Uniquely Canadian

We think we have an identity crisis in this country. We become very quiet when asked the inevitable cultural question, “What is Canadian food?” We resign ourselves to admitting that Canada, while great, is such a mosaic that to put a finger on one single thing that is distinctly Canadian is next to impossible. Or we just say “maple syrup” and pull the questioner’s sweater over his head.

Admittedly, putting the foundations of our culture into words is near impossible. For those sick of pinning our identity on what is basically a sugary condiment, public organizations, such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and National Film Board (NFB), have made the job of explaining what being Canadian means a heck of a lot easier. However, until recently, exposing an individual to the vast cultural databanks of Canada’s artistic and cultural heritage was rather difficult.

CBC Podcasting

Lets play some word association. What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “CBC?” 10 points if you said “technological pioneer.” For the record, we would also have accepted “Hockey Night in Canada.”

No doubt, the placing of the phrase “technological pioneer” and “CBC” in the same sentence has some of you scratching your heads, but it’s true. In terms of the Internet, our humble Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is an early adopter, and there might be no better example of this fact than their podcasts.

In early 2005 the CBC started making podcasts of a handfull of shows, such as Quirks and Quarks — a national science news program — available for download. To put this into perspective, a CBC news report on podcasting from March 2005 says that “[Podcasting is] a relatively new phenomenon that started in the summer of 2004,” with only a few dozen podcasts on the Internet at the time.

By embracing podcasting, the CBC had unwittingly created an audience, which would prove important in the upcoming labour dispute.

On Aug. 15, 2005, the CBC locked out employees after contract negotiations between the broadcaster and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) — the union representing its employees — broke down. One of the main disputes in the conflict was a desire on the part of CBC management to move away from hiring permanent staff, and, according to a June 19, 2005 CBC news story, instead “hire most new employees on a casual basis.”

Recognizing an opportunity to maintain a relationship with their audiences and present their side of the conflict to the public, the locked out employees of the CBC created the now defunct CBCunplugged.com.

According to a story appearing in the Tyee on Aug. 22, 2005, CBC employees worked “together to put out their own radio programs, under the collective name CBC Unplugged.” The website distributed the content produced by the locked-out employees to other radio stations and to the public via podcasts.

Following the end of the strike on Oct. 9, 2005, the CBC worked to expand its catalog of podcasts. Today more than 100 CBC shows regularly make podcasts available for download, and represent one of the best and easily accessible collections of uniquely Canadian culture anywhere.

The NFB’s “The Screening Room”

In 2005, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made more than 500 clips of BBC content freely available for download over the Internet as part of its BBC Creative Archive Pilot. While the project ended in 2006, the BBC launched their permanent archive two yeas later, one that includes, according to the site, “themed collections of radio and TV programs, documents and photographs” from the past 75 years.

In a similar vein, Canada’s NFB created The Screening Room in January 2009, in an attempt, according to Tom Permutter, the NFB’s Chair, “to become more transparent and open [by . . . ] making the films free to the public.”

When launched, The Screening Room included approximately 700 NFB films, including classic animations, documentaries, childrens’ films, and trailers for upcoming NFB projects, just to name a few. Today, the site hosts almost 1,500 films, in French and English, and one could be forgiven for spending hours searching for, and watching films that defined our childhood, such as 1980 animated short, The Sweater, or those films that define our present, such as 2009 documentary, RIP: a Remix Manifesto.

According to the official NFB blog “the response [to The Screening Room] has been overwhelming and exceeded [their] expectations in every way.” According to statistics posted on the blog, the films have been viewed over 3.7 million times, with 1.5 million of those views originating outside of Canada. The site’s films currently attract almost 20,000 views per day, meaning that in 2010 the NFB’s Screening Room could more than double the number of films watched on the site.

The NFB even released a free iPhone app, which allows people access to the archive from anywhere with cell phone coverage. The app alone netted the site an additional 527,522 views since its release in October 2009.

The NFB’s long-term goal is to release all 13,000 of the films in its archive.

Canadian Culture

An argument could be made that if one wants to see what our national culture consists of, they need only look as far as what we decide, as a country, to spend our public dollars on. A recent survey funded by the watchdog group Friends of Public Broadcasting, and published in the National Post, showed that more than 76 per cent of Canadians supported the CBC. Furthermore, for more than 70 years the NFB has produced uniquely Canadian films, across all genres, which have touched and influenced people for generations.
Perhaps this is Canadian culture; this is our heritage and our legacy to future generations. So next time you are asked about the roots of Canadian culture, or what it means to be uniquely Canadian, hand them your iPod filled with CBC podcasts or sit them in front of the NFB’s Screening Room, and play them the Log Driver’s Waltz.