhere in the Rockies.

A young Chinese worker volunteers. This being a CP construction site, a mine, and dangerous nitroglycerine, you can guess what happens next.

Nitro

But wait!

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We end with A genuinely poignant scene 50 years later the future, when he’s telling the story to his grandkids.

“I lost many friends. They say there is one dead Chinese man for every mile of the track.”

“That’s what they say.”

The takeaway: Being a Chinese railway worker sucked.

Heritage Factor: 9. This is the second-to-last Minute that gets high marks mostly for being “good” rather than “delightfully contrived”. All of the scenes are handled with care and nothing looks too stilted. Both young old versions of the Chinese worker act the hell out of their roles.

Canadian Factor: 7. DID YOU KNOW CANADA DISCRIMINATED AGAINST CHINESE IMMIGRANTS?!? This isn’t so much points for “bragging” about it, but the fact the topic was addressed in a fairly direct manner—something Minutes about First Nations and immigration policy failed to do.

#16: Nellie McClung (16.1 points)

The plot: It’s 1916. Should woman in Manitoba get the vote? A Powerful White Man is Skeptical.

McClung

That’s Premier R.P. Roblin. Nellie McClung has a sassy response ready to go.

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Still, Roblin has a very convincing argument to back his sexism up.

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Well then. McClung decides to hold a satirical rally, pointing out what the debate would be like if women were trying to stop men from voting.

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She then turns Roblin’s words against him. Oh, irony!

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We’re then told Manitoba women were the first in Canada to get the vote, and then we see Roblin and McClung meet at a ballot box again. McClung says to Roblin “I’m sure you don’t want your photograph taken with a women who’s not nice?” End scene. 

The takeaway: Canadian women fighting for the vote knew the power of a pithy line.

Heritage Factor: 9.4. Incredibly wonderful, from the constant pwning of Roblin (first time that phrase has been typed ever) to the great suffragette rally scenes. There’s not a wrong note to be had.

Canadian Factor: 6.7 DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAD SUFFRAGETTES TOO?!?

#15: Bluenose (16.2 points)

The plot: We’re off the coast of Massachusetts, watching (and listening) to a big boat race between the Bluenose and some U.S. boat. We know this because the announcer on board says “The American ship is just trailing the Bluenose!”

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Things are tense as crew members make the Bluenose do boat stuff. The ship’s captain asks the Bluenose to dig down deep, because ships are sentient beings.

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A cannon goes off. The Bluenose wins! Everyone celebrates.

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“Her last race and still undefeated. The Bluenose out of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia was fastest in the world for almost 20 years.”

The takeaway: Oh! That’s the thing on the dime!

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Heritage Factor: 6.2. See previous rants about sport-based Minutes being limited. A great Heritage Minute has some unpredictability to its 60 seconds…but if it’s a sport, you know the Canadians will win. That being said, the black-and-white images and over-the-top music wring as much pathos as possible out of the proceedings.

Canadian Factor: 10. DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAD A REALLY GOOD BOAT THAT WON A LOT OF RACES AND THEN BEAT THE AMERICANS IN ITS LAST BIG RACE?!?

Maple leaf. Beaver. Caribou. Loon. Polar Bear. Ship that beat the Americans a bunch of times.

National symbols don’t just happen. They’re chosen because they represent a story we want to tell about ourselves. We only know about the Bluenose because it’s on a coin, and we only know what it did because of an endlessly played Heritage Minute.

Is the fact so much of our cultural nationalism comes from defining ourselves relative to America noxious, a necessity of geography and language, or a point of pride? I still haven’t been able to figure that out. What I do know is the Bluenose being on the dime is quintessentially Canadian, and I love it.

#14: Avro Arrow (16.2 points)

The plot: A smooth talking, Dan Akryodesque motormouth starts talking about a flying machine that everyone in the world is trying to build.

Oh wait, it is Dan Aykroyd.

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It’s never made exactly clear to the audience what this flying machine is, but Canada’s trying to build it!

We fail at first.

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Then we figure it out!

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It’s probably best for someone to say “We did it” one more time. Can we have that?

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Excellent. The narrator than quickly tells us “the government cancelled the project and destroyed the prototypes”, because Canada.

The takeaway: Dan Aykroyd is the most famous Canadian to appear in a Heritage Minute. That seems wrong.

