Our 10 favourite Heritage Minutes

Heritage Minutes

If you flipped your TV to the CBC anytime in the 1990s, you probably remember Heritage Minutes, the gloriously cheesy 60-second re-enactments of big moments in Canadian history. The idea was concocted when broadcasters realized they could use the mighty power of television to bring Canadian history to the young and short-attention-spanned. Judging by the nostalgia these little slices of heritage stir up, the plan worked. “I can smell burnt toast!” is practically a national motto. While known for their campy style, the minutes actually pack a lot of information into a mere 60 seconds, and for that reason, they have become hallmarks of Canadian culture. Here are just a few of our favourites.

1. Basketball

If your American friends point out a lack of famous Canadians in basketball, feel free to remind them that basketball is the famous Canadian in basketball. As unlikely as it may now seem, basketball was invented by Ontario-born P.E. teacher James Naismith with the help of some nerdy old guys and a couple of peach baskets. The highlight of this video is when the owner of the peach baskets crankily says, “But I need these baskets back!”—only to be shown a moment later ruefully sawing their bottoms out. One historical decision the video leaves out is Naismith’s refusal to name the game “Naismith ball.” Thank you for that!

2. Wilder Penfield

While you may not remember who Wilder Penfield is, chances are that if you saw this Heritage Minute, you can recall the image of a woman exclaiming about burnt toast as a doctor poked her in the brain. Wilder Penfield was that doctor—a neurosurgeon who mapped regions of the brain and cured many epileptics with his innovative surgical procedures. This episode shows him locating the area of the brain that led to a patient’s seizures while the patient was awake—a system that became known as “the Montreal procedure.” Impressively, Penfield’s brain maps are still in use today, as is the all-Canadian catchphrase, “I can smell burnt toast!”

3. The Halifax Explosion

While it’s difficult to pick up the finer details in this action-packed Heritage Minute, the basics come across pretty clearly: there’s an impending explosion, and a brave dispatcher dies warning others. To fill in some of the blanks, the Halifax explosion came about when a ship loaded with explosives was involved in a collision near the harbour and caught fire. As people were being evacuated, railway dispatcher Vince Coleman realized that a passenger train was heading right to the scene of the impending explosion and stayed in the danger zone to warn it. He died in the explosion, which at that point was the largest man-made explosion in history. While the Heritage Minute portrays Vince shouting hysterically, in real life, the man’s final dispatch hints at a more steely bravery: “Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

4. Syrup

Just another reason settlers should be eternally grateful to the first nations: syrup. Every time you pour it on a pancake, sweeten your coffee with it, or eat one of those tooth-dissolving little tourist candies, you are replicating a ritual of pleasure that stretches back hundreds of years—maybe more. As this Heritage Minute shows, the production of syrup involves some know-how. Trees are tapped for a watery sap, and the extra water is then evaporated, leaving the syrup we all know and love. Maple syrup is often imitated, but never duplicated. Apparently, some Quebecois refer to the imitation syrups as sirop de poteau (“pole syrup”), claiming that it comes from tapping telephone poles.

5. Superman

The alternate title of this one might as well have been “Lois the Buzzkill.” The video depicts an enthusiastic Joe Shuster describing a character he’s created, the now iconic Superman, while his cynical friend Lois scoffs at the idea of a strong man in tights and a cape. Nevertheless, the superhero with the oh-so-Canadian values of virtue and modesty caught on and influenced an entire genre, one that is still going strong today. The next Superman movie is slated for 2016, and will pit the man of steel against another of the comic world’s biggest heroes, Batman.

 6. Marshall McLuhan

“‘The medium is the message?’ What does that mean?” asks one of Marshall McLuhan’s students in the most philosophical Heritage Minute of all. In the 1960s, Canadians like McLuhan were helping to influence the world of academic theory, and today, with the prevalence of text messages and emojis, McLuhan’s idea—that the way we communicate a message matters as much as the message itself—seems more relevant than ever. What seems outdated, however, is his hilarious declaration at the video’s opening: “TV will suck the brain right out of the skull!” Of course, the broadcasters got their revenge by cutting a rambling McLuhan off mid-sentence at the minute’s end.

7. The Underground Railroad

While Canadians often have conflicting feelings about various chapters of our history, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of pride while watching this 60-second story of a family making it safely to Canada via the Underground Railroad. This Heritage Minute is a mini-epic: there’s drama, action, conflict, and resolution—plus some of the Heritage Minutes’ trademark hammy acting, of course. But the big emotions in this video are true to life, and in some cases, the endings to these escape stories were not so happy. There were people who made a career out of tracking down escaped slaves, and the punishments for escapees were harsh. Nevertheless, the efforts of Canadians and Americans involved in the Underground Railroad led more than 30,000 people to freedom.

8. Flags

This minute gives us a brief glimpse into what might have been, as various proposals for the Canadian flag flash across the screen, including one that looks strangely like a Mercedes logo. It might surprise younger readers to learn that the maple leaf flag has only been with us since 1965, when it replaced a default flag with a Union Jack and a Canadian coat of arms. The “Great Canadian Flag Debate” was drawn out and bitter. A committee met 35 times and sorted through more than 3,000 entries before agreeing on historian George Stanley’s maple leaf design. This Heritage minute also features “hey, it’s that guy” actor Peter MacNeil, who went on to act in almost every TV show ever.

9. Jacques Cartier

A great thing about the Heritage Minutes is that they aren’t too self-important. Frequently, the settlers and founders of Canada are portrayed as hapless bumblers, as in this video, in which Jacques Cartier and his merry band of men struggle to understand their new Iroquois acquaintances. Of course, a young man in the video protests, “kanata” means “village,” but the Priest is having none of it. And so, history is made! Unfortunately, if there were a sequel to this Heritage Minute, it would portray Cartier kidnapping Donnacona, the leader of this first nations group, and forcing him to come to France.

10. Laura Secord

The War of 1812—a.k.a. that one time we beat the Americans in a military conflict—was memorialized in several Heritage Minutes, but the most beloved focused on Laura Secord. The ripping minute shows the loyal Upper Canadian spying on Yankee occupiers and then running through tumultuous terrain to warn James FitzGibbon about an impeding attack. Her efforts helped save the British and Canadian forces at the Battle of Beaver Dams—a turning point in the war. While this minute takes a few liberties with Secord’s journey, it did teach many young Canadians that the nice lady whose face topped their ice cream cones was actually a war hero.