June 29, 2017 8:00 am

How important moments in Canadian history become a Heritage Minute

WATCH: What makes a moment in history "a part of our heritage?"

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Burnt toast. Peach baskets. Maple syrup: These aren’t the ingredients to a tasty breakfast, they’re featured items in some of the iconic Heritage Minutes which aired on Canadian airwaves in the 1990s.

With the celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial around the corner, Historica Canada has released a new vignette, focusing on the boat people from Vietnam who came to Canada as refugees.

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So how does the non-profit organization decide which special person, discovery or moment gets to be featured?

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That’s up to the team at Historica Canada, led by CEO Anthony Wilson-Smith and Heritage Minutes manager Davida Aronovitch.

“Some of the hallmarks of a great Heritage Minute are a strong character through whom we can follow the story,” said Aronovitch.

“Dramatic tension: so a challenge or a problem as well as high stakes. Something that was of great impact that was either about change or creating something new. We also look for something that has as much historical richness as possible.”

The team behind the vignettes consult historians, experts and the public when creating the one-minute history videos. They even accept suggestions from the public through social media.

Aronovitch says they ask themselves lots of questions about what would resonate with Canadians.

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“What feels relevant to Canadians? What feels topical? Something that’s a part of the national discourse? Another might be: What are significant anniversaries that are going to be celebrated?” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re looking for a compelling story.”

When philanthropist Charles Bronfman first came up with the idea of the Heritage Minutes in the 1980s, there were six criteria that needed to be met for a topic to be turned into a Minute.

1. Intrigue us with Canada’s heritage
2. Be producible within resources
3. Be truthful within the bounds of dramatic license
4. Reflect and celebrate Canadian social and cultural values: tolerance, fairness, courage, tenacity, resourcefulness, inventiveness
5. Reveal origins
6. Surprise, provoke reflection, re-examination, raise questions.

Today, Historica Canada says they haven’t strayed too far from that founding list. Most essentially, they still maintain the same goal of intriguing Canadians to explore Canada’s history further.

They also value the process of telling history, and what they can learn from it.

“One of the things that are really important to us is that history and the telling of history is an evolving process,” said Aronovitch. “Certainly, you can’t please everyone when you tell a story in a minute but the idea is to make this very much a process where we’re learning and gaining so that the stories that we tell in the future can be as accurate and as engaging as possible.”

WATCH: How the story of the Vietnamese boat people became a Heritage Minute.

In some ways, the new Minute featuring the story of the wave of Vietnamese immigrants in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a call for introspection, especially with the ongoing plight of refugees from the Middle East and northern Africa.

“Canadians tend to forget there’s a precedent, that we welcomed an enormous number of Vietnamese after the Vietnam War,” said Wilson-Smith. “Canada was also a less multicultural country in the late 70s early 80s so if anything, the task of bringing those people in was arguably even more dramatic than it is now. So telling the story helps remind us that we’ve been down this road before and it worked very well. We’ve certainly profited by the addition of these people in the country.”

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Going forward, the goal of the Heritage Minutes continues to aim to tell Canada’s history to engage Canadians.

“We only get better as a country if we have cause to be proud but if we are also are willing to look at things that we haven’t done as well and say we gotta get better,” said Wilson-Smith. “In a funny way, the Minutes are focused on the past are really about the future.”

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