The 1950s in Canada were not all about big cars, hoop skirts and McCarthyism. Those were American stories, but Canadians have their own stories, says CPAC documentary producer Holly Doan who spent more than a-year-and-a-half working on a nine-part series about the decade which she says ushered in an “atomic change for Canada” and gave birth to a modern country.
The Fifties premieres on CPAC on Sunday, March 13, at 9 p.m. with a look at The Young; Spies; The Suburbs; The Bomb; The Good Life; True North; The Big Picture; The New Society; and One Canada.
In order to research the decade, she, along with her husband, Hill journalist Tom Korski, read every issue of The Globe and Mail from 1950 to 1959, which took about four months to complete. Mr. Korski also writes a regular column for The Hill Times.
Ms. Doan also went to the Library and Archives Canada to search through its database of films from that period. She short-listed between 300 and 400 films that she wanted to view. They were all not in a viewing format, so it took about a year for the Archives to convert them and make copies. They also travelled to Washington, D.C., to view some archival footage in the U.S. vault. Ms. Doan said they “went through some 10,000 films that might contain references to Canada and called about 20 items from the U.S. national archives, so this is stuff that Canadians have never seen. And there are some gems.”
How would you describe the ’50s?
“I think it was an atomic change for Canada. It was the decade that gave birth to a modern country. The ’50s are also peopled with names that are with us still as having shaped a decade in the way that no public policy maker has done in recent years, people like C.D. Howe, Paul Martin Senior, who pushed for pensions and hospital insurance.”
In CPAC’s press release about the series, you said “historical documentaries should be an exercise in forensic journalism.” What do you mean by that?
“Well, I think there’s a tendency now to think of documentaries as a point of view—pick up the camera and wander around Iraq. They may indeed go places and discover things that news cameras don’t, but most often they don’t. So what is a documentary? How is a documentary different than current affairs or news? It has to tell you something that you didn’t know or didn’t realize. There should be an ‘Oh good god,’ factor.”
How did you find out former Fisheries minister James Sinclair was a spy?
“From the pages of The Globe and Mail, there were lots of stories about an accident the Fisheries minister had had while on tour of Russia. His tour was a big deal because he was the first Western Cabinet officer to visit Soviet Russia. He had a friend in the Russian Fisheries minister who had invited him to a whaling conference. There were tales of this accident but not really a lot of details. They’d said he’d broken a leg and that a Russian had been hurt while touring a shipyard. It also said his family—he was gone for quite some time, six weeks or so—was there to greet him at the airport when he finally came home.
“So I phoned Margaret Trudeau, his daughter, who was a young girl at the time to ask if she remembered any of this. And she said, ‘Oh, yes absolutely, I remember daddy coming home. He was badly hurt.’ And I said, ‘What exactly happened?’ And she said, ‘Well it was all about spying.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Foreign Affairs gave him a camera and asked him to take pictures if he saw anything connected to the fishing fleet that looked like a refit for military purposes’ because nobody had ever seen the fleet. There was not satellite imagery in that day. I asked, ‘How do you know this?’ [and she said,] ‘It’s the story that was legendary in our family, but it’s right here in our memoirs.’
“His memoirs are unpublished, but Margaret Trudeau was kind enough to lend us a copy of his memoirs in which the story was detailed. The fascinating part of it was that, yes, indeed there was an accident, but it happened because he took out that camera to take a picture of the boats at Kamchatka, saying, ‘Oh what a lovely view.’ The Russian handlers who were with him lunged at him and the camera and they fell 21 feet and a Russian broke his fall and was killed. Sinclair broke his back, not his leg and that’s why he was so long in convalescing.
“He wrote three versions of this story—one his report for Louis St. Laurent, which was very straight-up, that you can find in Cabinet minutes and the other one was his more detailed account in his memoirs which is what we based the documentary on together with Margaret’s recollections and the third was his diary, but he ripped that up before he died because I guess there are some secrets you take to the grave.”
What was the most surprising thing you found about the ’50s?
“In the 1950s, one-third of Canadians were school-aged children or younger. That’s a lot of young people. When that majority happened in Egypt, the president fell. So we had this explosion of teenagers who later went to university in the ’60s but even in the ’50s, they were really raising hell.
“Another thing about the newspaper stories is that they were just full of stories about delinquency, things that seem tame right now, but people were freaking out. For example, the University of Western Ontario banned leather jackets. The province of Alberta banned Sidney Poitier’s Blackboard Jungle. Publishers in Ottawa were fined $1,500 for distributing the works of Erskine Caldwell. The first private member’s bill to clear the Commons after the Second World War, you would think would be something economic, no, it was a bill promoted by Davey Fulton, to ban crime comics because they were seen as being a dangerous influence on teenagers. … When you put this in the context of the day, it’s astonishing. … The ’50s are seen as this placid conformist era of cars with big fins and girls with hoop skirts, but the truth is there were all these things boiling away beneath the surface and that old value set was beginning to give way.”
On CPAC’s website, in the episode “The Big Picture,” it says, “In the 1950s, the government set out to influence Canadians using a new medium called television. The country tuned in, but not without controversy.” What kind of influence did the government want on Canadians and what kind of controversy are you talking about?
“Television was new in the ’50s, and really the government didn’t know what to do with it. They recognized that it could be a powerful tool, but also a bad influence in terms of commercialism and the messages that the government couldn’t control. When something’s new and you can’t control it, it seems a problem. Canada actually delayed the debut of television for years after many countries around the world. We were on the air four years later than the United States, Europe, and a number of places because Louis St. Laurent, being a 19th century man, didn’t really know what to do with it. In those days, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was the only broadcaster, and they were the regulator which means they got to decide which other channels were licensed, so they had a monopoly and they wanted to keep it that way.
“They didn’t want to give any other television stations their license. It was quite a tooth-and- nail battle to allow television to be opened up to private broadcasters because well, what were they going to show, and dear god, with their money the mantra wasn’t public service. Mostly when we talk about television, the debut of television, we talk about the kind of shows and live TV but it was actually a policy debate like anything in Canada.
“The controversy was whether to throw this open to the free market. The first private broadcaster didn’t go on the air until 1961. And so we found a lot of those original participants, now people in their 80s and 90s who were there to put CBC on the air and were also involved in the battle to wrestle control away from the public broadcaster.”
Why is this documentary series important?
“I continue to believe as a producer of historical documentaries that everything now makes a lot more sense if we know where we came from.”
Who should watch the series?
“I think some of our stakeholders here in Ottawa, policy makers and Members of Parliament should watch it because I think there’s a tendency, especially for newly-arrived MPs, to think it’s all happening now and most of them, including prime ministers, think they know about our past, but I’ve learned that they don’t.
“Sometimes the way forward would be a lot clearer if they knew what has happened before. For instance, we talk about the ‘Northern vision’ today and [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper’s interest in a strategic policy for the North. In our episode, True North, it’s all happened before. And you can see exactly where all the paths lead, vis-à-vis the residents of the North, the resources, the strategic interest in our place in the world.”
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