Ready When You Are | NFB

A Tale of Two Cities: Halifax and Edmonton

What happened when the NFB came to town

23 mins read

Note: This article was first published in POV issue #119 on August 30, 2023, prior to recent staff cuts and restructuring at the Board. We hope this story offers a productive reminder of the role of regional representation.


When did film culture emerge across Canada? Most documentarians will know part of the answer. Thanks to the NFB and CBC, lots of award-winning documentary films and TV programs were made starting in the ’40s and ’50s. Drama followed suit, with the first wave of CBC directors, including Norman Jewison, Arthur Hiller, and Ted Kotcheff, and NFB–Quebecois filmmakers Gilles Groulx, Claude Jutra, and Gilles Carle a decade later, creating terrific works in the ’50s and ’60s. But all of those productions, apart from the occasional location shoot, took place in Montreal and Toronto, far away from the rest of Canada. The point is, it wasn’t so long ago that people in most parts of this country hadn’t seen a film made in their homeland, their province. So, it’s not surprising that we’re only finally reaching a point where young artists from every part of this country are making documentaries and feature films.

Foster Child | NFB

When the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) was formed in 1967 to allocate funds for film production in this country, only $10 million was deemed necessary and merely two offices were required, in Ontario and Quebec. That’s how minimal the production industry was in Canada. It was only in 1984, when the CFDC was renamed Telefilm Canada, with much-increased funding and expansion into distribution as well as production, that regional offices for the Atlantic and the West were set up. The intervening 17 years had been spent building up an environment from Vancouver to St. John’s that embraced the production and dissemination of cinema and television. Much of that maturation can be attributed to the rise of film and video co-ops, the increasing number of media and film programs in higher education facilities, and, to a surprising—and rarely acknowledged—extent, the help of the NFB.

Starting in the early 1970s, the NFB embarked on a radical policy of regionalization, with the creation of production units across the country, from Halifax to Toronto to Winnipeg and ending up in Vancouver. For over 30 years, since its inception in 1939, the Board had operated out of one office, first in Ottawa and then, from 1955, in Montreal, so this was a true change for the administration. The production facilities in Montreal were first class, with the finest audio and visual editing equipment, animation and special effects gear that was nonpareil, and a sound stage that was so well equipped that Stanley Kubrick considered using it for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Under the circumstances, it seemed counter-intuitive to transfer producers, administrators, technicians, and equipment to offices in unfashionable locations from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, this was the ’60s and early ’70s, when fresh thinking was apparent everywhere, with new attitudes and approaches being explored in music, sexuality, clothing, race relations, drugs, and Canada’s aspirations towards achieving maturity as a nation.

A group of key people at the NFB’s office in Montreal began to lobby for the setting-up of production units across the country as early as the mid-’60s. By the early ’70s, the movement started by Rex Tasker along with Eugene “Jeep” Boyko, and supported by NFB icon Colin Low as well as many others, had become impossible to ignore, even to the conservative regime of Commissioner Sydney Newman. From 1973 through 1980, regional facilities in Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver were set up and, after some growing pains, began to flourish. Not only did it mean that films were actually being made on a regular basis across Canada for the first time, but the NFB’s presence helped to empower local filmmakers to make work and, in a mandated head-office decision, money was allocated in each region to help local film cooperatives.

Every Saturday Night | NFB

The first office was set up in Halifax in 1973 by Tasker and a small-but-feisty crew including his then-wife Shelagh MacKenzie, Bert Hooper, Sam Grana, Ted Haley, and Kent Nason. The youngest of the group at 24, Nason, a Maritimer, was happy to come home for what he still thinks of as an adventure. Tasker moved them into an industrial building on Barrington Street in Halifax. “It was an old family theatre,” Nason recalled in a recent interview, “where [NFB] distribution had their headquarters. We took an old, abandoned third floor of this building and turned it into our production office. It was a good thing, too. Rex was a rather reclusive, inward kind of guy, but he was very serious and honest. His door was always open. Shelagh was just the opposite. She was a gregarious, outgoing, friendly person. She’d been a researcher for This Hour Has Seven Days [a brilliant CBC news and variety programme] and knew lots of people—she was friends with Adrienne Clarkson. Ted was an amazing sound guy—one of the best in the world. Bert was the guy who set up the lab in Montreal, so he knew everything about processing. Sam Grana had worked with the finance people at head office, so he’d learned how to wheel and deal.”

