If there’s a golden age of Canadian television, it may be found in a series of public service announcements from the 1960s and ’70s, each lasting no more than a minute. The Hinterland Who’s Who spots told stories of the animals that live here: the northern gannet, the loon, the moose. Canadians of all ages, from Toronto to Moncton to Portage la Prairie, were tapped lightly on the shoulder and asked to notice, maybe even think about, the country’s wildlife heritage. Ever seen a beaver? the program asked. Well, look, here’s one now on your television.
Listen to an audio version of this story
For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.
These short documentaries, a joint project between the Canadian Wildlife Service and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), were first launched in 1963 and aired during commercial breaks ad nauseam. They were formally simple and utterly unironic. The voice-overs, courtesy of John Livingston, then executive director of the Audubon Society of Canada, were full of tidbits and trivia. Livingston’s monologues came across as untrained, almost accidental—he was every sweater-vested social studies teacher in every high school across the country. But there was an alchemy at work, and Hinterland added up to a national poetry of origin, like the Icelandic sagas or the Finnish Kalevala:
The beaver builds dams
because he has to store his
For a more complete story of
why not contact the Canadian
Thirty-six Hinterland films were created between 1963 and 1977, and they have since been rebroadcast and rebooted, youtubed and parodied. Those who gave up cable long ago can likely still recognize the theme music: a flute song that mimics the call of the loon and manages to persist, fifty years on, as a weapons-grade earworm. There’s a staying power here, and it lies somewhere between Hinterland’s triviality and its symbolism. The clips are not so much lacking in entertainment as they are a form of antientertainment. They also mark the moment before the dam burst and Canada was flooded with brash American television, from Three’s Company to Cops through to The Masked Singer. Looking at Hinterland Who’s Who today, one can’t help but feel there’s something aspirational in this relic of dull Canadiana found among a highly spiced media diet, some value in its lack of flavour. But what?
Andrew Burke, a professor at the University of Winnipeg who specializes in film and television, looks for an answer in Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory and the Canadian 1970s, a book that focuses on the period in Canadian history that he calls “the long ’70s,” stretching from the centennial year of 1967 well into the eighties. (Culture so rarely follows a tight chronology.) Burke’s subject is not so much the serious arts but the ephemera, in particular those short public service announcements devoted to Canada’s critters.
Though the Hinterland spots are a specific cultural artifact, Burke pinpoints them as an emblem of Canadian identity in a world before the internet and globalization. They were ours—they could never have happened in America. “The Hinterland series,” he writes, “was the product of a liberal democratic state and corresponding broadcast ecosystem that now seems resolutely part of the past.”
In other words, the Hinterland spots did, and still do, recall a different reality. They were media that had no intention of being popular. They did not chase ratings or provoke adrenalin; they were television for our own good, like dry socks on an overland hike. They were un-American insofar as they reeked of a common benefit (to save the outside world from being paved over) and of an activist (if paternalistic) central government of benign bureaucratic moms and dads. These things, Burke suggests, are gone, and oddly, they are missed. Fifty years on, the Hinterland clips, that brief moment of daring to be un-American, on TV, for all to see, seems more and more subversive—and more attractive. Canadians can look back at the 1970s and say that, just for a brief spell, we were different from the Americans. Not better: different.
t1970s marked a crossroads of sorts for media in Canada. The decade was a heyday for unambitious homegrown television, including a game show in which six middle-aged people played charades in a fake Hamilton living room (Party Game), a vagabond dog who solved crimes (The Littlest Hobo), and a crusty but benign salvage operator hauling the remnants of large-scale logging operations from the coastal waters of British Columbia (The Beachcombers).
Canada was tinkering with the BBC model of public broadcasting, in which collective values held a place. This led to tension with American electronic manifest destiny. As broadcast technology improved, cable, then satellite, brought even more US television to the ribbon of population along the border and as far as the Arctic. It was The Streets of San Francisco, with its thrilling car chases, versus Hinterland Who’s Who’s ode to chipmunks. “I think this kind of programming is extremely important,” wildlife artist Robert Bateman recently said about the latter.“Especially for youth, because there is a dreadful trend toward ‘being cool.’” Most TV ads, he says, encouraged consumerism. The Hinterland ads encouraged people to send in for brochures about Castor canadensis.
But this still doesn’t explain the heft, even today, associated with Hinterland. Burke digs deeper. “Even though they were made to promote conservation,” he writes, “the Hinterland Who’s Who films are strangely elegiac in tone, capturing the decade’s anxieties about ecological catastrophe. They convey a sense of living, to reference the title of a 1970 Neil Young song, ‘after the gold rush,’ in an age when mother nature is in peril.”
There is, in these innocent little bird films, a reckoning, an acknowledgement: we are messing things up. This was not a feature of most North American media back then, and aside from the welcome aberration that is David Attenborough, there still isn’t much of it to be found today. The Hinterland spots may have seemed dull, but in retrospect, they were alarm bells. Cultural artifacts such as these—seen as cute, corny, amateur, out of touch—now hold “a certain power,” according to Burke, as “a reminder that meaningful change was once thought possible and that political intervention, even by the state itself, was understood to be a positive thing.” You can’t imagine them coming from a privatized America built to promote shareholder value. They could come only from public broadcasting, public money, outside the marketplace, where there’s no payoff except that those who grew up with them might be less inclined to destroy the planet.
