The top 10 Heritage Minutes

Our favourite Canadian history shorts from the Halifax Explosion to ‘I smell burnt toast’

Jackie Robinson/Heritage Minutes

The Historica-Dominion Institute’s Heritage Minutes have been a staple of Canadian TV since the early 1990s. The institute offered our Book of Lists their top 10 segments, determined by both national poll data and anecdotal experience involving the phrase, “Oh you’re the Heritage Minute people! I love . . . !”

1. Halifax Explosion: Tied for top spot in a 2012 Historica-Dominion Institute poll, the Halifax Explosion tells the story of Vincent Coleman, a railway dispatcher who arguably saved hundreds of lives by preventing a train from entering Halifax prior to the massive explosion.

2. Jackie Robinson: Perhaps less well-known than others, Jackie Robinson tied with Halifax Explosion for top spot in our Minutes poll. The story of the support received by Robinson during his playing days for the Montreal Royals resonated with more than just baseball fans. Baseball in Montreal, someone should do something about that.

3. Jennie Trout: A fiery Jennie Trout confronts sexist administrators and colleagues during her medical training. She used that strength and determination to become the first woman in Canada licensed to practice medicine.

4. Agnes Macphail: Macphail continues the tradition of strong female leadership in the Heritage Minutes. In this Minute, the political and social reformer—and first woman to be elected to the House of Commons—takes on the government over prison conditions.

5. Winnie: Everyone’s favourite bear was inspired by a bear named for Winnipeg, the adopted hometown of the Canadian soldier who brought Winnie, a black bear cub, to England during the First World War.

6. Basketball: “But I need these baskets back!” is one of the great lines in Canadian film and television, at least according to us. Just like James Naismith is one of Canada’s great sporting heroes.

7. Underground Railroad: Thousands of enslaved men, women and children of African descent escaped to Canada from the United States during the 1800s. Though conditions in Canada weren’t ideal, significant black communities were established throughout the country in this period.

8. Laura Secord: There is some debate about the circumstances of Laura Secord’s famed trek to warn the British of an impending American attack during the War of 1812. Our version does not feature Laura leading a cow through the woods. It really cuts into the drama when you have to lead a cow around.

9. Superman: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s . . . Joe Shuster. This Canadian boy co-created the comic books that gave us the Man of Steel, which is a pretty big deal even if you’re not into that sort of thing.

10. Nitro: This moving story depicts the dangerous conditions faced by countless Chinese immigrants employed in building the transcontinental railway.

Honourable mention: The story of Dr. Wilder Penfield, who invented the Montreal procedure where he treated patients with severe epilepsy by destroying nerve cells in the brain where the seizures originated. Or, as most people refer to the Minute, the “I smell burnt toast” one.

The Maclean’s Book of Lists, Vol. 2, is now available at, in the iBookstore, and on newsstands June 24.

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