Pierre Trudeau famously described Canada’s relationship to the United States as being “like sleeping with an elephant” — whatever its temper or intentions, “one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Americans would probably agree. Despite being a much larger country, Canada has always seemed quaint from below. Its presence in our history classes tapers off around the War of 1812. What little else we know comes in small, crude increments from popular culture, where evidence of Canadianness is largely obscured. “No one wants to know that I’m gay, and even less people want to know that I’m Canadian,” Scott Thompson said through his Kids in the Hall character Buddy Cole. “On my resume my agent replaced the word ‘gay’ with ‘blond’ and ‘Canadian’ with ‘outdoorsy.’”
Curiosity about our northern neighbor is a curious thing to have, and often has to be pursued on one’s own. That was the case for me, anyway, growing up in New Jersey. I was puzzled and intrigued, in a very fourth-grade way, about this large landmass sitting right on top of me, seemingly nothing like America. It had a different flag, two official languages, and “provinces” instead of “states.” I felt that I should know more about it. My 1993 World Book set helped, with its extensive entries on every Prime Minister up to Brian Mulroney and each province. So did my local reference librarian, who did her best to satisfy every inquiry with which I pestered her. It lay dormant for a while, until Kate Beaton’s charming comic tributes to Lester “Mike” Pearson and John “Dief the Chief” Diefenbaker opened the wormhole anew, with Wikipedia’s enabling. Not that that was enough.
Three-thousand films, from documentaries to narrative features to experimental shorts, are available to stream free of charge, even for Americans.
It was while reading about Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s populist first premier and self-proclaimed “last Father of Confederation,” that I discovered A Little Fellow from Gambo, a 1970 documentary on Smallwood produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Director Julian Biggs followed the premier, by then 20 years into his tenure, for two-and-a-half months where he reflected on his legacy (amid his private library filled with books on British history), watched journalists compare him to Castro, and fought off rivals for the Liberal Party leadership. He was as interesting and as colorful as any American politician: folksy, reflective, megalomaniacal, and a little bit fearsome. It led me to similar documentaries on Canadian political life, and other subjects, made available for streaming on the National Film Board’s website.
For the “Canuckophile” (not my coinage but a term I happily own), the NFB’s Screening Room is one of the supreme pleasures of the internet. Since 1939, the NFB has facilitated the telling of Canada’s story in its people’s own words and images. Three-thousand films, from documentaries to narrative features to experimental shorts, are available to stream free of charge, even for Americans.
The experience of binging the NFB can be vertiginous. One film will leapfrog me to another, often within my interest of Canadian social and political history, of which the NFB has plenty to offer. Indeed, it is filled with documentaries that have matched and even surpassed the fly-on-the-wall style of Primary and The War Room. Flora: Scenes from a Leadership Convention (1977) follows Canada’s first female foreign minister Flora MacDonald as she and her staff try (and fail) to make her the first female Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and therefore the opposition. Sophie Wollock’s Newspaper (1979) is a short history of The Suburban, a sort of Breitbart for anglophone Quebec. Acadia Acadia?!? (1971) depicts student radicals of New Brunswick’s francophone minority as they demonstrate for language recognition. My personal favorite is Donald Brittain’s The Champions, a three-part saga released between 1978 and 1986 covering the rise and rivalry of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec Premier and separatist icon René Lévesque. It combines talking heads, archival footage, droll narration, and a clear arc from brilliant promise to disappointment and corruption.
In matters of culture, there are films like The Devil’s Toy (1966) Claude Jutra’s stylish and satirical short documentary about skateboarders in Montreal, which he dedicated "to all victims of intolerance.” The NFB is streaming five of Jutra’s films including his masterpiece Mon oncle Antoine. Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), also by Brittain, follows the titular 30-year-old poet giving witty readings, partying, and living around Montreal. “Cohen is not self-consciously cultured. He has not read extensively. He listens largely to pop music,” Brittain presciently comments. Ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton (one of several women who were hired by the NFB as filmmakers in the 1940s) provided several observational shorts on indigenous and immigrant communities in Canada as morale boosters for the war effort.
This, admittedly, is only one part of Canada’s extensive “Canadian Heritage” output, which includes grant programs for literature and the arts, public broadcasting, and film production. (Meatballs, Heavy Metal, Happy Birthday to Me, Room, and, despite parliamentary pushback, most of David Cronenberg’s films have received Canadian state funding.) It is also a narrow portion of what the NFBoard offers. But even that portion in its eclecticism of subject and tone explodes broad notions of what Canada is. And 10 years after the NFB made these films available online, they are more primed than ever for wider viewing.
There is, of course, a simpler reason for binging the NFB: The films are very good.
In 2018, online streaming subscriptions outnumbered cable customers worldwide for the first time. The reliance on streaming has led to the proliferation of more niche options. If the selections of horror, anime, LGBTQ, arthouse, Korean drama, or BBC potboilers seem limited on Netflix, Prime, or Hulu, there are smaller services for each, sometimes more than one. A streaming service dedicated to preexisting Canadian infotainment seems, at first, almost too niche. But the NFB never quite saw it that way, as its 1950 mandate to provide films “designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations” (emphasis mine) clearly demonstrates.
The NFB has every reason to hope to reach other nations today, especially America. The glut of content at least implies a desire for underexposed fare, and as the “prestige” documentary aesthetically and thematically calcifies, the NFB’s more diverse catalog will prove refreshing. Moreover, our importation of shows more rooted in Canadian life and history like Kim’s Convenience, Corner Gas, Letterkenny, Alias Grace, and (maybe) Schitt’s Creek might encourage the curiosity further.
There is, of course, a simpler reason for binging the NFB: The films are very good. Despite the nod to its “shameless propaganda,” the NFB’s catalogue never attempts to condense the Canadian national character into a monolith. It prefers instead to let Canadians speak for themselves. In these films Canada is pastoral, quirky, satirical, polemical, impassioned, arrogant, and even a bit rude. They have a history and culture that is not simply “America, but with French people and socialized health care,” and all the better for it. Indeed, even after all this it would be wrong to say that I understand Canada. Far from it. But it’s a privilege to have neighbors with interesting stories.