I’ll start by repeating what I wrote at the beginning of this gargantuan exercise ranking every single one of these historical chestnuts: Canadian Heritage Minutes are awesome.
Every year, hundreds of grants are given out to promote national culture. There are myriad regulations promoting and protecting distinctly Canadian art and media. The government invests millions of dollars to celebrate our history.
And yet, a series of one-minute commercials, many produced over 20 years ago, endure.
They’re sources of nostalgia, of history, of humour intentional and otherwise.
At this point, they really are part of our heritage.
Above, you can take a look at the 68 Minutes not worthy of a Top 10 ranking (as deemed by me). Every one remaining is undeniably awesome—but because this is the Internet, something has to be the best.
So let’s get going. It’s time to celebrate creating basketball, sort-of-inspiring Disney characters, and, as always, Not Being American.
#10: Halifax Explosion
The plot: We’re in Halifax, where a boat is on fire.
Everyone is just sort of watching it, until someone conveniently runs up a random guy and says “She’s loaded boys! You’ve gotta get out of here! Full of explosives!” He then departs, leaving random guy our hero.
Random guy soon gets as a name, as various people shout “Vince!” or “Mr. Coleman!” when he has the audacity to warn them to GTFO.
Even though he’s a train dispatcher, Coleman only now realizes a train with hundreds of passengers is heading for the city. He runs into his station and begins pounding away on the morse code thingy, even though his supervisors warns him to leave.
“Come on, come on, acknowledge!” he pleads. He finally hears clicking back.
The takeaway: Waiting for morse code is much more dramatic than waiting for a text message.
Heritage Factor (how much does it feel like a Heritage Moment?): 9.1. We’ve got period costumes, some clunky exposition/dramatic devices to ensure everything is explained in a minute, and a dramatic ending. Most importantly, we’ve got lots of historical half-truths in order to service
television drama. Coleman was in a rail station surrounded by tracks, not people, and there 300 people on board, not 700.
Canadian Factor (Is the story it’s telling something distinctly Canadian, or something only Canadians would be proud of?): 7.6. DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAD A GIANT EXPLOSION ONCE?!? In an Ipsos-Reid poll this got the highest overall scoring when cominging the “Liked the Most” and “Learned the Most” ratings, which sounds about right: this is both a quintessential Heritage Minute and educational at the same time. And it’s about something Canadians ought to know more about. These rankings favour hilarity over seriousness though, which is why nine Minutes are higher.
#9: Jennie Trout
The plot: Men are going RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE for seemingly no discernable reason.
I’m already excited. Anyway, the professor with the most amazing mutton chops in the world begins his lecture.
He points to a diagram off stage, but says he won’t name it directly. Why?
Can it get any
better more sexist? Absolutely! A few students scream “Get them out!” before one of the women can’t take it any more.
Mrs. Trout walks to the front of the class—while ANOTHER person shouts “There’s no place for women in a medical school!”—before she tells the professor to get the classroom under control. Then, completely contradicting her previous statement, she does the following.
Yep, that’s what he was referring to. Trout leaves the classroom. We fade out (Where did she go? Who knows!). And that is how a Heritage Minute became centred around a penis joke.
The takeaway: This was the favourite Minute of Canadians between 18 and 24 in an Ipsos Reid survey, because Millenials have their minds in the gutter.
Heritage Factor: 10. Whenever a student is making a Heritage Minute in class where the moral is that Racism/Sexism/Discrimination Once Happened in Canada, they’re thinking of this Minute. I can’t imagine the insults, the dramatic ending, or the professor’s mutton chops being any more over the top.
Canadian Factor: 6.9 DID YOU KNOW CANADA’S FIRST LADY DOCTOR FACED SEXISM?!? We’re told at the end Trout become the first women to practice medicine in Canada, but that’s really not connected to the (utterly glorious) scene she’s in. The Minute is in service to a concept (sexism is bad) and a dramatic reveal (look at this penis!), but not on anything that would enhance national pride. Though really, we’re at the point where we’re nitpicking.
