Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
Canada 150 Vignette – 032 of 150
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 
Canada At War - The Natioanal Film Board

I feel sorry for kids in school today who will never have the chance to learn new things about the outside  world like we did in the 1940s and for four decades after. If you attended school before 1985, you will remember those wonderful classes where you sat down with your classmates in a darkened room to watch 10 or 20 year old 16 mm short films from the National Film Board. If you were lucky, the films would have a little wear on them with questionable splices which caused the image to jump and a wonderfully `warbly’ sound track. The NFB is a worthy Canada 150 vignette subject for its role in explaining to military personnel and civilians in Canada, many aspects of World War II at the time it was happening.  Today’s vignette doesn’t deal directly with the `Plan,’ but with Canada at the war as seen through the camera lenses of the National Film Board.

The National Film Board is a hallowed cultural icon which provided a great and sustained service to many Canadians by bringing the stories of unknown friends and families to the screen from baseball fields, fishing boats, the ballet, the battle front and hundreds of other locations. It offered informative films to which people could relate by finding out what other ordinary people were 

doing. The National Film Board was the provider of a multitude of real life stories to those willing to spend the time watching. In the 1950s and 60s, television was constrained to melodrama and sports popular enough to generate huge sales for advertisers. Viewing choices were restricted to either `on’ or `off’ in one station towns or `this one’ or `that’ in two station towns - and the internet was decades away from creation.

The NFB gave us some of our greatest educational and entertainment experiences through hundreds of short documentaries about lumberjacks floating logs down the river, John Vernon as head of a Ukrainian immigrant family of outsiders in a bigoted rural town, small towns dealing with the need for a fire department and farm families discussing various ways to increase crop yields on their small  Saskatchewan farms. The NFB documentary was a staple in many school classes for a weekly visual shot of the outside world at that time.

The creation of the NFB came in 1939 when this Canadian Government organization produced the first of 13,000 documentaries -- of which, 5,000 have won awards for quality. One NFB film, Churchill’s Island was the first to win the Academy Award for short film in 1942, in the newly created Documentary category . In addition to classrooms, NFB short stories were standard fare in Canadian movie theatres between 1939 and the mid-1950s where the price of admission would get you two features and 45 minutes of short films and cartoons. For those living in remote areas without movie theatres, the NFB sent out mobile projectionists equipped with generators, projectors and of course, the films.

The National Film Board was created in part to provide war propaganda for the Canadian Government. It stepped up and did it’s patriotic duty to explain to Canada the truth about topics related to the World War II - military operations, enemy aggression in far-away theatres of war, domestic war production, military training and life on the home front. The home front was a favourite topic for many as the films featured subjects like the consequences of rationing and Canadians shrugging off the stress of war through entertainment, hobbies and sports. No subject was left out of the wartime short films – blood thirsty tyrants, the fight for safe passage over the Atlantic and in the skies of Great Britain, women assembling aircraft and tanks, house wives dealing with the provision of nutritious meals in a world of shortages, and kids at play and in school despite the country’s struggle for victory.

The NFB’s war program was delivered through newsreels in movie theatres or for anyone with access to a film projector. Newsreels were the precursor to our modern TV network 30 minute newscasts. Short `news’ reports, with narration in the background, were bundled together for audiences on film `reels,’ much like television news programs today but with videotape instead of film reels. The other venue for war stories and propaganda was serialized documentaries like ``Canada Carries On’’ and ``The World In Action’’ whereby movie goers received regularly scheduled installments on the progress of the war. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Canadian army delivered similar newsreel products to the public.

In November 1941 the NFB’s mandate was expanded to include still photography services to the country. Between 1941 and 1985, this arm of the NFB commissioned freelance photographers to make tens-of-thousands of photographs on Canadian life, of which many from World War II are significant archival materials in our museum. The photographs in our previous vignette on the Quebec Conference are all from the NFB.

We can now take a look at the NFB films of World War II on its 21st century web pages. The National Film Board is still alive and kicking with a little modern repurposing. The following link will take you to a number of viewable, NFB produced, WWII documentary collections  including `Canadian Military Forces,’ `Canadian War Effort,’ `Veterans,’ `War Industries,’ `World War II’ and `World War II Military Operations.’ Some of the documentaries are available on DVD. They are fascinating works of art about Canadians proud to be just that… proud Canadians. If you watch one, you’ll surely watch another.

An interesting look at the NFB’s war propaganda films has been produced by the NFB, decades after they were first seen on the screen. It can be seen at:

`Churchill’s Island,’ the 1941 NFB Oscar winner is at: