Director James Forrester at the controls of "The Film Scene" on Ottawa Cablevision, 1973. Photo credit: Canadian Film Institute. Image courtesy James Forrester.
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A Brief Personal History of the Canadian Film Institute (CFI) (1935-1975) By James Forrester

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Reprinted here with permission: ELAN (Ex Libris Association Newsletter), Number 68/Fall 2020


At Christmas of 1972, I arrived at 1762 Carling Avenue, Ottawa, to work as a “Stills Librarian” for the Canadian Film Archive department of the CFI. Peter Morris was the Archivist and a major authority on the history of Canadian film production. In many ways, Peter became a mentor to me and a whole generation of keen, young film students, including Wayne Clarkson, who founded Film Expo, expanded the Festival of Festivals, and completed his career successively as the CEO of OFDC, CFC and Telefilm. Piers Handling, after teaching at Carleton and Queen’s universities, became Program Director of the Festival of Festivals (1987-93) and subsequently helmed the new Toronto International Film Festival (1994 to 2018).

Canadian Film Institute, Ottawa, Carling Ave., 1970’s. Left to right; Maynard Collins, Louis Vallenzuela, & Francois Gobeil.
Photo credit: James Forrester.

The CFI at that time was a vibrant organization, with a large 16mm film library, which generated revenue for the non-profit side of the operation. It ran a series of National Film Theatres, located across the country, as well as the largest located in the National Library auditorium at 395 Wellington Street. Its Film Study Centre had a specialized film book and periodical library, a collection of 100,000 photographs and an archival storage facility for preserving Canada’s film heritage.

The CFI also published a series of film monographs, focusing primarily on Canadian cinema, as well as Film & Video Canadiana, a published index/guide to all productions across the country. We also produced a weekly cablevision program called The Film Scene, as an outreach into the Ottawa/Hull community. Piers Handling and Alex Grant (Coordinator of the NFT) were the on-air hosts, and I was in the control booth at Ottawa Cablevision. FilmExpo was an annual film festival held at the National Arts Centre.

Canadian Film Institute, Ottawa, Carling Ave., 1970’s. Still Photo Dept.
Photo credit: James Forrester.

The National Film Society of Canada (NFS) was founded in 1935 by a CBC/NFB director Donald Buchanan and a group of film enthusiasts. It became the second oldest film institution in the world, modelled on the British Film Institute in London founded in 1933. Within a year, the society opened branches in Ottawa, Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver. Buchanan was also involved in convincing Mackenzie King to invite John Grierson to evaluate government funded film production, which led to the establishment of the National Film Board in Ottawa beginning in 1939. Crawley Films, an Ottawa-based private film company started the same year.

The National Film Society, was renamed the Canadian Film Institute in 1950, becoming a major clearing house for film societies and researchers across Canada. 

In time the CFI expanded further with five more sites, including the first university-based film society at the University of British Columbia in the early 1960s. 

Piers Handling & Alex Grant CFI staff on Film Scene Ottawa Cablevision, 1974.
Photo credit: James Forrester.

Coincidentally, Peter Morris was completing his MSc in Chemistry at UBC in 1962, just before he relocated to Ottawa to start the Canadian Film Archive, in December 1963. This archive was the country’s first professional film archive recognized by the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). I recall helping to organize a FIAF conference in both Ottawa and Montreal in 1974. The main sessions were held in the former Ottawa Union Station converted to a conference site. We also toured the NFB’s Montreal studio and the Vidéographe downtown location. There was a reception at the NFB HQ, and I recall the highlight for me was meeting Norman McLaren, Wolf Koenig, and other members of the animation department.

Unfortunately, that year proved to be the swan song for the Canadian Film Archive. The Canada Council manipulated its granting formula, so that the CFI would have to divest itself of the Canadian Film Archive, handing it over to the National Film Archive (which was only founded in 1972 by Sam Kula). During a particularly heated CFI board meeting the staff intervened with a “manifesto” defending the Canadian Film Archive as a viable entity. However, the Film Study Centre, and the archival films were eventually transferred to the Public Archives of Canada.

David Cronenberg at NFT 1974.
Photo credit: James Forrester.

Another aspect of this organization’s legacy is what we now call the Canadian Screen Awards. Under the umbrella of the Canadian Association for Adult Education (CAAE) 44 organizations, including the NFS/CFI and Donald Buchanan undertook to launch the Canadian Film Awards in 1949. Crawley Films won the first “Film of the Year” award for The Loon’s Necklace, an animated film using West Coast indigenous masks. The ceremony was held for the first three years at Ottawa theatres, before the CFA’s relocated to Toronto, Stratford, Montreal, and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The first prizes were works of art by Canadian artists, rather than statues.

CFI was also responsible for the nation’s first post-secondary film courses. “The Art of Film,” a week-long intensive seminar offered by McMaster University’s Extension Department in 1963 and a similar course offered by Carleton University the following year were both organized by the CFI’s Peter Morris.In addition, Peter would go on to teach at the University of Ottawa, Queen’s University and York University over the length of his outstanding academic career, until he retired in 2002.

In his March 2011 obituary Emily Carr University president Ron Burnett focused on Peter’s legacy by stating that “he was the first person to bring together an analysis of Canadian cinema, with Canadian history in a personal yet scholarly and rigorous manner.” 2

In conclusion, the Canadian Film Institute is still operating in Ottawa, and it continues with its mandate, screening a number of international film festivals, as well as the annual Ottawa International Animation Festival, but it is “more limited in scope in its delivery,” according to Tom McSorley, the current CFI Executive Director.

However, the CFI is not widely credited, within the film community, for the ground-breaking work it accomplished, as the premiere film institute in Canada, since other organizations took over many of CFI’s initiatives, and functions.

1. Seth Feldman, article “Film Education,” The Canadian Encyclopedia online (2013) URL: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/film-education

2. Noreen Shanahan, obituary “Peter Morris put Canadian cinema in its historic context.” Globe & Mail online March 2, 2011. URL: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/peter-morris-put-canadian-cinema-in-its-historic-context/article569075/


For more on James Forrester, please visit, https://www.siegelproductions.ca/filmfanatics/jamesforrester.htm

James Forrester

James Forrester was a systems administrator at OCADU in Toronto for 25 years, before returning to graduate school from 2014 to 2016 in the Public Texts program, of Trent University’s English Department. He previously graduated in History from the University of Ottawa, Film Studies at Queen’s University and Library Information Science from Western University. He also worked for Film Canada, the CFI, Canadian Review, CLA, Carleton University, the Non-Theatrical Film Fund (DSS), EMPDA, and NLC. Forrester received two Canada Council grants, which led to this research being incorporated into two books and a documentary video about pioneer film producer F. R. “Budge” Crawley of Ottawa. (James can be reached at, BMWriderCanada@gmail.com)

23 August 2022

3 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this article with Canadianfilm.ca, James! Having worked at the National Archives, and then, Library & Archives Canada, I only had a slight sense of the history of the CFI, mainly as one of the many collections housed within the vaults. I realize now, what an important and crucial role the CFI played in providing some of the crucial building blocks that some of Canada’s film institutions are now based on.

  2. Jim, thanks for this insightful piece on an important yet little known part of Canadian film history.

    Dale, thanks for posting Jim’s article on Canadianfilm.ca.

  3. Fascinating revelation on an institute now a fading light. A fine first person recounting of our fairly limited and untold Canadian cinematic history.

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