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Canada Vignettes: Essential Canadiana, eh!

Canada Vignettes: Essential Canadiana, eh!

Canada Vignettes: Essential Canadiana, eh!

You’ve all seen them on television. Those wonderful, short, fascinating Canada Vignettes that cover the history of Canada, from the ill-fated establishment of the Republic of Manitoba to the exploits of train robber Bill Miner. This series of over 120 short films has played continually on Canadian television since the late 1970s.

We are launching a DVD compilation of some of the best Canada Vignettes in time for the holidays, so I thought it would be a great time to write a post on how this project came to be and single out a couple of the more interesting films in the series.

The Genesis of the project

The story of Canada Vignettes goes back to early 1977, when the CBC’s children’s programming department approached the National Film Board about producing short films, up to five minutes in length, that they could use as “fillers” to complement their programming for kids. The NFB was interested in this project and began to look into a way to produce it.

Meanwhile, events in Ottawa would kick-start this initiative. The Secretary of State announced in the fall of that year that $13 million would be given to Federal Cultural agencies to help promote national unity. The NFB was allocated $2 million of this money to produce films that would be broadcast on the CBC, similar to the Bicentennial Minutes that had played on CBS in the United States the previous year (the original title of the series was to be Canada Minutes). No one in either agency was interested in making or showing “propaganda” films; after some discussions, it was decided to make films on Canadian history and famous Canadians that would be a celebration of Canada, and not anything that could be perceived as propaganda.

Production begins

Radio-Canada eventually agreed to come onboard to broadcast the French films in this series. Over the next three years, a team of 80 filmmakers from across the country worked on the project, including artisans from the NFB’s Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto production centres. Many of the films produced were animation vignettes that presented Canadian history in an amusing way. Some of the vignettes were culled from material excised from full-length documentaries. The key was that they tell an interesting story in a few minutes. It was decided that no credits would be included in the films, only a title.

Television broadcasts

Eventually, the first Vignettes were shipped to the CBC and Radio-Canada on 16mm for broadcast. Though they had initiated the project, the CBC’s children’s department advised the NFB that it could no longer show films that were longer than two minutes as their programming needs had changed in the time that it took to get the series produced. This posed a problem, since a quarter of the vignettes were more than two minutes in length. The main network agreed to make the longer films as well as the short ones available to the affiliate stations, who could then choose what they would show. The films were shown on both prime time and during children’s programming slots. The most popular film in the series to air on Canadian television was Canada Vignettes: Faces, a beautiful work of animation that depicted the faces of Canada (including a cameo by then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau).

Canada Vignettes: Faces, Paul Bochner, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Other Canadian networks eventually picked up the films for broadcast, including CTV, Global and TV Ontario. The TVA network also picked up the French titles and broadcast them over several years, to great response. Television sales of the best vignettes were also made to Turkey, Italy, Algeria, Norway and the United Kingdom, among other countries.

The Theatrical run

Pretty much every Canadian who has ever seen a Canada Vignette remembers the McGarrigle sisters singing in The Log Driver’s Waltz. It is one of our most viewed films on (closing in on 200,000 views). This is not surprising as it played extensively on television and was one of three films from the series to be released theatrically in the 1980s. This came about from a deal the NFB made with Cineplex Odeon to show short films before main features in Canadian cinemas. Cineplex specifically asked for very short films; they agreed to test three of them in their theatres and conduct an exit poll with the audiences to gauge their response.

Canada Vignettes: Log Driver's Waltz, John Weldon, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The NFB was responsible for providing 35mm printing elements to Cineplex Odeon, who would in turn make the release prints for the theatres. Since all the animated Canada Vignettes had been produced on 35mm, it was easiest to produce 35mm prints of these as opposed to blowing up the 16mm documentary vignettes. Of the 22 vignettes proposed to Cineplex, the aforementioned Log Driver’s Waltz was chosen, as were The Horse and News Canada. Unfortunately, audiences were indifferent to the films and Cineplex eventually pulled them from their theatres (The Log Driver’s Waltz received the best response of the three).

Canada Vignettes: News Canada, Yossi Abolafia, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The Log Driver’s Waltz had also been submitted to the Annecy (France) Animation festival and had won the prize for best foreign animation film. This led to theatrical sales in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and South Africa. The success at Annecy also secured television sales in a dozen countries, most notably in France, Greece, Australia and Switzerland.

Whether offering a humorous take on learning French or a beautiful song by the Cape Breton miners, the Canada Vignettes have become a treasure of Canadian nostalgia. Enjoy.

Add a new comment
  1. I am looking for what I think is a vignette on my family, or at least they were mentioned in it. About how France grew the population of the New World. My great-many times over grandfather and grandmother came to Canada in the mid 1600’s. Pierre Blais and his first wife Anne Perrault, she is mentioned as coming on a bride ship as a Fils du Roi.
    Does this vignette exist?

    — kathrynblais,
    1. Hello Kathryn,
      Unfortunately, I cannot find anything that matches what you are looking for. Is it possible that this could be one of the Heritage Moments produced by Historica Canada? These were not produced by the NFB.

      Albert Ohayon
      NFB English collection curator

      — Albert Ohayon,
  2. Around 1980, was there a Vignette that was accompanied by music that included what sounded to me like a bass saxophone, a bassoon, organ, fiddle, and piccolo? It was a lively/cheerful tune and the bass saxophone would make these really low tones in a kind of call and response with the other instruments (the bass sax was the response). I can’t remember what the video was, but CFCF 12 in Montreal used to play it a lot during the commercial breaks for the Noontime broadcast of The Flintstones.

    — Peter,
    1. Hi Peter,
      Unfortunately, that is not enough information for me to be able to search for this film. Can you remember what was going on on-screen?