Heritage Factor: 7.3. The two separate shots of people saying “We Did It!” is a definite plus, as is the nice twist ending. Having said that, the Minute is fairly linear in execution without too much tension.

Canadian Factor: 8.9. DID YOU KNOW CANADA BUILT A REALLY GOOD AIRCRAFT THIS ONE TIME?!?

#13: Jackie Robinson (16.3 points)

The plot: A baseball team is getting ready to play when their general manager shows up. He tells them some guy named Jackie Robinson is going to be on their team.

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Robinson is the first African-American signed to a major league team, but in his first year he plays for the Brooklyn Dodger’s minor league outfit in Montreal. People throw balls at him.

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Later on, he gets a big hit, and the crowd chants “Jackie”. His teammates smile. In Canada at least, Jackie Robinson has been accepted.

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The takeaway: Canada is not racist.

It’s worth noting that in an Ipsos-Reid survey, Canadians said they liked this Heritage Minute more than any other.

Heritage Factor: 7.1. Any Hertiage Minute that ends with everyone clapping is good by me. I’m also bemused that something as innocuous as getting a big hit was enough to make Montreal rally around him. In order to succeed on his historic journey, Robinson had to be brave, courageous, humble and proud. But he also had to be a heck of a ballplayer.

Canadian Factor: 9.2. DID YOU KNOW JACKIE ROBINSON FIRST BROKE THE COLOUR BARRIER IN CANADA?!? Being in the footnotes of history: Part of our Heritage.

#12: Flags (16.4 points)

The plot: We’re introduced to a man standing…in a dark room? An empty closet? A soundstage? Do we know how he got there? It’s never really explained, which makes everything 10% more awesome.

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So, lots of proposals for flags.

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That’s nice.

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Also could work. Is this…is this just going to be you showing us flags?

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Okay…

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WE GET IT. LOTS OF FLAGS. JUST CHOOSE ONE ALREADY.

Suddenly, the door to whatever hellscape we’re in opens.

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Why did Pearson and Diefenbaker suddenly enter the room? Where are they going? Why are they putting so much power in the hands of a clearly this man?

We’re never told any of that. What we are told is that John Matheson, the crazy man talking to himself, got everyone to agree on Canada’s flag.

The takeaway: Deciding on a flag is hard.

Heritage Factor: 9.3. Do you remember this Heritage Minute? Of course you do—it’s one of the most memorable in the canon, despite having no real plot, no sets, and only one character. The music, acting, and effects are executed magnificently.

Canadian Factor: 7.1. DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAD A BIG FIGHT OVER A FLAG, BUT WE LEARNED TO COMPROMISE?!? For people my age and under, who have known only total acceptance for the maple leaf, it’s hard to imagine that:

a) Canada didn’t have a unique flag for almost 100 years
b) the debate was incredibly heated as the country had ever known.

Makes you wonder how it would go today if people could Facebook and tweet their flag choices!*

*Again, please do not ever imagine how Canadian historical events would play out if social media was around.

#11: Home From the Wars (16.6 points)

The plot: We’re in a Veterans Shelter in 1946. A giant crowd is attacking a government minister for not doing enough to support them. The Minister defends himself, but people quiet down where one veteran begins to speak. The camera shows him from the side. I wonder why?

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We then have a very dramatic turn. Literally.

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The Minister is…surprised? Horrified? It doesn’t matter though, because the crowd has their own ace up their sleeve.

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You got it. It’s slow clap time. The Minister is flummoxed.

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While the clapping is going on, the Minister and his secretary spitball the idea of affordable mortgages, under an organization that would come to be known as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, creating affordable housing for untold veterans and non-veterans alike for decades to come.

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The takeaway: If you want government policy changed on the fly, find a disfigured person to make an inspirational speech and then start a slow clap.

Heritage Factor: 9.8. Just an A+ imaginary situation scripted to illustrate the importance of the CMHC. It gets across why its creation was crucial, but does with a wonderfully over the top conceit. The veteran didn’t need to be that disfigured. The Minister didn’t need to seem horrified. The crowd didn’t need to slow clap. Yet they did, and it was marvellous.

Canadian Factor: 6.8 DID YOU KNOW CANADA CARES FOR ITS VETERANS?!?

On Monday, we’ll look at the Top 10, and decide which is greatest Heritage Minute of all time.

(I’m so glad I got to type that sentence)

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