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Live from the Plains of Abraham

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It's Canada: A People's History, the CBC $25 million, 30 hour, 15 episode attempt to show us the way we were

Red, grey and black binders bearing such labels as “Metis, et al” and “Halifax 1890s-1915” are scattered across the boardroom table. Huge yellow boxes of slides are piled in a corner. “Those are all for the Confederation episode,” says Mark Starowicz as he enters the sixth-floor screening room in the Toronto CBC building. Seating himself at the head of the board table, he leans back and starts the tape rolling on an earlier episode, “Battle for a Continent,” which focuses on Britain and France’s fight for control of Quebec. On the new 40-inch digital television screen at the front of the room, a re-enactment of the battle for the Plains of Abraham starts to play. As actors portraying French soldiers march forward, the camera zooms in on one face. Starowicz interrupts, “We wanted to show the humanity in the story. I love this part,” he whispers as the voice-over begins. “Pierre, age 52, is a landowner. In his diary it is written, ’I’m wearing glasses but I still have difficulty seeing.’” Moments later, Pierre dies from a gunshot wound, and we watch his body being carried off the field. Starowicz pushes the pause button. “The text is correct,” he says, “the script is sparse, and for me it is extremely dramatic for its sparseness. It conveys—respectful to the original people— the experience. To me that’s good journalism.”

Starowicz, the creative force behind As It Happens, Sunday Morning and The Journal, has built a remarkable career by practising good journalism. And in just a few months, TV viewers across the country will have the opportunity to see his next big thing: the $25-million, 30 hour, 15 episode series Canada: A People’s History, which begins in September on both CBC and Radio-Canada. Starowicz is the executive producer.

Poor Pierre is still on pause as Starowicz continues to explain what he wants to achieve with the series. “We didn’t use wide shots. That’s not how you see the world,” he says. “There is none of today’s technology showing through.” Through the episode could have shown Montcalm and Wolfe on a split screen, the producers made the decision not to let the edit suite show. What people will see on camera is not historians, but the testimony of people like Pierre, who had a role in or witnessed actual events. “If you look at Kosovo,” he concludes, “you never see a scene of a Serb soldier with torch, lights home, home goes up. What you see is after the attack. You see a camera moving through a burnt-out village. That’s what we wanted this to look like.”

Starowicz can trace the beginning of his interest in producing a series on Canadian history back to 1986, to a day when he was driving to his farm near Peterborough, Ont. In the car, while the family was listening to tapes of Disney adventures, Paul Bunyan takes and British legends, he began to remember the stories he had heard in Quebec while growing up—stories involving ghosts and voyageurs. As soon as the family returned to Toronto, Starowicz checked his nearest music store for Canadian legends on tape. Nothing. “I went right to my office and ended up with the school board on the phone,” he says. Starowicz was frustrated. He recalls saying: “I pay my taxes, my children are Canadian citizens. Are you telling me we don’t have anything that I can show my daughters about legends of our own country?” Midway through the conversation, Starowicz grasped the scale of the problem. It was useless getting mad at the board of education when the CBC had never done an audio or televisual history of Canada. What’s more, he realized that his kids could never connect with the stories of the past unless the institutions of the country made them available. “I’m not saying I had a coherent idea of the Canadian history series,” he says. But he did know “that we’ve severed the arteries of communication in this country. The lives of Canadians are not being reflected in the programming. We don’t produce enough stories. We don’t reflect enough experiences of not just the French and the English but those, for example, in Vancouver where English is a second language. that’s a fact that I can read as a paragraph in the paper, but I don’t see it as a story. I see it on the news, but I don’t see it in a drama. I don’t see it in a sitcom. I don’t see it in a song.”

Fast-forward 10 years to the spring of 1996, a time when the CBC schedule was heavily American, the CRTC was assessing applications for new specialty services and there was vigorous debate about the role of the CBC in a multi-channel universe. “I sent a memo to my boss saying that the CBC ought to announce that it is doing a history of Canada,” says Starowicz. “It will affirm what we are about.” the idea was far from original. It had been out there for more than 20 years as something that should be achieved someday. “The task had been waiting for Starowicz and Starowicz had been waiting for the task for over 15 years,” says Margaret Lyons, former head of CBC Radio.

