If you weren’t watching the World Series last Sunday night (sorry for you Mets fans), or the latest incarnation of James Bond making the world safe from international terrorism, you might have tuned into the CBC’s mega-project for the new millennium, also known as “Canada: A People’s History.” The pre-release hype had me interested. Three years in the making! Thirty hours of programming! A comprehensive account of the rich history of Canada! Lining up two hours of documentary against the World Series and James Bond can be a risky business, so they aired it twice. Admittedly, I caught the late night version.
I was curious to see how far back the history would go and to it’s credit, the show went quite a ways back. Not quite as far back as the Big Bang Theory, or the Garden of Eden, but far enough to indicate that at some point there was not much going on here but ice. The show advanced theories of people migrating into the Americas via a long gone land bridge from Asia. We were also shown how many indigenous cultures began taking, root from the frozen north all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.
To it’s credit, the documentary did take some time to illustrate that culture existed here long before the Europeans came into the picture. Some native histories were trotted out including the tragic tale of the last known surviving Beothuk woman in Newfoundland, and the unfortunate circumstances that befell Chief Donnaconna and his two sons at the hands of the French, who hoodwinked them into captivity and carted them back to France as curiosities. Herein lies one of the pit-falls of documentaries on native history — they tend to revel in tragedy and unfortunate circumstances.
Documentarists seem to carry a burden of reverence and solemnity, a burden so heavy that it tends to overshadow all else. Sure it is a necessary responsibility to report on the often harsh and unjust results of contact with the Europeans, but there is so much more that seems to be lacking. Mention is made of the diverse native cultures that developed all over the Americas, but it is hardly illustrated. With the exception of detailing some of the spiritual connections to the land and myths and legends, the megaproject failed to show the dynamics of indigenous culture. Little was seen of the day to day lives that people lived. Who was doing what to whom? What about the lifestyles? What about trade from band to band? What about the sex? Moreover, what about laughter? I’m not knocking the need for reverence, but can’t somebody out there at the CBC portray native culture as something more than “spirituality” or “victimization.”
Indeed there is a paucity of information on unrecorded histories, but nowhere does it say that you cannot present varying versions of how life might have been based on what we do know and on what has been passed down orally from generation to generation. After all, nobody was standing this side of the land bridge from Asia taking a census on who was drifting in from the west, yet this point of history is accepted as plausible.
**Mathematicians at the Nation have statistically determineded chat, based on the one hour devoted to pre-contact history, and the twenty nine hours left in the series, pre-European history gets 0.1 seconds per year of coverage, while post-European contact gets a whopping 3-5 minutes per year. Go figure.