As for Nason, “I could shoot, and they thought I could—hopefully—inspire young people. It became difficult to figure out where to start, so Rex came up with this idea that we’d get a filmmaker from each province and nurture them as each one made a film over a time period. That’s what we did, basically. There was Kent Martin from PEI, Jon Pederson and [animator] Robert Awad from New Brunswick, Mike Jones from Newfoundland, and Stefan Wodoslawksy from Nova Scotia.”

Making Movie History: Rex Tasker, Joanne Robertson, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Tasker’s approach resembles that of imperialist bureaucrats from the British Empire. Pick out a few likely recruits and expend resources on building up an educated population. It worked in India and South Africa, so why not in Canada’s Atlantic provinces? Problematic though it might be, the regional method began to work even if some locals weren’t satisfied. One person who sees the early situation from a local filmmaker’s perspective is Governor General’s Award-winning filmmaker William MacGillivray.

He recalls approaching the new Atlantic studio upon returning home after graduating from film school in London, England: “I went and knocked on the NFB’s door, and was basically told, ‘We’re not hiring.’ I said to them, ‘You just moved here, don’t you want—” and they said, ‘Well, we’ve brought the people we’re going to use.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s kind of strange.’ And that’s in fact what they did.

“They would at times hire someone from the co-ops, or someone from outside, but essentially, they were the Film Board. That was how it started out. It’s true that Rex Tasker reached out, and he was really great, but there was always a kind of divide in the early days between the independents and the Film Board itself. I don’t think the Film Board saw that, because often if you’re in a position of power, you don’t see how others, who are not in power, feel.”

Boo Hoo, Grant Munro, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Tasker had a lot to do: setting up the office, producing films, and encouraging the local educational institutions and co-ops to work with the Board. Nason remembers that Barrington Street was a beehive of activity and films got made quite quickly. Three fine short docs made in 1975 were Boo Hoo, directed by Grant Munro, recruited from the Montreal office, which is an intimate portrait of a New Brunswick cemetery superintendent who recounts anecdotes of his own, and others’, grave past; Ready When You Are by Montreal-based directors John N. Smith and Douglas Kiefer, a brisk, amusing doc about the difficulties involved in making a film—including a helicopter shot!—of 1000 Halifax kids playing ukuleles while singing “I Believe in Music” at the Atlantic harbour; and Eastern Graphic by Michael McKinnery and PEI native Kent Martin, which offers a frank account of a local election on the Island from the perspective of the editor of the local newspaper, the titular Graphic.

Corral | NFB
Eastern Graphic | NFB

Within a year, the NFB deemed the Halifax experiment a success. The regionalization process continued apace, with new production offices set up in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto within five years. Finally, in 1980, the movement toward regional offices was completed with the formation of the Northwest Studio in Edmonton. Veteran documentary maker Tom Radford, the first executive producer of the studio, fondly recalls how he got enmeshed with the Film Board and helped to make Alberta one of its centres.

As an ambitious, young filmmaker in the early ’70s, Radford formed a company, Filmwest, with Anne Wheeler and others while working on his first documentary Ernest Brown: Pioneer Photographer (1974), which involved recreations and archival photography. In the midst of making the film, Radford discovered that Colin Low, one of the finest and most influential filmmakers at the NFB, spent his summers vacationing with his family at his parents’ home in Cardston, Alberta. Low’s wonderful films Corral (1954), Circle of the Sun (1961), and The Hutterites (1964), all shot in Alberta, had inspired Radford to become a filmmaker while demonstrating that it was possible to make films in his province. Radford phoned Low and was invited to come for tea. That first meeting led to others over the years as the affable, genteel Low took to mentoring Radford.

“Colin was the eminence grise on my early films,” recalls Radford as he thinks of the advice given to him on the Ernest Brown film by Low, whose accomplishments include co-directing City of Gold, the NFB film that pioneered the use of archival photos in documentaries and is the acknowledged inspiration for Ken Burns’ legendary Civil War series. Radford’s independent, low budget Ernest Brown film won the Golden Sheaf award at the prestigious Yorkton Festival in 1973. By that point, Low, who saw the talent in Radford, had arranged for the young Albertan to work on a project with the NFB’s money and production acumen behind it.

During one of their teas in Cardston, Radford told Low about an upcoming event in which 40 fiddlers would be playing at a Saturday night dance—an Alberta country tradition dating back at least to the ’30s—in the small town of Dorothy. He felt that the gathering evoked “the whole Depression-era populist Alberta, as seen through music.” An enthused Low replied, “What a great idea for a film. When they have this reunion, why don’t you get a film crew there?”