Starowicz remembers what happened next: “The vice president of CBC English television called me while I was on spring break. The phone call was short. He said, ’I’ll put out a press release tomorrow morning. We’re going to do the history of Canada.’ I was floored.” By the time the project was presented to the CBC board of directors in the spring of 1998, they had long since given it the go-ahead—almost two full years had elapsed since the project had began. During that time a team was assembled, a promotional video prepared and a detailed breakdown of costs, equipment and structure put together. “This is the first comprehensive attempt to do the history of Canada on TV, and it’s certainly the first time we’ve done the same series in both languages,” explains senior producer Hubert Gendron, Starowicz’s counterpart at Radio-Canada. “What we’re trying to do is a popular history where you should be able to see what your life would be like during these given periods. We try not to explain in modern terms what happened, but bring back to life the characters journalistically, not dramatically. We are journalists, so what we’re doing is reporting on events that happened a long time ago. That’s the only difference.”

“We wanted an oral history based on the people who lived the history,” says Starowicz. “I knew we’d have to restage the principal events, the ships and the battles.”

As part of their preparations, members of the CBC project team spent a day with Ken Burns, the celebrated director of the nine-episode Civil War series that first ran on PBS stations in the U.S. in 1990. They also spent hours reviewing the series and selected the best components. “You’ll see a lot of similarities,” says Starowicz. “The oral testimonies, the focusing on the individual. To look at a photograph of somebody, to hear their words, even by an actor, I think that’s what you have to do with the past.” This way, despite the different times and circumstances, he says, viewers can break through and make the link—these historical characters shared the same loves, the same hopes, the same fears.

The Civil War also gave the CBC insight into how to portray two conflicting versions of history. Burn had to deal with the differing perspectives of the North and South. Starowicz has French and English. The Civil War, he says, “works because they found the humanity in both sides of the story. They didn’t act as judges.” Still, compromising between the historical views of French and English Canada was no simple task. It took executives hours of discussion to come up with rough episode outlines. Since “the project was set up as a French-English co-production,” says Gene Allen, senior producer and director of research, “there were trade-offs involved. We had to sit down and deal with the issues with academic advisors.” Each of the 15 production teams involved includes French and English Canadians, and each team consults regularly with a historian. “Accuracy is quite important,” says Ramsay Cook, head academic advisor. “Professional historians can verify interpretations and the way facts are put together.”

The re-enactment of the battle of the Plains of Abrahams offers some good examples of how the process worked. As with all episodes, the consulting historian, in this case Jay Cassel of Wilfrid Laurier University, directed researchers to relevant material. Then Cassel analyzed the text and visuals that the writers wanted to include in the script. Everything had to be backed up by documentation and, if there was uncertainty, discussed with other historians.

With the Plains of Abraham, there was no question as to which aide was the first to flee the field of conflict. Both English and French accounts agree that the French did. Still, the producers could not figure out how to portray the scene without causing undue offense. Producers knew they wanted to use regimental flags, but filming from the point of view of the British didn’t provide enough dramatic impact. “You have to choose what’s visually effective, but you also had to calculate whose honour is being besmirched,” says Cassel. In the end it was Cassel and the production team who found a solution. Watching the rushes one day, they spotted a shot that was accurate but dramatically effective. With smoke billowing out behind him, an actor playing a French soldier in the scene was shown running from the field—toward the camera, grasping the French flag—the perfect closing scenes.

Another key fact that needed to be established for the Plains of Abraham re-enactment was the time of day the battle took place. Producers needed to know the position of the sun so they could get the correct shadows for the scene. The historians knew that they battle took place sometime between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. But because no one at the battle wore a watch, no one had ever settled on the exact time it began. After much discussion—about which soldiers recorded which times and about the timing of events before and after the actual battle—the historians took a mathematical and a consensus emerged: approximately 10 a.m.

