That filming I mentioned in my last Chronicle, when I huddled with a film crew in a van waiting for two rutting bison to charge in our direction, was for an NFB movie called The Great Buffalo Saga. I had some part in its making as co-director, writer and researcher, working with the NFB staff director Michael McKennirey, a veteran of many such shoots.
This was one of four films that were made by Parks Canada to celebrate the centenary of the formation of our first National Park, Banff, created in 1885. In those late 1980s --- I am not sure of the situation now --- the National Film Board as the government’s film-making agency, was obliged to make a film if asked to do so by any government department or agency that was ready to put up the money. The NFB in addition had its own budget, and it was from this that the best films --- I might say, some of the world’s best-regarded documentary films --- were made. In addition, a special unit had been set up called Challenge for Change, whose objective was “to prepare Canadians for social change”. This was funded by contributions from any willing department or agency, and at the time I began to work with this unit as a freelance contributor, in 1971, some 14 government departments were contributing $100,000 a year each to the unit.
Before falling into this job more or less by accident, I had been working, on and off, for 25 years as a daily staff employee of various newspapers, a job that took me to four different countries. Since the NFB was publicly-funded, in theory it should have been the worst possible example of how to manage information services, at least to hear the proponents of private enterprise describe it. According to my experience, that was not so. In fact it was so far from being so, that I can say, hand on heart, that I found little difference between the level of freedom of expression available in the publicly-funded film agency, from that I had experienced as a reporter in the privately-owned newspapers. Indeed, if I were pressed up against a wall and forced to make a choice, I would have to admit that, if anything, one was usually less conscious of pressures from above in the publicly-funded system than was the case during my years in newspapers.
This is a subject of no little importance, because in our Western society, the flow of information is almost totally dominated by the private sector, which has the freedom to decide what aspect of news and information should be broadcast or propagated, and which aspect should be largely ignored. It seems to be more or less universally agreed within our society that the public sector cannot be trusted to manage anything to do with information or news.
It is easy to prove the contrary, that it ain’t necessarily so: for example, if one contrasts the amount of business news published every day with the amount of labour news, one should immediately spot the imbalance, even though more people are employed in labour than are involved in the sort of business news that is meat and drink to the newspaper business sections. It is worth mentioning in passing, that this imbalance was not always so stark as it has become: I remember (was it 40 years ago or about then?), when every news broadcast began to feature stock market reports that until that moment had always been considered the specialized field of the wealthy, and I was left wondering what had caused this remarkable imbalance to suddenly occur, and not only every day, but six or more times in every day. For an explanation, it is hardly necessary to look further than to the decline in private sector labour unions, an event that presaged the rise of the sort of global inequity that now characterizes our society.
As it happened, the four films made by the NFB at the demand of Parks Canada to mark their special anniversary, provided a good example of the exercise of editing power as between the funding department and the film-making agency. I had been given the task of directing a film to be made about the history of the National Parks. In doing so, I had ranged rather freely over the multitude of topics available, not all of them shining examples of ideal parks management. For example, Parks Canada had once posited creation of a National Park at Ship Harbour on the Atlantic coast. In those days the customary thing was that anyone living inside the boundaries of a new park would be tabbed for ejection, but in Ship Harbour, a vigorous group of residents fought a bitter battle to remain, and were so successful that the agency submitted to their wishes and in the process changed their long-term policy for excluding all residents.
Similarly, on the West Coast, Parks Canada was in the process of trying to create a park on the Queen Charlotte Islands, the ancestral home of the Haida people. Although the tribe no longer occupied every part of the islands, they were still claiming ownership of all of them, and were placing some fairly formidable blockages to the National Parks’ freedom of action. I included in my film a conspectus of the rights and wrongs of this weighty and difficult decision, something that, acting on reflex, the bureaucrats overseeing the making of the film objected to as a matter of course.
Again, the process of creating Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan was underway, but it was taking ages, it seemed, because of the reluctance of ranchers who had been installed in the area for generations, to be moved out. Parks Canada by this time was not demanding their removal, but had not arrived at any very clear compromise position that would have enabled the Park to be established. I visited some of these ranchers and found them extremely well informed and concerned about the wildlife in the region of the proposed new park. They were people who urgently objected to any suggestion that they had not been good and careful occupants of these special lands.
Again, perhaps the most notable black mark the National Parks had ever earned, occurred in the creation of Kouchibouguac National Park along the New Brunswick coast. This important area of barrier islands, sand dunes, lagoons, salt marshes and forests provides habitat for various seabirds, as well as many colonies of harbour and grey seals. Various villages of mostly-impoverished Acadians were living within the boundaries of the park, and they did not want to move.
One especially, Jackie Vautour, resisted violently, had his home bulldozed, and after a year or two had returned to live in the park as a squatter, his resistance having turned him into a sort of local folk hero. Of course, the Parks Canada people did not want this incident to be emphasized in the film, and especially objected to a shot of an attack on a local office, that had been burned down. I argued that a history of the National Parks could be credible only if it dealt with their real history, and to the credit of the bureaucrats, they finally accepted the film more or less as I had made it.
One last roadblock, however delayed the finishing of the film for so long that it never did make it to the ceremonial event for which it had been intended. At the time we were shooting the film a minister had been placed in command of the National Parks who was distinguished by her failure to understand her mission, and by her repeated suggestions that the parks should be opened to logging and mining. I had interviewed a former Liberal party minister Jean Chretien, who, in a brief term of four years had created more new National Parks --- ten, I believe it was --- than had been created in the previous 50 years. The Mulroney appointees in charge of approving the film objected. Why did we need to interview him, and not the current minister? Our argument went on for some weeks, meeting after meeting. At one point I asked them, “Can you guarantee that the present minister will still be in office when we finish the film?” a question they regarded as irrelevant.
In the end, they agreed to accept Chretien’s presence in the film, but insisted I should interview the present minister which I did. We had just cut in a few of her anodyne, ill-chosen words with which to end the film when she was suddenly fired, and replaced as minister. Not without a certain sense of triumph I phoned the relevant bureaucrats. “Would you like us to take her out of the film?” I asked. The sigh of relief was palpable. “Yes, please,” they intoned, for they themselves had been suffering under the woman’s deliriously misplaced attitudes much more than we had.
They did not seem to hold it against us that our long argument over the minister and her lack of suitability for the job had resulted in our film not making the big occasion for which it had been designed. I can report I believe, that all these years later the film, still in use, has become one of those standard NFB productions that form the backbone of the agency’s remarkable record of achievements.
So there you go: I set out to write on a different subject: But, Wot the hell! wot the hell! toujours gai, toujours gai….