      Albert Ohayon
      NFB English collection curator

      — Albert Ohayon,
  3. I was sure that a short Christmas vignette I saw many years ago must’ve been from the NFB. But I’ve never been able to find it anywhere. It is the story of a dysfunction Father-Son relationship. The story teller is the son & the story is told in a series of sketches. It starts in the depression, the young son & dad are in a store at Chrstmas & the son makes a fuss over a bike. The dad (out of work)reacts angrily. They leave with the son in tears. This affects their relationship from then on. Now with Mom gone, the son drives to the seniors home to see his dad after a long absence. Dad, happy to see his son, get the family album & invites the son to sit beside him as he leafs through the pages of bygone Christmases. Then the son notices that a tear has run out of the frail old man’s eye & rests on his cheek. He remarks that his Dad makes no effort to hide or wipe the tear away. He just keeps re-iterating the memories in the album. The son closes his story by saying “Suddenly I realized that the great chasm that separated us all these years, was gone! I’d love to know the name of the sketch artist/author and the name of the vignette. There must be a link somewhere. Any clues you may have will be much appreciated. Merry Christmas!

    — Murray Blake,
    1. Hello Murray,

      Unfortunately what you describe is not an NFB film. sorry.

      Albert Ohayon
      NFB English collection Curator

      — Albert Ohayon,
    2. Thanks Albert, at least now I know to look elsewhere.

      — Murray Blake,
  4. Hi Albert,
    Would it be possible to get a list of all the vignettes included in this DVD box set?

    — Ellie,
    1. Hello Ellie,
      The DVD contains the following vignettes:
      Acadian Quadrille
      Angel of Death
      Arctic Seascape
      Bill Miner
      Bluenose 1921-1946
      Catapult Canada
      Delta Plane
      Don Messer His Land and His Music-Don Messer 1910-1973
      Don Messer His Land and His Music-Marg Osburne 1927-1977 Pt. 1
      Emergency Numbers
      Flin Flon
      Fort Prince of Wales
      Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary: An Irish Folk Tale
      The Performer
      Melvin Arbuckle Famous Canadian
      Spence’s Republic
      Stunt Family
      Lady Frances Simpson
      Love on Wheels
      Log Driver’s Waltz
      Instant French
      Klondike Gold
      Ma Chere Albertine
      Trading Post
      Men of the Deeps Cape Breton
      Onions and Garlic: A Hebrew Fable
      News Canada
      The Egg
      The Maple Leaf


      Albert Ohayon, NFB collection curator

      — Albert Ohayon,
    2. Thanks!

      — Ellie,
  5. I’m looking for a short vignette that appeared at Christmas time during 1970’s and 1980’s that used miniature figures that may have been animated that told a story of Christmas nativity from an aboriginal perspective. It took place in the woods with snow. The little figures were bundled up in furs and may have had snow shoes. At one point one of the figures turns toward a sound. Was this a NFB production?

    — Sheila Smith,
  6. …I can’t seem to find the one about the French Canadian woman who paid to record a song, and ended up becoming very famous, singing for royalty. A little help, please? 🙂

    — A Towers,
    1. Unfortunately, that isn’t an NFB film! Hope that helps!

      — Kate Ruscito,
    2. Darn! Thanks anyway!

      — A Towers,
  7. hi
    In the early 70’s we were visiting a friend in ottawa and watching Sunday morning tv. To our surprise an animated vignette about my family in the ottawa valley in the early 1800’s was on. I believe the title was
    “The Higginsons of Hawkesbury or Van Kleek Hill”. Is it possible to get a copy of this vignette?

    Thank you
    Rob Higginson

    — Rob Higginson,
  8. Hello,

    I am looking for a vignette of a group of workers singing in unison building a boat (I think it was a boat). From memory it was shot in Africa.


    — Spencer,
    1. Hello Spencer,

      Unfortunately, we do not have any vignettes of workers singing in unison building a boat in Africa.

      — Albert Ohayon,
    2. In the late sixties to early seventies there was a short stop motion vignette that aired as a commercial. It played all the time I remember for a few months anyway…and I’m pretty sure it was NFB related or was animated by people who have been a part of the NFB. . It was the story of Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic. The narrator spoke while we watched a stop motion scene of the three boats sailing along on the ocean. All stop motion. It was probably only a minute long. I’ve been looking everywhere for a trace of it, including people researching here at the NFB. To no avail. The only other trace I can find of it was on a person’s blog as she recounted her memory of it as a kid..but I can’t even find that now. If it wasn’t NFB it was a lot like it….man I wish I could get some info on that.

      — Joad,
    3. Hi Joad, Unfortunately, what you describe is not an NFB production.
      Albert Ohayon
      NFB English Collection Curator

      — Albert Ohayon,
  9. I am wondering/remembering/curious about the vignette of a carver hiking through the woods to get a stone of argillite.
    Can I have access to view that somewhere? Is there documentation on this short film?
    Thank you,

    — Treena Nagy Toth,
    1. Hello!
      Is this DVD still available for purchase?
      Thank you.

      — Treena,
  10. I am from Australia and first came across the vignettes when I saw the “The Ham”. I thought it was just beautiful and have since watched many of these short films. They tell such interesting stories and are lovely slices of life. Thank you NFB for making and preserving them. I keep going back to watch The Ham, so touching.

    — Dean,
  11. I would like to find out more on vignette of midwife in Myrnam Alberta< I believe this was my grandmother

    — Dan Prysunka,
    1. Dan,

      I have answered you by e-mail.

      Albert Ohayon (NFB Collection curator)

      — Albert Ohayon,

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