Canada’s public broadcaster is facing a growing backlash over a much-vaunted historical series that has angered politicians in the Maritimes, insulted Acadians and been denounced as anglo-centric and offensive in Quebec.
Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly declined on Tuesday to comment on the CBC series, Canada: The Story of Us, which was introduced on the air March 26 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and meant as a way to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday.
Instead, the CBC has waded into a bog of controversy over its depictions of historical events and omissions in Canadian history.
“They’re presenting alternative history based on alternative facts,” says Laurent Turcot, a history professor from Quebec who has criticized the series. “It’s biased.”
The CBC has broadcast only two of the 10 episodes of the docudrama, and has already managed to offend large parts of the country. The first episode overlooks Port Royal, N.S., in favour of Quebec as the earliest European settlement in the country.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Annapolis Royal Mayor Bill MacDonald sent a letter to CBC president Hubert Lacroix on Monday demanding that the broadcaster add an episode to the series to “set the record straight,” Mr. MacDonald says.
“Nova Scotians feel like they’ve been completely excluded from the origins of Canada,” Mr. MacDonald said by phone from Annapolis Royal on Tuesday. “We consider ourselves to be the cradle of our nation so we take issue with that. An omission that substantial is pretty profound.”
For their part, Acadians say the series has completely ignored them and their “fundamental contribution to the creation of this country,” the Acadian Federation of Nova Scotia said in a statement.
Critics in Quebec say the depiction of the French in the first episode is less favourable and at times offensive compared to the depiction of the British.
Explorer Samuel de Champlain, for example, is shown in a diplomatic meeting wearing “filthy” clothes, which would have been unlikely even by the day’s standards of hygiene.
Two other leading figures, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, are shown in a meeting with British noblemen in England wearing rough-hewn furs, while the British are dressed in finery and wigs.
British General James Wolfe is portrayed as a dashing and self-assured military leader – while the historical record shows he was anxious and “tortured” by self-doubt, Mr. Turcot said. Also, after Gen. Wolfe scales the bluffs to the Plains of Abraham – which are as high as Niagara Falls, according to the show – he emerges on the battlefield with his clothes clean.
“It is appalling that the Prime Minister of Canada gave his support to this series by pleading for national unity in the opening,” Mr. Turcot says in a letter co-signed by three other academics that was sent to The Globe and Mail. The series in fact perpetuates prejudices, the group says.
The academics note that the on-air specialists and celebrities featured in the episode are all anglophones except for two: Dancer Louise Lecavalier and ultimate-fighting star Georges St-Pierre, who offers the commentary about the Plains of Abraham, which is considered the most iconic battle in Canadian history.
“It would be like asking Zinedine Zidane to talk about the French Revolution, or David Beckham to speak about the execution of Charles I,” said Mr. Turcot, a professor at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières.
In his comments, Mr. St-Pierre says it’s important to use surprise in attacks because “what you don’t see coming, that’s what knocks you out.”
The academics also note that several of the French historical figures speak with English accents because the CBC used English-Canadian actors to portray them rather than rely on Quebec’s large pool of acting talent.
They also question the inclusion of Joseph Boyden as an on-screen commentator about the role of First Nations. Mr. Boyden has been embroiled in a controversy over his claims of Indigenous ancestry.
In Ottawa, Ms. Joly was asked about the series, which was attacked by opposition Conservatives and Bloc Québécois as belittling to francophones.
“Generally speaking, it’s important to have difficult conversations on our history,” Ms. Joly told reporters.
“I won’t comment further on CBC/Radio-Canada programming because, of course, it’s independent of my responsibilities.”
The CBC defended the series. It would not disclose how much it cost to produce.
“Canada: The Story of Us is not meant to be a comprehensive and linear account of Canada’s history nor a definitive history of Canada,” Chuck Thompson, a spokesman for the corporation, said in an e-mail Tuesday.
“It highlights the often untold stories of just a few of the extraordinary people and events that helped shape our nation.”
Mr. Thompson said “every effort” went into protecting the series’ historical accuracy, and 75 historians were consulted. Historical consultant Peter Twist oversaw the series’ dramatic recreations, Canadian historian John English and Indigenous arts scholar Gerald McMaster served as primary consultants, he said.
“The series was developed under the guidance of historians and academic consultants and, as is sometimes the case, historians will agree to disagree,” Mr. Thompson said.
With a file from The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error