Guest blogger: Prairie Giant vs. history

Last May, historians across Canada got an e-mail from Marg Gardiner, granddaughter of the former Premier of Saskatchewan, James Gardiner, demanding justice. She claimed the CBC’s depiction of her grandfather in the miniseries Prairie Giant was “distort[ing] history in a manner normally associated with non-democratic states.”

What to do about the letter sparked a fierce debate in H-Canada, a discussion list for Canadian historians.

They debated the difference between history and mythmaking, and which one the CBC should be doing. They discussed historical literacy among the general public. It was noted that no one ever points out the inaccuracies in Richard III when it’s mounted at Stratford, and that Nellie McClung’s views on eugenics were never revealed in her Heritage Moment.

Although many admitted they had never seen the movie, based on Marg’s letter the general consensus was that the CBC was wrong, playing fast and loose with facts and passing it off as history.

The spirited and at times hostile discussion came to an end when the CBC capitulated to the Garners and pulled the movie.

Historian Graham Broad wrote a postscript to the debate, which I post here with his permission.

Brought to you through the wonders of time-travel: an excerpt from: “The Encyclopedia of Canadian Culture” 5th edition, University of Iqaluit Press, 2037. (Rebellions Bicentennial Edition).

“Little did Canada’s foremost historians appreciate what they had wrought in that seemingly innocuous H-Net discussion in the summer of 2006. By 2009, historians had successfully petitioned the Ignatieff government for an editorial veto over all CBC historical dramas. Full creative control followed, with results that, in retrospect, should not have been difficult to foresee.

“Seven years in the making and co-funded by the soon-to-be-abolished SSHRC, the $300 million dollar, 28 hour mini-series “The Manitoba Schools Question” starred Colm Feore and William Shatner (in a career-defining turn as the elder John A. Macdonald) and featured music by the Barenaked Ladies. The series began with the now (in)famous disclaimer, “They say that what you are about to see is boring, but it is in fact very interesting.”

“While the first half-hour of the first episode drew respectable ratings against the season finale of “Found” (the spin-off to ABC’s “Lost”), viewership dropped to less than half by 8:30. Of the remaining viewers, approximately ninety percent are believed to slipped into a persistent vegetative state. The CBC hurriedly replaced the remaining episodes with reruns of its hit reality show “Who Wants to Be Governor General?”, but by then the damage had been done.

“The resultant public outrage led to the Great Historians Purge (qv) of 2018, which finally enabled PhD graduates from the first decade of the 21st century to get academic jobs. By then, however, most were comfortably ensconced in the retail and food services industry, and the now echoing corridors of formerly bustling history departments stand as a sullen reminder to stick to what you’re good at.”


  1. Dwight Williams
    Posted August 30, 2006 at 2:32 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Toronto and Ottawa Broadcast Centres each have a gift shop(or they did the last I checked). I wanted to buy Prairie Giant. Still do, in fact. Uncut edition(AKA “as it originally aired”), please?

  2. Anonymous
    Posted August 29, 2006 at 1:37 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Marc Emery is a good idea, but does he really need any *MORE* attention lol?

    Let’s wait and see if he goes to the clink before we start.

  3. Allan
    Posted August 29, 2006 at 1:24 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    You’re right to call me on this one.
    Combine that with the news that one of my fellow graduates just won an Emmy for directing “24” and I’m put in my place.

    Of course the CBC’s greatest hits should/must be compiled on DVD. I’d be first to snap up the “Seven Days” show. Even “Friendly Giant” would have a use in people’s homes.
    In fact, it’s odd that we don’t see a gift shop in the concourse with all things CBC – or did I miss something here too?

  4. Anonymous
    Posted August 29, 2006 at 7:49 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    And yet, Allan, Prairie Giant was the only a&e drama the CBC aired in 2005-06 that met its audience targets, with close to one million viewers for the first half. Which suggests this was a movie that people wanted to see and presumably, that people would want to buy. Except we’re not selling it.

  5. Allan
    Posted August 28, 2006 at 5:48 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    The CBC pulled the entire movie because of one slip?
    Editing couldn’t have solved the problem?
    I love the good humour of this piece.

    It says a lot about the country that we’ve run out of ideas on who to dramatize next. It says worse about producers that they haven’t discovered Patrick Watson and June Calwwood, the Guess Who, and the 60’s underground press, let alone a prime target and ratings winner like the “Prince of Pot”, Marc Emery.

    I have to agree that even dramatic shows must be historically accurate when produced by the CBC ( as compared with commercial enterprises ). Let’s face it, shows about Tommy Douglas are well deserved, but are done more out a need to fulfill a mandate than to engender huge ratings. Since the best shelf-life they can hope for is that some high school teacher in the future will pop in a DVD to try and bring history to life for their class, they might as well be true all the way through.

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