Nation, Nature, and Nostalgia: Hinterland Who’s Who

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For those who watched Canadian television in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the haunting flute melody that begins the Hinterland Who’s Who public service announcements is instantly recognizable. Commissioned by the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and produced in conjunction with the National Film Board (NFB), the Hinterland Who’s Who vignettes profiled a wide array of animals native to Canada, showing each of them in their natural habitat and providing some basic facts about the species and its behaviour through voiceover narration. This straightforward description of the formal features and pedagogical aims of the series, however, does not capture the allure of the clips themselves. The force and impact of these films derive primarily from their tone and texture. The somnambulistic cadence of the voiceover narration, the eerie stillness of the wilderness soundscapes, and the sparse randomness of the information provided about the featured animals are the defining features of the shorts and combine to produce an unusual televisual experience.

Made between 1963 and 1977, but still airing regularly on Canadian television well into the 1980s, these shorts are both educational and political. They convey factual information about the natural world, and they communicate a very specific idea of Canada grounded in the imagined connection to that world. But they are also odd and evocative in ways that exceed both their pedagogical intent and ideological effect.

The animals represented in Hinterland Who’s Who were as much a part of the televisual landscape as the natural one. The odd tone of the shorts is, I argue, a consequence of this predicament. Hinterland Who’s Who was both educational and elegiac, a pinnacle of public service broadcasting that was haunted by its own imminent disappearance as the state-led initiatives of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the neoliberalism of the 1980s that saw dramatic reductions of this type of material from television screens. Today, Hinterland Who’s Who preserves a landscape that has disappeared, a specific era of Canadian television that experimented with the possibilities of the pedagogical, producing work that, even while it delivered a series of basic facts about the selected animals, managed to be both bracing and bold.

The original set of four black-and-white 60-second shorts, featuring the beaver, moose, gannet, and loon, were produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1963 at the behest of the Canadian Wildlife Service . According to Darrell Eagles, head of editorial and information for the CWS, these “four species were well represented in the Film Board’s stock-shot library.”[1] The series title was chosen from a lengthy list of competitors, including ones that referenced the format of the public service announcement (A Nature Minute), that imagined the series as a kind of scientific or bureaucratic survey (Backwoods Census ’63, Wildlife Roll Call ’63, Wildlife Parade, Animals We Know), and that played on ideas of nation and citizenship (Untamed Residents, Natives of Canada, Backwoods Citizens, Citizens of the Wild).[2]

The initial set proved popular enough that in 1966 the CWS commissioned four more 60-second spots (red fox, caribou, Canada goose, and herring gull), this time in colour, as well as having colour versions produced of the original quartet. Subsequent sets were produced in 1968-69 (mallard duck, ruffed grouse, chipmunk, and bighorn sheep), 1969-70 (peregrine falcon, cougar, black duck, and woodchuck), 1971-72 (blue jay, robin, grizzly, and wolf), 1973-74 (snowy owl, polar bear, muskox, ptarmigan, bison, killdeer, trumpeter swan, and canvasback duck), and 1976-77 (whooping crane, greater snow goose, raccoon, and black bear). In total, thirty-two Hinterland Who’s Who colour shorts were made, all of which had corresponding French versions under the series title Merveilles de la faune. They are a powerful collection of short films, not least for the way they distill and condense ideas of nation, nature, modernity, and modern life.

The formal consistency to the Hinterland Who’s Who shorts played a significant role in the success of the series during its initial run and also in its mnemonic tenacity.

  • Each film begins with John Cacavas’s rustic flute melody (officially titled “Flute Poem #1”).
  • The series title appears as the flute melody draws to a close, followed by on-screen text that provides the name of the featured animal.
  • The featured animal is pictured in its natural habitat.
  • The musical soundtrack is replaced by ambient noises of landscape and animal activity.
  • The closely mic’d and powerfully voiced narration begins, hovering somewhere between objective dispassion and mild melancholia.
  • The narration conveys a series of facts but also frequently constructs a kind of scientific narrative about the animal, structured around annual activity or larger life cycles.
  • Periods of prolonged silence punctuate the narration, inviting contemplation of the animal represented.
  • Cuts or dissolves transition between different seasons or stages of animal life.
  • The viewer is invited to contact the Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa for more information on the featured animal.
  • The logo for the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada appears on-screen and is followed, in later years at least, by the wordmark for the Government of Canada.