#8: Richard Pierpoint
The plot: We’re told Richard Pierpoint was bought in Senegal and became an American slave. Now he’s in (Upper) Canada.
It’s the War of 1812 and he wants to fight the Americans. He says even though he’s 68, he fought as a Black Loyalist in the American Revolution.
Should be a cinch, right? Unfortunately, A Powerful White Man Is Skeptical.
Pierpoint then makes his case.
Powerful White Man Is Now Sad.
Pierpoint puts the hammer down.
We’re then told Pierpoint helped create the all-black unit that would defend Canada.
The takeaway: Richard Pierpoint was badass.
Heritage Factor: 8. To quote Stefon, this Minute has everything: Dramatic staredowns, an old black Loyalist, jump cuts 50 years into the future, droopy white men getting owned, an over-the-top reminder that Americans Were Racist…technically, it’s a quintessential minute.
But you know how a great rock band can reform after 20 years and put out music that might be technically just as stellar as their classic output, but just doesn’t hit their
rapidly aging audience the same way? Like every Rolling Stones album from 1975 to 1995, or anything from Bruce Springsteen after Born in the USA? That’s how I feel about the new Minutes. They’re well executed (and this one is clearly the best of them), telling The Important Canadian Stories That Need To Be Told, but they just don’t have that lo-fi charm that the originals did.
Or maybe I’m just old and grumpy and hate anything new. It’s probably that.
Canadian Factor: 9.5. DID YOU KNOW THAT AMERICA (WHOM WE BEAT IN THE WAR OF 1812), WAS RACIST?!? It’s not enough to remind people about the time we beat the Americans. We need reminding them that the United States had slaves, and we didn’t. I’m not saying we have a national fetish for comparing ourselves favourably to America. I’m just noting a full 10% of Heritage Minutes are based around that theme…and the best is still to come.
#7: Wilder Penfield
The plot: We’re in a simple Montréal house in the 30s, when a women says “Saul, toast is burning”. Suddenly, this happens.
Acting. We’re now in a hospital. “Everytime she has a seizure, she smells something burning,” says a doctor. He starts poking around her brain, hoping to find the source of the seizures, as all non-scientists watching smile and nod.
The first two times he pokes around, nothing is found. Then…
We’re told in a voiceover by burnt toast lady that “Dr. Penfield cured my seizures, and hundreds more. They say he drew the road map of the human brain. We just called him the greatest Canadian alive.”
The takeaway: Whenever you hear someone say “I smell burnt toast”, this is what they’re referring to.
Heritage Factor: 9.9. If you knew about burnt toast before this article, you may be outraged this Minute isn’t #1. If you hadn’t, go Google “I smell burnt toast” now, because its mark on Canadiana is impressive. The only reason we can’t go the full monty is that outside of the one line, it’s a fairly pedestrian Heritage Minute.
Canadian Factor: 7.8. DID YOU KNOW CANADA HAD A DOCTOR THAT CURED SEIZURES?!? This is one of the times where the Minute itself may be better known than the person it’s for, which makes it hard to judge based on the
completely arbitrary points system. But Penfield’s achievements aren’t celebrated as much as those higher on this list, and the way his achievements are presented don’t reveal any fundamental truth/neuroses about Canada.
The plot: We’re playing proto-basketball. It’s awkward.
Is this some kind of Canadian joke, sir?” asks a
exposition machine masquerading as a character to the instructor.
The instructor relents to their complaints by allowing them to take a step before they shoot the ball. Meanwhile, the sad old man who has to grab the ball each time also has a request.
Naismith suggests the old man just cut out the bottom of the basket if he’s going to whine.
And that is how basketball was invented.
The takeaway: Naismith was able to both revolutionize a sport and inspire a Kate Beaton comic just by calling an old man’s bluff. Not too shabby.