In trying to put together what they call the best possible detached version of events, producers had to contend with budgets that forced them to find less-than-authentic solutions for recreating events. In the battle of the Plains of Abraham scene, for instance, the actors were professional battle reenactors volunteering their time, and there weren’t enough of them to play both French and British soldiers—so all of them acted in parts on both sides of the battle. And because there was only enough money in the budget to costume 100 actors, computerized digital reproduction had to be used to create the thousands of soldiers who actually found on the Plains.

“We sometimes adjust things for a point we’re trying to make,” says Gilles Saindon, a digital compositor. “For example, if we have reason to believe there were only two boasts in the British siege at Louisbourg, that may look insignificant when measured against the impact of the event. So we add more boats to convey the message.” By manipulating a four-foot model of a ship from the 1769s, borrowed for the series from the Stewart Museum in Montreal, and by using digital imaging. Saindon was able to digitally impose five ships onto a shot of the ocean filmed from Cape Breton Island.

Not all the series’ directors agree with the use of such embellishments. Jim Williamson, who directed the Confederation episode, chose to use mostly stock footage and photographs. “I prefer not to do re-enactments. Everything we shoot has to be baked up. We should not take liberties.”

But some episodes do take them, which begs the questions: Is this really journalism? “That was something we had to wrap our heads around,” says Andrew Gregg, director of the first two-and-a-half hours, entitled “The First People’s Contract,” “How could it be a documentary if we’re directing actors and putting boats into pictures?” Starowicz has a clear position on the subject: “It is possible to evoke a reality, even with actors, and apply the documentary ethic to the pre-photographic era.”

Whether or not the producers consider the series real journalism, they need to tell stories in as uncomplicated a fashion as possible. After all, Canada: A People’s History could also be titles Canada: A History for the Mass Market. But, says Jay Cassel, “Simplification can end up perpetuating misconceptions.” One misconception, says Cassel, is that the French were defeated on the Plains of Abraham because Montcalm committed a tactical error by lining his troops up in a column and confronting the British at the bottom of the hill. The series seems to support this view by oversimplifying the explanations of what tactics were used.

Another source of debate between historians and producers has been how much time to give to certain events. “I think they hyper condense the first five years of the Seven Years War,” says Cassel. “They brush over parts that people should understand.”

Though the historians are vital to the production process, they do not have the last word in the final edit. Apart from advising on historical accuracy from conception though to final cut, the historians offer perspective to production teams when they underplay a main point or focus too heavily on something trivial. “It’s not my story to sell,” says Cassel. “They’re doing it their way. The practice of academic history involves intricacies television is not prepared to undertake. I think it is possible to have an intelligent show without it being too academic. I would not put this series in an intellectual category.”

Mark Starowicz ’s office is cluttered with period costumes, books, videotapes and poster mock-ups. He pops a video into a VHS machine and turns on the 27-inch television. He’s viewing the Battle of Culloden, a celebrated 1964 documentary made in Scotland about the massacre of the Highland Scots. This is a film that Jay Cassel calls “a very stoic documentary that breaks a lot of filming rules. It is candid about war and gets you to see war through different eyes.”

Starowicz, too, is taken with it. “The field is always the common main. The generals are in the background,” he says. “This film revolutionized documentary cinematography.”

Canada: A People’s History may not be Culloden, but it is of the same documentary journalism are being applied to Canada: A People’s History. Rely on credible sources, such as diaries, personal testimonies, photographs and drawings. Then verify their accuracy with another source—in this instance, a board of historians.

Still, overruling the historians for the sake of narrative thrust and visual appeal a justifiable liberty to Starowicz. And perhaps the dramatic does need to take precedence in a series that he compares with a first-year university textbook. It’s a production that will give the general public a taste of Canadian history, a starting point for information, but it’s not so academic that nobody will want to watch it. Starowicz stands, stretches and pulls a cigarette out of his jacket pocket. He stops the tape. “Some things we miss, some things we grab. This is just one version—our version—of history,” says Starowicz. “That’s why we called it a history, not the history of Canada.”

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