“Dr. Penfield, I smell burnt toast” or, In Praise of Canadian Heritage Minutes

Sam Steele gently but firmly disdains your way of life, you Shatner-stealing Mexico toucher.

Heritage Minutes were a childhood staple for anyone growing up in Canada in the nineties. They have become a genuine, if slightly kitschy, part of Canadian culture, sort of like that cartoon about driving logs down a river, or Don Cherry. First aired in the early nineties, these one-minute short films dramatizing various topics in Canadian history were shown during commercial breaks on CBC. And much like ads for sugary cereals shilled by psychotic talking animals, they stealthily took up residence in our subconscious.

As a kid, I remember Heritage Minutes being both oddly fascinating and ripe for mockery. The plight of Canadian history in this country is a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish, but as children we considered the history of our nation uniformly dull, lacking the gratuitous violence and brazen heroes of American history. Instead of George Washington and epic battles for sovereignty and the abolition of slavery, we had potlatches, les coureurs des bois and the Hudson’s Bay Company. For every Pierre Trudeau there were twenty Robert Borings — uh, Bordens — and for every 1812 beat-down there were a hundred quiet and amicable changes in economic policy and social reform.

And so, we sat through a smattering of Acadian expulsion and Confederation and William Lyon MacKenzie King in elementary school and junior high. And if you graduated before 2004, you weren’t even required to take a Canadian history class in high school. But the Heritage Minutes had a way of weaseling into your psyche important tidbits about your country’s history, and you might forget all about it until a Jeopardy question about standard time has you blurting out “Who is Sandford Flemming” without missing a beat.

Incidentally, Heritage Minutes also provided ammunition for confronting smug American acquaintances, to remind them that basketball and Superman were Canadian inventions, and that Sam Steele thought their right to bear arms was silly. But aside from cementing choice tales of Canadian history that washed over my unattentive head in school and offering me ways to one-up the Yanks, Heritage Minutes taught me about life, love and all the crappy flags we almost had.

So in honour of the lifetime of education they afforded me, I present twenty important life lessons I learned from Heritage Minutes.

1. The smell of burnt toast is an important indicator of epilepsy.
2. Questions about prison brutality are always rhetorical.
3. If you build an island for it, they will come.
4. According to John Cabot, “the end of time” is approximately 1992.
5. Dan Ackroyd built the Avro Arrow.
6. Moving furniture up steep flights of stairs is a sure-fire way to become a record-breaking athlete.
7. Governor Frontenac was the original comeback king.
8. DO NOT dig up the trees. Horrible things will come out.
9. Laura Secord wasn’t really that into ice cream.
10. The medium is the message but you’ll have to take a course in visual rhetoric to find out what that means.
11. “Ca-na-da” does indeed mean “the village,” thus rendering one poor guy’s expensive post-secondary Jesuit education worthless.
12. Lake Michigan ≠ the Pacific Ocean
13. Irish orphans don’t have Irish accents.
14. Judge Judy is right: just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you should laze around watching your husband build the sod house all by himself.
15. The only English-speaking native in the tribe is always Graham Greene. And he is disappointed in you.
16. You’re right, Lois. Superman is kind of lame.
17. The Underground Railroad was mostly people nailed into pieces of furniture.
18. Winnie the Pooh is just a black bear from Manitoba and Christopher Robin is just a kid with weird shoes.
19. Pie is the food of revolutionaries.

And most importantly:

20. No matter how much you think they should be sacrificed for the sake of sport, he needs those baskets back.

Watch them here on youtube!

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