Heritage Factor: 8.5. There’s a nice low-key vibe to this scene. It doesn’t try and give the invention of basketball the importance of, say, a big movie theatre.
I’m also a sucker for the Minutes that follow these steps:
- Here’s a thing you know
- Did you know this thing has a Canadian connection?
- Here’s a historical scene where the details are 98% fabricated to prove that connection!
- YAY CANADA.
And this one achieves that nostalgic bliss just about perfectly.
Canadian Factor: 9.4. DID YOU KNOW A CANADIAN INVENTED BASKETBALL?!? He moved to America as a young man and created it there, but he was born here! In
the British Colony of Canada!
Don’t worry, there’s still one more Heritage Minute where we’re taught of our tenuous connection to something the whole world enjoys. What could it be?
The plot: Some dude is talking up a lady at a Cleveland train station about his comic book idea. “He can lift anything, anything at all.”
Shockingly, the lady is unimpressed. “Joe Shuster, will you stop it or you’ll miss your train.”
Shuster keeps going, “By day he’s a mild-mannered reporter, glasses. You know, secret identity…he’d be in this cape, wearing blue tights.”
Lady, still subtly trying to blow him off, “Honestly, you Canadian kids,” because multiple Canadians have awkwardly tried to pitch superhero ideas to her?
Finally, they reach the train. “Listen Lois, this guy is faster than anything.” OH HER NAME IS LOIS I GET IT NOW.
But the question is, can the scene get even more manufactured, more heavy-handed, more cringeworthy?
Why yes. Yes it can, because suddenly, the Superman theme music plays and Shuster hands Lois a piece of paper.
The takeaway: The writer of this Heritage Minute thinks Canadians need to be spoonfed.
Heritage Factor: 8.8. This is probably the least subtle Heritage Minute in history, and that’s saying something. The story is “Canadian creates Superman”. You could create all sorts of dramatic situations where he creates it or gets it approved. Instead, we get…this. I’m not sure if I’m disappointed or grateful.
Canadian Factor: 9.2. DID YOU KNOW A CANADIAN INVENTED SUPERMAN?!? “Yep, he stands for truth, justice and and American way, but he’s secretly Canadian! Isn’t that ironic?” said every book Canadian Studies teacher for 40+ years. Sadly, Superman has definitely fallen down the Super Hero Power Rankings since this Minute came out 20 years ago. Can we find some sort of Canadian connection to Iron Man?
#4: Agnes Macphail
The plot: Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female MP, decides she wants to see the conditions in Kingston Penitentiary. A Powerful White Man is Skeptical.
(There’s so much to love in this one GIF. The exposition (she’s a MP!). The sexism (she’s a woman!). The setting (seriously, where exactly are they in this prison?). Let’s keep going though.)
Macphail takes a look through the prison, where people are being hanged, maybe?
Jump cut to the House of Commons. Macphail is pushing for penal reform, but once again. A Powerful White Man is Skeptical.
Macpahil ends the mocking, and the Minute, abruptly.
The takeaway: Do NOT mess with Agnes Macphail.
Heritage Factor: 9.8 So many memorable moments. So many quick transitions. So much sexism. So good. So Heritagey. The only thing stopping it from full marks is that there isn’t anything truly bizarre, like the entire House of Commons breaking out in applause, or Macphail personally whipping one of the MPs. If only.
Canadian Factor: 8.3 DID YOU KNOW CANADA’S FIRST FEMALE MP MADE IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTIONS OUTSIDE OF HER GENDER?!?
The plot: A soldier is saying goodbye to his bear before he heads to France. Wait, why does he have a bear? Never mind.
Jump cut to London, 10 years later. A young child is enamoured with Winnie at the zoo and wants to take him home. His father replies:
WOAH HIS NAME IS CHRISTOPHER ROBIN THIS IS STARTING TO COME TOGETHER.
