Inside the making of the D-Day Heritage Minute

The head of Historica Canada takes us behind the scenes of a Minute marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy

Anthony Wilson-Smith
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A young actor waits in the smoke in Calgary’s Heritage Park during the filming of Historica Canada’s Heritage Minute about D-Day (Historica Canada)

A young actor waits in the smoke in Calgary’s Heritage Park during the filming of Historica Canada’s Heritage Minute about D-Day (Historica Canada)

Anthony Wilson-Smith is president and CEO of Historica Canada and a former editor-in-chief of Maclean’s.

When Norman Leach arrived for a meeting in Calgary one morning last September, he had a checklist of items to be verified and lessons to deliver. An expert on Canada’s military history, author of a dozen related books and frequent consultant and speaker at home and abroad, Leach specializes in war conditions “on the ground”—what life was really like for troops in battle. That knowledge was to be put to the test in the filming of a Heritage Minute, to be released later this month, focused on the Second World War efforts of Canadian soldiers 75 years ago on June 6, 1944. D-Day, as it was known, was the biggest military invasion in history—359 Canadian lives were lost—and the beginning of the end of the war. Leach began by checking some army uniforms hanging neatly on a rack in one corner of a makeshift office. After verifying their authenticity, he did the same with the (unloaded) weaponry. Then, he assembled the cast—a group of mostly teenage extras and the star, 47-year-old veteran actor Michael Shanks—to demonstrate how to carry and aim their rifles. It was not yet 9 a.m. on an unseasonably cold, blustery day just getting under way.

Watch the D-Day Minute:

So began filming of the newest Minute, the 60-second vignettes that have told stories of memorable Canadian people and events since their 1991 inception. They are produced by Historica Canada, the charitable organization of which I am president. We make them in collaboration with film companies chosen from across the country—in this case, Calgary-based Bamboo Shoots. If you aren’t familiar with the Minutes, the evidence suggests you are part of a shrinking minority. Our most recent one, about the Vancouver-based Japanese-Canadian Asahi baseball team of the 1930s, was viewed more than 2.6 million times within the first 30 days of its release in February. Its predecessor, an LGBTQ2-focused Minute on gay rights pioneer Jim Egan, was seen 2.5 million times in the same period. That’s not including views on television, planes and trains, all of which show the Minutes. Last year, the Minutes—there are now more than 90—collectively aired 125,138 times on Canadian TV stations.

READ: The top 10 Heritage Minutes

It’s fair to say that the Minutes, like their familiar and oft-repeated tagline, have over time become “a part of our heritage.” Done right, they are equal parts entertainment and education—putting the lie to the tiresome old saw that “Canadian history is boring.” The Minutes were conceived of and brought to life by philanthropist Charles Bronfman—still a member of our Historica Canada board—for reasons he outlined several years ago. “No society can be of merit,” he observed, “unless it has heroines, heroes and myths. In Canada, while there were many, they had not been taught.” Even though they predated the internet era, the format was ready-made for the impatient digital world: they are micro-mini feature films, with developed characters and a full storyline—told in less time than it takes to toast your bread in the morning.

Producing those 60 seconds takes a minimum of nine months. Our decision-making process mixes hard research, hundreds of submissions from experts and the general public, some occasional polling (on what subjects respondents would like to see as a Minute), and, ultimately, a collective gut sense as to what will work. We also get hundreds of submissions annually from high school students who take part in our Ottawa-based Encounters With Canada program. One goal, alongside telling important, compelling stories, is to get to a point where every Canadian can say they see a part of their background or heritage in one of our Minutes.

That’s no small undertaking when you consider that making each Minute costs about $250,000. Funding for the D-Day project came almost entirely from private donors, but others are funded mostly by the federal heritage department. Successive Conservative and Liberal governments have been equally supportive in providing funding, while also taking a hands-off approach to the actual making of each Minute.

READ: Historica Canada releases Drake-themed Heritage Minute

The preparations for the D-Day Minute feature the same elements we try to bring to all such productions: a story that reflects the importance of an event; a tale that packs emotional punch; and, in telling it, a near-obsession with authenticity. We wanted a story that would reflect a quiet heroism—a person or people whose story isn’t well known, and who thus is representative of the 14,000 Canadians who, mostly without fuss or acclaim, risked their lives landing on the beaches of Normandy. A network of historians and other contacts provided input while the team at Historica pored over books and old magazines and consulted our own voluminous Canadian Encyclopedia looking for the right choice. We found what we wanted through the excellent Juno Beach Centre, which maintains an enormous archive of material related to Canada’s efforts on D-Day.

The Minute centres on a fortysomething First World War veteran from New Brunswick who re-upped when the second war began. As a major, he led a group composed largely of teenagers, most of whom had never set foot outside the province before they enlisted. Using letters to and from our protagonist and his family, interviews with veterans and their descendants, and photographs and other background material, the script shows how he watched over them, leading them selflessly into what was, literally, the fog of war.

Small details, taken together, have a big impact on whether the final result seems realistic. In many movies, the middle-aged hero is played by someone younger—and the supposed teenagers are played by actors a decade older. Michael Shanks was the same age as the character he plays—and the actors playing the teenage soldiers look very much that age. That difference is crucial to understanding the emotional relationship between them.

Norman Leach ensured that as the actor/soldiers patrolled, they swivelled their heads slowly in measured, different directions—as a real patrol would have done. Another piece of advice: “Never walk directly behind each other. Soldiers always spread out so one bullet couldn’t get all of them.” Unlike the submachine-gun toting officers in movies, our major carries a pistol—true to the real man.

Computer-generated anti-aircraft dirigibles float overhead, matching newsreel images of the day (Historica Canada)

We shot over two days at Alberta locations: Calgary’s Heritage Park and a lake about 20 minutes from the city. They look very little like the final images. Through computer graphic imaging and some impressive set design by Bamboo, the final Minute quite faithfully matches photographs and newsreels of the day. There are Spitfires buzzing overhead, smoke billowing from the beach, and anti-aircraft dirigibles overhead. Peter Mansbridge, who does the end voice-over, has his own reasons for emotional engagement: his father was a Royal Air Force veteran of the war.

The dialogue in all our Minutes is drawn whenever possible from words the characters are on record as having said or written, included to understand underlying feelings and context. Our previous Minute on Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the Anne of Green Gables books, reflects her battles against rejection, sexism and depression in words drawn from her diaries. We consult experts on and representatives from related communities. For this Minute, we used family letters to set the tone of the love and concern among members.

The enduring appeal of the Minutes is, to my mind, due to several factors. Canadians, behind our reputation for self-deprecation, are deeply patriotic; young Canadians more openly so than previous generations. The Minutes provide an outlet for that. Moreover, the Minutes focus on people: how they lived, what they feared, loved and loathed. Viewers thus often find themselves reflecting not on how different life was in the past, but rather on how people then were not unlike us in their reactions to events.

For the D-Day Minute, we took note that the several hundred living Canadian veterans of that battle are now well into their 90s. We don’t know how much longer we will have them with us. This story of a small group of men that day—one in particular—is a reminder that events of that era still resonate in intimate, personal ways for many people. The lucky ones went home to families or started new ones. Some who came back were irrevocably changed. Those who never returned left widows and fatherless children whose lives were forever altered. The sacrifices of those people, and the courage underlying them, transcend the passage of time. With this story, please take a Minute to remember them.

This article appears in print in the June 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “More than just a Minute.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.