If you are the sort of person who is delighted by the mere existence of a book about historical programming on the CBC, then you will likely find much to recommend in Monica MacDonald’s Recasting History: How CBC Television Has Shaped Canada’s Past. Using a mixture of interviews and impressive archival work, MacDonald reconstructs the process by which the country’s history has been presented to Canadian viewers, exploring how changes in a variety of fields – broadcasting, journalism, and the study of history itself – are reflected in the programs that were ultimately produced.
The earliest Canadian history–themed show, a CBC series called Explorations that ran from 1956 to 1964, relied heavily on the work – and even onscreen presence – of eminent history professors from across the country. Later historical programming, like Images of Canada and The National Dream, had more of a journalistic bent. MacDonald argues that the shift was due, at least in part, to the fact that journalist Knowlton Nash had taken over the department of information programming at the network after a reorganization. Earlier historical series that made their way onto the CBC had been led by broadcast executives, like Eric Koch, who had a background in radio.
The chapter on the mid-1970s development and production of The National Dream, based on Pierre Berton’s book about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, is the most entertaining part of MacDonald’s volume. It is deeply researched and fascinating, with lots of great detail about Berton’s many demands and how they were managed. The juiciest morsel involves a set of notes from Berton to the young and then little-known screenwriting duo of Timothy Findley and William Whitehead.
Later CBC efforts – like The Valour and the Horror, Canada: A People’s History, and Canada: The Story of Us – highlight a journalistic shift to a more confrontational and investigative approach, a movement that roughly coincided with a greater emphasis on social history as opposed to political and military history in the academic discipline. These changes resulted in public controversy where those particular series were concerned; the history presented tended not to be as triumphant and raised uncomfortable truths about the past.
Like its private over-the-air competitors, CBC Television’s audience has narrowed, which might make it difficult to sell potential corporate advertisers on an ambitious historical project that is at least as likely to alienate and anger viewers as it is to unite the country. While very much a niche project, MacDonald’s book will be valuable to those interested in the impossibly complicated process of trying to use a public broadcaster to tell stories about Canada’s contentious past while ensuring that those stories simultaneously comprise a commercially viable, editorially sound vision and help build a nation, not divide it.