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Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau

(also: Exhibits and Publicity Bureau)

Encouraged by the Department of Trade and Commerce, the federal government – by order-in-council in September, 1918 – established the Exhibits and Publicity Bureau, which was renamed the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau on April 1, 1923. Although preceded by the provincially sponsored Ontario Motion Picture Bureau, it can claim to be the first national film production unit in the world. It was designed to centralize all government film work and to produce films promoting Canadian trade and industry.

The Bureau soon expanded its activities into producing a series of short films, Seeing Canada, which was shown in theatres in Canada and abroad. By 1920, the Bureau oversaw the largest and best-equipped studio and laboratory in Canada, while its films were distributed – both theatrically and non-theatrically – to all the Commonwealth countries as well as France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina, Chile, Japan, China and the United States. At its peak in 1927, the Bureau had more than one thousand prints circulating in the United States alone.

As the Minister of Trade and Commerce reiterated in 1924, the Bureau “was established for the purpose of advertising abroad Canada’s scenic attractions, agricultural resources and industrial development.” Although the Bureau had no mandate beyond this, it is noteworthy that it never considered promoting the development of a wider production industry in Canada. Raymond Peck (the Bureau’s Director from 1920 to 1927) had close industrial ties to Hollywood and stated that he was “attempting at all times… to induce American capital and manufacturing interests to come into Canada and establish branch factories… American motion-picture producers should be encouraged to establish production branches in Canada and make films designed especially for British Empire consumption.” Ben Norrish, the Bureau’s first Director, held similar views. Some years later, while head of Associated Screen News, he stated that Canada, with its sparse population, “had no more use for a large moving picture studio than Hollywood had for a pulp mill.”

The Bureau’s emphasis on travelogues and industrial films continued through the late twenties and thirties under Peck’s successor, Frank Badgley, although there were occasional attempts to produce ambitious films, such as Lest We Forget (1935) and The Royal Visit (1939). Hindered by inadequate financial resources during the Depression and an unwillingness to pursue new subject matter and styles, the Bureau lost its earlier effectiveness. By 1937 it was in a state of total disrepair; its equipment was outdated, its prints worn and its distribution network in disarray.

At the behest of Ross McLean, private secretary to Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner in London, the federal government invited John Grierson to Canada in 1938 to report on Canadian government film activities. His report led to the National Film Act of 1939, which resulted in the creation of the National Film Board that year and the absorption of the Bureau into it in 1941.

By: Peter Morris