Hot Stuff. Directed by Zlatko Grgic. Produced by Robert Verrall. Photo taken from the production, © 1971 National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

What Sponsor Program! An unknown history of the NFB


Feature image: Hot Stuff. Directed by Zlatko Grgic. Produced by Robert Verrall. Photo taken from the production. © 1971 National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy; Jimena Romero, Coordinator, media relations, Communications and public affairs, National Film Board of Canada.

Try searching for it and you will find next to nothing. What began as the main purpose of the National Film Board sunk into oblivion and was eventually purged. The NFB was created during wartime as an information and propaganda tool of Canada’s federal government. Over the following years it made films and produced other media like photographs and filmstrips for government departments and agencies. Much has been written about the NFB over the ensuing years but little has been documented of NFB’s role in enabling government to communicate and inform Canadians. These films, informational, training, enlistment, promotional, poured out of the Board which instead of being the sole producer increasingly relied on or were forced to allow independent or private sector producers to make them.

Gary Evan’s 1991 study, “In the National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989” notes the internal feedback about this work: ‘Directors do not want to work on sponsored films because many of the subjects are so poor.’ Evan’s noted the importance of this work to the Board’s bottom line when he states that some one-third of the Boards 1967 budget came from sponsored work. A glance at the list of mundane topics explained the NFB directors’ hostility and Evan’s remarked that the films may prove of more interest to social scientists but the film-makers referred to them as ‘nuts and bolts’ or even ’punishment’. 

And yet as the division was seen to be more on the side of the government department when issues arose, in fact there was a unique and judicial approach to what it would entertain, as Marjorie McKay noted in her, History of the National Film Board :

"The Board had taken seriously its responsibility of advising other government departments on their film requirements. It had stepped on innumerable toes over the years. If a department wanted a film on a certain subject which was best handled by a booklet, it had said so. If a department wanted a film which glorified that department, which was not an information film but rather a eulogy, the Board had strongly objected, and in the end refused to make it in the manner ordered.”
Image courtesy; Jimena Romero, Coordinator, media relations, Communications and public affairs, National Film Board of Canada.

In this recollection I am trying to start to rectify this oversight. The need to add the work accomplished by the Board on behalf of government departments should find its way into the historic record and hopefully be shown to be notable and even critical in Canada’s democratic and cultural development. From Academy awards to critically important social documentaries, from major social awareness campaigns (Health Canada’s smoking secession) to erudite and innovative interpretations of a ‘mundane’ subjects (Veteran Affaires’ memorial by Donald Brittain’s Fields of Sacrifice), the Board managed to accomplish incisive and critical documents as what others saw as mere propaganda. No, the Board didn’t always do a departments strict bidding but instead held fast to its mandate, “to interpret Canada to Canadians and the world”.

In 1981 I joined the National Film Board’s Sponsor Program Division (SPD) in Ottawa. The office consisted of 15 employees. The political environment was increasingly fraught as private producers lobbied the government to have all films produced independently. Some directors still considered sponsor work a boon such as working for Parks Canada, Health, Foreign Affairs or National Defence. But for many in the Board’s regional offices and at its Montreal headquarters these were to be avoided, ignored, or just tolerated. This could be ascribed to the fact that sponsorship was antithetical to the Board’s self-image as an independent, arts-driven, cultural agency. Yet from its origins, sponsorship was instilled as one of the key aspects of the Board’s initial purpose – as  public servants not only supporting the social benefits that government provided but also critiquing it when it went astray.

But it became increasingly obvious that the Board couldn’t function as an internal part of the federal government. There was the rise of Quebec nationalism and the Board certainly played a part in this. Incidences of films that angered politicians. There was also the growth of artist-driven films and co-ops and the impetus to grow a feature film and later television industry, all of which competed for federal support. Gradually, Ottawa NFB saw itself dwindling with the move of its headquarters and production studios to Montreal, the loss of the Photography Division, some parts of Distribution such as the travel library, until it finally came to our division’s departure from the Board in 1984. 

Image courtesy; Jimena Romero, Coordinator, media relations, Communications and public affairs, National Film Board of Canada.

The Board had always held a place in my heart for its superlative works both as a student of cinema and later as an audio-visual librarian in a small university where I was offered the opportunity to teach film studies. In 1989 I decided to teach the first university credit course on the Board and so spent 2 months researching the Boards archives and watching its library of films in Montreal. For the course I had some excellent presentations from Don Arioli, Colin Low, and John Boundy and found out that there were some job openings at the Board. Boundy was most interesting since he had been at various stages in different roles and functions, working in distribution, in the Ontario regional office and in Ottawa with the Commissioner.

