Call of the Wild

More than 40 years after its inception, Hinterland Who’s Who has been given a facelift and an educational website aimed at turning the next generation of Canadians into nature lovers

By Katherine Balpataky

“I remember watching the series in the early ‘70s. I already had an interest in biology  and birds, but the series really galvanized that. After I received a complete set of the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Who’s Who pamphlets, I was convinced that I wanted to become a CWS researcher. I think the HWW series struck a chord with Canadians in a patriotic way. There really is no better vehicle for drawing attention to what we do.”

Mark Mallory,
Seabird Biologist
Canadian Wildlife Service
Environment Canada

“Every time I hear that lone flute playing, my mind drifts back to my childhood days, when the whole family would gather around the television and tune in to the CBC. It didn’t’ matter what the program was, because we were waiting for the commercial breaks — a potential chance to see another Hinterland Who’s Who vignette.”

T. Gregory Argall
Canadian Playwright, Humourist

“I think this kind of programming is extremely important, especially for youth, because there is a dreadful trend towards ‘being cool.’ Most television ads encourage consumerism, wastefulness, and destructiveness. It would be a wonderful thing if the new series could rekindle an interest in nature.”

Robert Bateman,

Most Canadians who had television in the 1960s or 1970s will remember it — the haunting strains of a lone flute, the trademark theme of Hinterland Who’s Who. The series of 60-second vignettes was created to educate the public about this country’s native wildlife through excellent film footage, natural sounds, and relaxed narration.

Now, more than 40 years after the series’ introduction, Environment Canada (EC) and the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) have relaunched Hinterland Who’s Who in an effort to connect another generation of Canadians with their natural heritage. The new public-service announcements carry on the classic theme of the original vignettes but also address the need to conserve and protect native species and their habitat.

The creation of the Hinterland Who’s Who series was prompted by W. Winston (Bill) Mair, then the chief of CWS in Ottawa. In 1962, he asked Darrell Eagles, then head of editorial and information services for CWS, to look into the possibility of using public-service television clips to get people more interested in wildlife.

Given the requirement for federal departments to produce films through the National Film Board (NFB), Eagles contacted Graham Crabtree, NFB’s liaison officer assigned to CWS. From the beginning, Eagles knew that certain characteristics were vital to the series if concern about wildlife was to be fostered. “I wanted the whole thing to be very calm, relaxed, low-key — evocative of nature,” says Eagles. “In addition, I thought we had to find a way to deal with the reality that when a break in a program occurs, many viewers get up to go to the washroom or to the refrigerator. I suspected that if each clip began with a distinctive phrase of music, people would come to associate that music with Hinterland Who’s Who and stop in their tracks to see another clip.”

Eagles and Crabtree listened to recording after recording of musical phrases and narrators’ voices. “When we heard one haunting flute phrase that suggested the early-morning call of a loon on a mist-covered lake,” Eagles recalls, “we both looked up and nodded. It was perfect.”

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The hunt for possible narrators was a long one. “I thought they all sounded too commercial,” Eagles explains. Then Eagles remembered hearing John Livingston, at that time executive director of the Canadian Audubon Society, speak at a wildlife conference. His rich, deep, baritone voice and relaxed speaking style proved to be ideally suited to the series.

In a matter of months, the first four black-and-white vignettes were released: stories of the beaver, the moose, the gannet, and the loon. Viewers who wanted more information were sent an illustrated, four-page leaflet. Later the series was produced in colour, and after a few years, NFB contracted out creation of the clips to private production companies.

At the time of its inception, no one could have predicted the success of the Hinterland Who’s Who vignettes. However, surveys conducted in the early 1990s showed that the series had received over $3.6 million in free publicity. “At least a million leaflets go out almost every year,” says Maureen Kavanaugh, acting chief of the scientific and technical documents division at CWS (now a division of Environment Canada).

Then there is Hinterland Who’s Who’s cultural influence. The series’ musical theme and relaxed style became so well known that they have been used in TV parodies of some non-wildlife species, including politicians, and in the 2002 film Men With Brooms.

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It has even been said that the vignettes set a stylistic tone for much of Canadian cinema. André Loiselle, a Carleton University associate professor of film studies, explains: “One can see that the Canadian filmmakers who are now in their prime grew up watching the vignettes in the ‘60s and ‘70s and now associate the very idea of Canada with a certain style of wildlife documentary that was popularized by the vignettes.”

And who can forget that theme song? Striking a chord in nature lovers young and old, it has become ingrained as part of Canadiana. “[Hinterland Who’s Who] has as its trademark the call of the loon, a sound that now evokes in many Canadians who watched this program a sense of patriotism infinitely greater than even the national anthem,” wrote Douglas Coupland in The New York Times essay “32 Thoughts About 32 Short Films.”

But television is not what it used to be. For every public station, there are dozens of cable channels — not to mention digital and specialty channels — and with air time now a hot commodity, CWS recognized the need to revamp the series’ approach. In February 2003, CWS and CWF joined forces, the goal to recreate the series, maintaining the nostalgic appeal of the original but with a fresh look and sound.

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The result is a series of new Hinterland Who’s Who public-service announcements in both English and French. They feature the polar bear, the monarch, the leatherback sea turtle, and the loon. There are four 30-second vignettes that are comparable to the original classic and four 60-second segments that have an on-air host geared toward younger audiences.

There is also a comprehensive website that combines CWS’s indepth information on a variety of wildlife species in Canada with CWF’s education resources. There are lesson plans for teachers about conservation concepts such as biodiversity and endangered-species recovery, discussions on issues such as invasive species and the effects of pesticides on birds, as well as dozens of practical ideas on how individuals can make a difference in their own backyards and communities. “The value in these materials is that they have been written or reviewed by educators and scientists, lending great credibility to the program,” says Sandy Baumgartner, CWF’s manager of programs and communications.

As with all environmental education efforts, the real test of the project’s success will be its effect on the next generation of naturalists, educators, biologists, and conservationists.

And if the new Hinterland Who’s Who becomes one-tenth as successful as its predecessor, the flute song and the wildlife it represents will remain part of what it means to be Canadian.

Excerpt from Canadian Wildlife, Winter 2004