Perhaps the most distinctive of all the formal features of the Hinterland shorts is the woodwind melody that serves as its theme. John Cacavas’s “Flute Poem #1” is almost unbearably melancholic, and this tune is what people tend to remember most distinctly about the series. In 1993, Douglas Coupland attempted to explain to New York Times readers the central place of the Hinterland shorts in Canadian cultural memory, and described how “It had as its trademark the call of the loon, a sound that now evokes in many Canadians who watched this program a sense of primal patriotism infinitely greater than even the national anthem.”[3] The sense that, for some at least, the mnemonic trigger is “primal” points not only to the ways that music and musical cues work in relationship to memory itself, and in some cases to ideas of the nation, but also to how the ordinary and the banal can constitute an object of intense identificatory attachment and a catalyst for complex memories: an example of what Michael Billig terms “banal nationalism.”[4]

Even before the spots left the small screen, parodies and reworkings had appeared. Perhaps the first re-mediation of the Hinterland series was Donald Brittain’s acerbic satire of the federal government’s idiocies and inefficiencies, Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed (1979). Produced of course by the NFB, the film begins with a long shot of a bureaucrat skating down Ottawa’s Rideau Canal dressed in a trenchcoat and toting a briefcase. The voiceover adopts a mock-authoritative tone that parodies how nature documentaries classify their subjects and situate them in their natural habitat: “Here he comes now, trying to act like a normal human being. But he is that most despised of human creatures. His activities have brought down upon his shoulders the scorn and outrage of history’s multitudes. He is homo bureaucratus, the bureaucrat. And he lives in a land of paper.” Whereas the Hinterland films imagine nature in terms of a social structure, Brittain’s film sees the bureaucrat as a species in nature, albeit a despised one. Yet, for all its barbed wit, Paperland is more celebratory than corrosive, using satire to support rather than slander bureaucracy.

In December 1982, SCTV delivered the most famous of Hinterland Who’s Who satires. In the episode, station manager Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty) brokers a deal that allows SCTV to pick up the CBC feed. After a quick station identification featuring the classic “exploding pizza” logo, the Hinterland Who’s Who spot begins with John Candy narrating: “The woodchuck is found in open woods and ravines across Canada and the northeast United States. [pause] A terrestrial day-active animal, the woodchuck hibernates in snowy climes. [extended pause] For more information, contact Parks and Recreation Canada, Ottawa.” The humour of the spot derives in part from Candy’s attempt to echo the dispassionate delivery that characterizes the original Hinterland Who’s Who shorts. But perhaps the real source of comedy here is the silence that punctuates the piece. The extended pauses and the shots of woodchucks mostly just staring into the distance and sniffing combine to produce a short that parodies the original by ever so slightly emphasizing its quirks rather than indulging in overblown exaggeration. More recently, This Hour Has 22 Minutes has produced parodies that document a variety of Canadian types and figures, from the “Reluctant Shoveler” to the “Winter Cyclist.”

Hinterland Who’s Who had largely disappeared from television by the late 1980s and only became readily available again quite recently. They were initially uploaded to YouTube by individual enthusiasts, who, after the introduction of the platform in 2005, scoured old VHS tapes not for the programs intentionally recorded but for these treasured bits in between. More recently, they have been posted on the website of the Canadian Wildlife Federation, and received a formal release on a promotional DVD celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the series in 2013. In the intervening years, these shorts assumed a kind of talismanic status, a lost bit of Canadian television history beyond the scope of commercial reissue or official, subsidized digital-archival collection.

The past ten or fifteen years have seen a return to the recent Canadian past in specifically televisual terms, including the rise of YouTube channels such as RetroNewfoundland, RétroQuébec, Retrontario, and RetroWinnipeg, which document the televisual ephemera of local stations and regional affiliates. The Hinterland Who’s Who shorts represent, I think, the privileged example of this return. Their persistence constitutes a kind of nostalgia that is politically redeemable. It is not a nostalgia that is, as Svetlana Boym puts it, restorative, that aches for a return to or reconstruction of the past, but is a reflective nostalgia focused on the longing itself and what it might reveal about the limitations and occlusions of the political and cultural present. As Boym argues, one of the ways that reflective nostalgia differs from the restorative kind is that “it loves details, not symbols.”[5] This preference characterizes the mnemonic and affective relationship to the Hinterland shorts: the fascination with and attachment to them is caught up in their, often idiosyncratic, formal details.

Hinterland Who’s Who continues to have a force and power in the present. The “cultural residue” from the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s may appear to contemporary eyes as abject and pathetic or as cute, funny, and harmless, yet it still holds a certain power in that it is a reminder that meaningful change was once thought possible and that political intervention, even by the state itself, was understood to be a positive thing, even worthwhile and necessary. It is not that this sense of revolutionary transformation or utopian aspiration has been completely liquidated from the present. Yet such is the precarity of hope that those bits of the past that carry it forward into the present are ever more precious and alluring. The Hinterland Who’s Who shorts do this cultural and political work. They may seem like innocuous, outmoded vignettes, yet there is a weirdness and energy to them that is brought into the present as they are remembered and recirculated.

[1] National Film Board Archives (NFBA), Darrell Eagles, “Television Public Service Spots Good Business for any Renewable Resource Agency” (1968), 3.
[2] NFBA, Dave Smith, “Suggested Titles: Canadian Wildlife Series” (1963), 1-2.
[3] Douglas Coupland, “32 Thoughts about 32 Short Films.” New York Times, 1 May 1994.
[4] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995), 6-7.
[5] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 31.

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Andrew Burke

Associate Professor at University of Winnipeg
Andrew Burke is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg where he teaches film and television studies. He is the author of Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory, and the Canadian 1970s, published by McGill-Queen's University Press.

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