So Christopher Robin’s dad says he’ll write some stories about Winnie, which is certainly hackneyed scriptwriting, but not completely implausible. The implausible bit happens next.
Wait, Mr. Shepard was already drawing the pictures? And was completely cool with being told, on the spot, that he would draw some pictures to entertain Christopher Robin? And why was he at the zoo? Does he just hang out with A.A. Milne in his spare time?
(Editor’s note: No. He did not. Shepard’s relationship with Milne was purely professional. In fact, later in life he loathed the fact that the bulk of his career had been forgotten in relation to some drawings of stuffed animals! Carry on.)
Oh well. Now that we’ve discovered the origins of “Winnie”, I guess the one good thing is we’ll finally learn the origins of “the Pooh”, right?
The takeaway: Nobody has ever come up with a plausible explanation for Winnie the Pooh’s name.
Heritage Factor: 9.2. There’s a reason
I you remember this one. An entire scene is set up for us to both realize how he got his name, and why there’s a Canadian connection, even though both of those facts have zero connection to the character’s popularity. But it’s so gosh darn pleasant—and the child playing Christopher Robin deserves all the awards—that you smile in spite of the 40,000 tropes this Minute ably employes.
Canadian Factor: 9.7. DID YOU KNOW THAT WINNIE THE POOH IS ACTUALLY CANADIAN?!? Winnie turned 100 this year, and earlier this month Ryerson University put together an entire exhibit on his origins. CTV’s story on the exhibit went viral. I don’t know what any of this means, but I’m delighted I live in a country where this happens.
#2: Sam Steele
The plot: Alaska-Canada Boundary, 1898. Some angry bearded guy is complaining about the way he was treated from some guy “in his red coat, all spit and polish.”
We flashback to the scene. Turns out bearded guy was planning to go “the Klondike to look at your gold fields. If there really is any.”
(Guess what nationality he is. Come on, guess!)
Turns out, he has some gambling gear and pistols, and that won’t fly with this RCMP officer.
Bearded guy is insistent he go to the Klondike with his gun. The RCMP officer is insistent he leave them.
The conundrum comes to a head with the best one-liner in the entire Heritage Minute canon.
Let’s watch that again.
Education is so nuanced.
Anyhow, RCMP guy isn’t swayed by the threat of violence.
We flash forward to that opening scene. The American is still complaining to the Mountie escorting him. I wonder what he’ll talk about.
“He never drew no gun. I could have shot that guy right there! Who was he anyway?”
“Superintendent Sam Steele, of the Northwest Mounted Police.”
“Why didn’t I shoot him?”
Before he can continue talking about shooting things, the narrator jumps in.
“In the days of the gold rush, a policemen, Sam Steele, became a legend of the Klondike.”
Anything else to add, fictionalized American?
The takeaway: Americans think of nothing but shooting people.
Heritage Factor: 9.6. Moustaches. Stetsons. Crazed Americans. Jump cuts. Gold. Just gold.
Canadian Factor: 9.9. DID YOU KNOW AMERICANS LIKE SHOOTING PEOPLE BUT CANADIANS ARE PEACEFUL?!? Not only does it walk, talk, breathe, smell and feel like a Heritage Minute, it boils down one of the classic Canadian tropes as effectively—and bluntly, and stereotypically, which is why it’s a Heritage Minute after all—as possible.
But this one is better.
#1: Jacques Cartier
The plot: First Contact between Jacques Cartier and the Iroquois. Kind of a big deal.
The Iroquois invite Cartier to their village. Cartier asks his deputy what they’re saying.
Oh First Nations. How we misunderstood what you were trying to tell us. Hope you like smallpox!
Anyhow, a random due in Cartier’s group tries to set the record straight.
But for the first time in our nation’s history, a Powerful White Man Was Skeptical.
And that’s why we’re called Canada.
In conclusion: I’ve devoted over 18,000 words and 183 gifs exploring this very particular bit of Canadian history. You make conclusions.