There were two choices to apply for, one in Ottawa and the other with Distribution in Toronto. Boundy opined that if I took the Toronto job my prospects would either be to land in NFB’s changeable environment called, Distribution or Marketing, and perhaps progress into the private sector, or if Ottawa was offered, then I would find myself between the politics that the Board played in the capital, and the conflicting demands of the private sector.

I landed an interview for the job in Ottawa with Jean Marc Garand, head of the French Program unit, a personnel officer, and Wally Hewitson, then director of the SPD. I answered their questions with some acknowledgement of the difficulties facing the Board. During the interview one the hardest questions was the difference between French and English Programs. I knew I had to tread carefully, my French was rusty, but I tried my best to carefully navigate my way through. However when it came to what improvements the Board could undertake, I ran through a litany of the challenges. In the end, after the interview was finished, I was certain I had flubbed it with my criticisms. But apparently not! Hewitson called to offer the job, and when I asked why the interviewers didn’t reject me, he said they all agreed it was better to have me on the inside rather than biting their heels from without.

Image courtesy; Jimena Romero, Coordinator, media relations, Communications and public affairs, National Film Board of Canada.

I walked into the Ottawa office and shook hands with the departing, retiring producer whose position I was to take over, but I was suddenly struck by the memory that I had been there before. Some five years prior, I had walked in to pitch a film proposal on Canada’s multicultural population. The producer looked at me with some disbelief and dismissed me by saying that I was an ingenue; had no work under my belt that would enable me to accomplish this, and that I should find other work.  As I shook her hand, I promised myself that I would never turn anyone away without a constructive, helpful response, but of course she spoke the truth.

My first trial was something passed on by a occupied colleague. It was from Transport Canada, and dealt with bird strikes to aircraft for airport employees, alerting them to the dangers posed by birds. The sponsor had found two films that seemed to fit the bill. Their thinking was to edit the two together thus saving time and money. We sat in the theatre and watched the first one which was from Britain. It started off with an older gent, dressed in fox hunting clothes, braces and breeches, stock and waistcoat tweeds, finished with a Sherlock hat and a blunderbuss, and then getting into a Land Rover, all the while saying how he really loved birds and the shotgun was only to scare them off. He used a scarecrow dressed up to look exactly like him, of course with the ubiquitous hat. 

We then looked at the second film. It was from France and began with on ode to the poetry of birds in flight. It went on a bit with wonderful cinematography and interesting facts on birds, their migration, what foods they feasted on, how they congregated and why, and then it extolled with some rhapsody about their love life with several minutes taken up with feathers flying and amorous cooing sounds while the narrator drew parallels to humankind. Birds were seen in various sexual positions and for some reason the narration fell silent, though the visuals lasted for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time. It didn’t fly! So we put it out to tender, my first request for proposals, and chose a fine film production house, that resulted in an excellent docudrama-style film went on to do its work in Canada and abroad.

The next lesson took place with a film on multiculturalism which seemed fitting in light of my earlier interests. The department had made some very adroit investments in media. They funded CBC to offer training to journalists of colour, with no expectation that the Corp would have to pick them up. But this helped start some notable careers. They wanted a general film that would deal with Canada’s mosaic, and had drawn up their requirements. I sent our request for proposals to some seven companies across Canada. The replies were pretty lacklustre, though one seemed to be a bit more in tune with their thinking. 

Image courtesy; Jimena Romero, Coordinator, media relations, Communications and public affairs, National Film Board of Canada.

There was however one reply which did not meet the requirements at all. It was a diatribe from a Winnipeg producer basically telling us that the topic and our description of the challenge to make a film like this was obtuse, unfocused, that we really hadn’t thought about the communication objectives, and that any one chosen would ultimately fail. In the end they were right. After several attempts at a treatment, the department gave up, and the project was abandoned. 

I didn’t want to give up trying to find a way to help them, so instead I suggested we first survey existing productions in distribution, build a catalogue of those that reflected the best examples, and then contribute to works that weren’t being met by films already made. One of the first successful projects came from Montreal, a project titled, ‘Bajo la Mesa  / Under the Table‘, that dealt with political refugees’ difficulty entering Canada. It was a first film, yet the topic was handled with great sensitivity, and not only encouraged greater political accommodation for refugees, but helped ensure the continuation of the granting program.

