At the beginning of the 20th century the Canadian government began exploiting film for educational and promotional purposes. For example, when the railway was built as a first step towards the political unification of the country, the Canadian Pacific Railway received government support for its series of films called Living Canada, intended to encourage American and British immigration to the Canadian northwest.
In 1917, the Exhibits and Publicity Bureau, which came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Trade and Commerce, used film for the first time. Until 1921, the Bureau expanded considerably and produced films and photographs for several different government departments. To respond to increasing demand for a wider range of services, it was restructured and set up in new headquarters and renamed Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau.
For ten years the Bureau had a solid reputation, and Canada was the country in the British Empire that most successfully used film for information and promotional purposes. But the Depression led to severe budget cuts and Canada neglected its film industry. The Bureau fell far behind in terms of technology and even continued to produce silent films until 1934.
In 1938, a year before the NFB was created, Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner in London, was already in discussion with his secretary, Ross McLean, about the value of the films made by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. They felt that if the films were to fulfill their role in promoting Canadian commerce and tourism overseas, they would have to be of higher quality.
McLean, impressed by the work of the British documentary filmmaker John Grierson, persuaded Massey to send a report on the state of Canadian cinema to Mackenzie King’s government. He suggested that Grierson be invited to study the government’s filmmaking activities, at that point divided into four categories: educational, promotional, and ministerial and films designed to promote specific ideas, or a sense of belonging among the citizenry.
After completing his study, Grierson found that there were two main problems with Canadian filmmaking: a lack of means and the absence of any governing direction. In fact, the Motion Picture Bureau served the interests of the Department of Commerce almost exclusively, to the extent that other sectors had gone as far as setting up their own film services. Grierson tabled a report in June pointing to the need for a coordinated film production unit.
On May 2, 1939, an act of Parliament created the National Film Commission, soon known as the National Film Board. Its work was to complement that of the Motion Picture Bureau. The headquarters of the NFB were set up in Ottawa, and at the time of its creation its mandate was “….to make and distribute films across the country that were designed to help Canadians everywhere in Canada understand the problems and way of life of Canadians in other parts of the country.” The NFB was also responsible for coordinating all the filmmaking activities of the various federal departments.
The law that was tabled set up a Governing Council of two members of the Privy Council, three people chosen from outside the civil service, and three people who were either members of the civil service or the Canadian military. The first meeting of the Governing Council took place on September 21, 1939.
That same month, Canada went to war, so production switched to patriotic films. John Grierson was known as both a pioneer of documentary filmmaking and a specialist in the psychology of propaganda. He was a firm believer in the use of film as a tool for social change. He seemed naturally destined to head the NFB and in October he was appointed as the first Government Film Commissioner. He had a remarkable influence on the NFB, even after he retired in November 1945, and until his death in 1972.
The NFB started producing films in 1939. The filmmaker Guy Glover made a…