The American myth, its Odyssey, is one of conquest, from manifest destiny (at the expense of the Great Sioux Nation, among so many others) to the global frontier today (at the expense of the working people). In mainstream American entertainment, there’s been little appetite to stop and take stock, to honestly reckon with sins like slavery and Jim Crow. The chipper dream rules: police procedurals, talent showcases, three-act real-estate-slash-home-renovation reality dramas, all celebrating individual gumption and conquest at someone else’s expense. There are exceptions, of course, like ABC’s Roots, HBO’s The Wire, or FX’s Atlanta, which concern themselves with deconstructing national myths. But, in broad strokes, American stories promote American (white) exceptionalism. And this is the buffet from which Canadians have fed, and which we have attempted to replicate, for the past four decades.
From the 1980s on, our television began to copy our neighbour’s: Danger Bay, Da Vinci’s Inquest, and even Trailer Park Boys would all have fit comfortably in an American lineup. Of course, this was the point: commerce approves of homogeneity. Today, the big ticket on the CBC is a franchised version of Family Feud: same set, same double entendres. It’s like a Walmart store in Sudbury, not much different from another in Milwaukee. It’s only by looking at the past that we can find traces of a Canada that might have been.
Burke doesn’t say it, but I will: Hinterland Who’s Who was subversive, socialist, antifascist. Yes, it was sixty seconds devoted to the cougar, black duck, or woodchuck, but conceptually, it was nothing short of radical. These insights into the natural world were programming for the common good. They asked us to think twice about how our society defines progress and about the consequences of our actions. In a way, Hinterland Who’s Who stood up to the American noise and asked Canadians to pay attention to what was going on in our own backyards. Problem: we didn’t.
Early in Hinterland Remixed, Burke talks about a phrase that repeats in a 2002 song by the electronic duo Boards of Canada: “The past inside the present.” Burke notes that the line stuck with him, circled around his head. The musicians, who lived briefly in Calgary during the late seventies, were influenced by the trippy NFB videos they were made to watch in school. They adapted the music, all those bleeps and bloops, into their own work. “Mid-tempo beats,” writes Burke, “combine with samples sourced from educational films and children’s programming to produce an altogether unsettling listening experience” (italics mine). This is not nostalgia but something darker, a kind of retroactive apprehension of a lost opportunity.
As the late British writer Mark Fisher wrote (and Burke quotes): “The 1970s were in many respects better than neoliberalism wants us to remember them.” Canada is no different: to see our seventies as a provincial dead zone is to buy into a conservative political agenda that argues we are much better off now, with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Canadian Family Feud, than we ever were with The Beachcombers and Hinterland Who’s Who. Fisher’s point is that his country, the United Kingdom, spent the late 1970s on the verge of a modernized welfare state, with a strong social safety net, progressive labour policies, and an eye to attacking inequality. Then came Margaret Thatcher. This half-realized, half-dreamt nostalgia for the culture of the 1970s (in Fisher’s case, for do-gooder public service programming served on Channel 4) is nostalgia for utopia, a future that never quite happened.
In Hinterland Remixed, Burke’s concern with the 1970s is not him pining for the past, a period when Canadian media stood up, for possibly the last time, against American media, David-and- Goliath style. Rather, the long decade haunts us: it coaxes us into remembering a moment when the larger culture cared about community and cared about the environment. This era was in no way perfect: its media saw the world through a very white, very suburban lens. But it was a moment when television wasn’t obsessed with the commercial, the spectacle, the lowest common denominator. If Hinterland Who’s Who was able to cast such a long shadow, what other stories—what other country—could we have had if only we’d created a more just media landscape in its image?
“What remains of the ’70s today,” Burke writes, “are its traces, transported into the present by obsolete media formats: video, and analog photography.” These artifacts, he says, “circulate a larger sense of what the decade was like, what it was about.” Burke shows that these bits of history are neither dead nor dormant and that the spirit of Hinterland can live on in new work today. He highlights The Indigenous Archival Photo Project: curated images of family and community by Paul Seesequasis, who searches through archives to find old pictures, mostly taken by outsiders, of Indigenous people going about their lives throughout the twentieth century. When he started the project, many of the photos lacked identification and context, so Seesequasis brought them to the internet with a question: Who is shown here? It didn’t take long for the images to spread, and the audience began identifying cousins and grandmothers and friends. In an interview with Vice, Seesequasis said he was inspired by a conversation he had with his mother, who “longed to hear more positive stories.” The pictures carry a double context: this is what we missed by precluding Indigenous experiences from our national conversations, these are the stories that far too many in our country—audiences, creators, and public broadcasters alike—have spent decades ignoring.
What could the next fifty years of Canadian media look like? If we’re smart, we’ll reconsider the past. There’s that haunting voice repeating “the past inside the present,” reminding us of a time when we almost paid attention to social good; when homegrown media could counterbalance propaganda from the south; when woodland critters were a big, fat metaphor for correcting our national mistakes now, before things get even worse. The Hinterland Who’s Who spots, for all their blunt cheesiness, now feel subversive because they remind us, half a century on, of the radical Canada they imagined. They recall the country we didn’t get, at least not yet.