Every Saturday Night, Tom Radford, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Low introduced Radford to John Taylor, one of the NFB’s producers in Vancouver, who supported the resulting film, Every Saturday Night (1973). It’s a truly delightful documentary that captures the unpretentious joy of music and dancing and good spirits in a small Alberta town. As Radford recalls, “It was wonderful because my crew included Studio B [NFB] documentarians. Taylor asked Shelah Reljic, who had worked with Daryl Duke (This Hour Has Seven Days and many other BC television shows) to edit the film, and she was a fabulous cutter. The very fluid style of the film, not letting narration or anything getting in the way, that’s Shelah.”

Augusta | NFB
Man Who Chooses the Bush | NFB

The acclaim received for Every Saturday Night led to another project, Man Who Chooses the Bush, which, when released in 1975, won awards at Yorkton for best director and top film. Radford’s film is a classic doc, unpretentious and thoughtful, which offers a truthful portrait of a Métis man, Frank Ladouceur, who made his living as a trapper of muskrats. Recalls Radford, “Frank said, ‘If you come up at Christmas, I take 10 days off, and you could come into Fort Chipewyan to spend Christmas with our family. And you could also spend time with me on the trap line.” The film captures family Christmas celebrations and a school play, and imparts a real sense of life up north back then. Ladouceur, his wife, and the elders talk in Cree throughout the film, although the children are English speakers. The film is a remarkable record of a passing way of life.

Wheeler was making similar inroads to Radford, directing Great Grand Mother (1975), Augusta (1976), Happily Unmarried (1977), and Teach Me to Dance (1978) with the Board and different partners including the CBC. During the late ’70s, Radford recalls discussions with Low and NFB veteran John Spotton, both of whom were involved in guiding the regional offices toward, as he puts it, “at least having an Edmonton desk.” He remembers that he “spent a lot of time on aeroplanes back and forth to Montreal trying to get the regional program expanded a bit so we could have an Edmonton studio. And part of our argument—and I think it was a good one—was it would be for Edmonton and the North. So, the Northwest Territories (and what is now Nunavut) would be an important part of the studio.”

From 1980 through 1985, Radford ran the studio out of Edmonton, producing over 20 films with key support offered by such talented filmmakers as Wheeler and Jerry Krepakevich, who moved to Alberta from the Winnipeg NFB office. Krepakevich arrived in Edmonton in October of 1980 and never left. He recalls, “We started at the Singer Sewing Centre, over on 101st Street,” in a building that was later torn down as part of the development of Scotia Place. Radford laughs, thinking of the building: “There were these old sewing machines still in the room. It was kind of wonderful in its own way. And it was fun because we were flying by the seat of our pants. We weren’t moving into big, expensive federal buildings, [but instead were] under the radar of the Department of Public Works.” The unpretentious, rough-and-ready nature of the studio’s digs created the perfect working atmosphere, and the same went for its next location, the Ortona Armoury Building down in the River Valley, which had been left abandoned by the Army. “The Singer Sewing Centre was very limited, but the old Armoury had lots of space for workshops and cutting rooms and all sorts of stuff.”

A War Story, Anne Wheeler, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The most extraordinary film Radford produced in those early years was Anne Wheeler’s very personal feature documentary A War Story (1981). Based on diaries the director’s father Ben Wheeler wrote while he was a doctor in a Japanese POW camp in Taiwan, it’s a devastating account of the deprivation and agony that Canadian soldiers endured during the Second World War. With Donald Sutherland’s voice narrating Dr. Wheeler’s words, the film is a true masterpiece, using recreations, archival footage, and contemporary interviews to place the viewer deep into the psyches of the men who fought that merciless war. It’s Anne Wheeler’s triumph and set the stage for her later career as a drama filmmaker. Recalls Radford, “Anne had such an important story to tell, and we could sense that she would do something quite wonderful with it. We weren’t scared by the fact that we would have to do quite a bit of recreation in it. And we were lucky that Colin was watching our back on it at head office.”

Canada’s cinema and TV scene is alive and vibrant across our many regions. The ranks of the Documentary Organization of Canada and the Directors Guild of Canada are bursting with filmmakers, young and old. As a country and a film culture, we have progressed to our current position of strength with great rapidity. It’s important to remember how quickly it all happened, and to acknowledge the role of the NFB in that process.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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