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John Doyle: Canada: The Story of Us is just pop history for kids

As even the cats and dogs on the streets of the country must know by now, Canada is officially 150 years old this year. There's a lot of Canada 150 stuff going on.

Trouble is, 150 years isn't that long a period of time, in the great scheme of things. And of course, there was a place and people here, doing things, long before the officially designated start date for Canada. As a result, agreement on how to view and interpret the 150th birthday is sparse.

This makes Canada: The Story of Us (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m.) a peculiar production, laden and fraught. For a start, it all seems very, very official. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opens the show with a cheery little speech about "co-operation and acceptance." He encourages viewers to be, like him, "inspired" by the great Canadians we will encounter in the 10-part series. A lot of them, oddly enough, are actors, writers, performers and singers. Celebs, in other words.

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First, there is a lot of material about trees. And lakes and water, naturally. If you are one of those people who groan at the mention of "majestic forests," avoid the opening at all costs. It will drive you bonkers. Anyway, after the stuff about one-trillion trees and all the lakes and water, the history material about people unfolds. The opening is called "Worlds Collide" and it is, obviously, about the arrival of people from Europe and "colliding" with the Indigenous population.

A dollop of information about the situation and culture of our Indigenous people is delivered by actor Lorne Cardinal. Pretty soon, viewers have had the views of actor Paul Gross and writer Joseph Boyden on the situation in the 17th century and Canada in general. "Nature is the dilemma of Canada," says no less a personage than actor Christopher Plummer.

The idea behind this technique is, one guesses, to lessen the number of scholars and pundits doing the talking and let famous Canadians of some achievement in the arts-and-entertainment world say what the absent academics would say. Fair enough. (There are some academics along for the ride.) But it gets silly and repetitive and could possibly inspire a drinking game involving the guessing of which actor will be trotted out to state the next rather obvious point.

A good deal of the first portion of the series covers the 17th and 18th centuries, including, but not exclusive to, the establishment of New France, the activities of Samuel de Champlain, the origins of the fur trade and then, before you know it, we're on the Plains of Abraham and there are actors pretending to be soldiers and generals. It moves fast, this sprightly and picture-perfect version of the narrative.

Along the way, vexing terrain is covered, of course. We're told the role of Chief Ochasteguin is key to Champlain's survival and to his "ability to prosper in the fur trade industry." That is heavily emphasized. And there is much time spent on extolling the virtues of the Wendat (or Wyandot) people and their democratic system of self-governance.

Some of this information might well be new to some viewers but one can only come away with the feeling that the voiceover narrative and dramatized scenes are very, very carefully constructed because sensitive fault lines in contemporary Canada are being touched upon and, at times, there is a blatant awkwardness to the sincere tone. As if a portion of Canadian history was being traversed in a wincingly mindful manner. Either that or it is assumed everyone watching is an impressionable 10-year-old.

For all its cinematic scope and glorious visuals, The Story of Us creaks under the weight of that great care about not offending anyone. This weakness might be anchored in the fact that The Story Of Us is actually a pre-existing TV format, like The Bachelor or MasterChef, that has already been used and aired in Australia, Britain and the U.S. (The CBC version is produced by the Toronto-based Bristow Global Media Inc., a company established by former CBC executive Julie Bristow.) The format is very much intended to be a popular, lightweight illustrated history, using actors to recreate scenes and computer-generated special effects to add oomph to it all. It's a kind of upmarket, pop-up format, breezy and easy to understand. That is, the series isn't history; it's more an adventure "story," and all the weaknesses of that format and approach are on display in the first two hours.

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It's great to see so many Canadian artists involved in The Story of Us and on-screen. And yet that only underlines that an opportunity has been missed with this glossy, featherweight, politically correct concoction.

Here's an alternative idea nobody is likely to embrace but should be done – a history of Canada in 150 works of art. By "works of art," I mean everything from a painting to a novel to a TV show to a movie to a play to an album of rock music. What we create in art, popular or lowbrow, is actually the real "story" of us. But for grown-ups, which Canada: The Story of Us clearly is not.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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