One of the filmmakers who dealt adroitly with sponsors, was Don Arioli. His project, “Not So Different”, was in storyboard form, and the Assistant Deputy Minister at the time wanted to review it. Arioli was acquiescent and posted the storyboard on a wall for the ADM to review. I began to walk ahead, looking at each drawing while the sponsor group followed. I got to the point in the storyboard where in the storyline, the king commanded that all people must be equal, and thus wear the same clothes, inhabit the same homes, look the same, etc. But some didn’t fit through the doors, some clothes didn’t as well …and then I came to the drawing that must have been inspired by Arioli’s annulled, aids / sex education project, (Vicky Vagina and Mickey Penis). I was floored, but there wasn’t much I could do as the ADM was following on my heels. I stood back and watched as she looked at the drawing and cracked up. Arioli was as ever playful, and I think devious, waiting to see if this high level functionary had a sense of humour, if not perspective. He withdrew the slide.

There was of course some wonderful experiences, and  some really difficult moments. Another lesson learned was from a film dealing with the chemical, lead, prophetically titled, and with good reason: “Plumbum Conundrum”. It had been developed by a partnership between Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Natural Resources, Health and Environment, who wanted to alert Canadians to the uses and dangers of lead. The animation producer had the unenviable task of hearing the various opinions and trying to accommodate industry concerns that lead, when properly used, was a valuable resource, vs its adverse health and environmental effects. Their fight meant that the film kept trying to please all, and thus pleased no one. Another growth opportunity, another lesson learned – make sure you get the right partners.

Image courtesy; Jimena Romero, Coordinator, media relations, Communications and public affairs, National Film Board of Canada.

Yet even when it was difficult, it was sometimes exhilarating. Projects like “Acid Rain: Requiem or Recovery”, had a great team from Crawley Films, with even better support from some very smart communicators in Environment Canada. The objective was to influence the USA to decrease sulphurous emissions mostly coming from their mid-west and landing in Ontario lakes and watersheds. The film used over the top visuals that would resonate with American audiences such as,  the Lincoln Memorial dissolving along with gravestones in Arlington cemetery. The US government took umbrage with the film, along with a sound-slide presentation, and demanded that a disclaimer be inserted on the head titles, stating that this was the work of a foreign government’s propaganda. I got a call from our New York office saying that they had received this demand in a letter from the Justice Department some weeks before, but they didn’t know what to do about it. This was pure gold and the department saw it that way too. NFB’s US distributor took it to court to appeal the decision and it made its way eventually to the Supreme Court who rejected our argument. However, by that time the film had become a, cause célèbre, and the film’s sales had been tremendous. The topic gained traction in Congress. It led to laws passed, restricting emissions.

Sponsored films had a colourful side, and today can be seen to be laughable, (“Hinterland Who’s Who”) but they were important communication tools, at times for social change, other times for pure information. They dealt with the hazards of fire like Les Drew’s “Old Lady …” or the Department of Transport’s “Slow Down & Live”, Health Canada’s antismoking campaigns, and even Secretary of State who gave the Board carte blanche for “Canada Vignettes”. These public service announcements became a staple for TV during the 70’s and 80’s. World fairs or expositions were another facet of the SPD, especially after the Board’s showing at Expo 67. The Board was sponsored to introduce new aspects of the groundbreaking technology of IMAX, in HD & 3-D, at Canada’s pavilions in Osaka, Vancouver, Brisbane, and Seville.

Really, the Board started with ‘sponsored’ or for that matter government film in its earliest iterations. WW2 offered the platform. Departments thought of the Board as an adjunct to, and a service of, government. For that matter, government at the time was seen as a socially supportive, representative, and trusted agent aimed at improving lives, and helping build a national culture. By the 60’s this changed, and of course with that, the idea that government initiated films were in conflict with a filmmakers creative vision. Yet many films were successful, innovative works, that broke new ground, both in content and form. One day that story will hopefully be told, but for now the work accomplished by the many producers and directors, writers and cinematographers, musicians, and actors via NFB’s Sponsored Program Division, is considered by historians and archivists as ‘orphan films’, a testament to our lack of appreciation of these documentary historical resources that truly should be part of our cultural record. 

Just to get an idea of how outrageous this oversight is, watch one of the few examples of a sponsored film in the Board’s archives – Bon cinema!

Author endnote: The NFB transferred the program to the Department of Supply & Services in 1996. By 2006 over 500 productions were completed with budgets totalling some $20 million. 

© Jack Horwitz 2023

Jack Horwitz

I traveled extensively before graduating from Sir George Williams (Mtl) in anthropology and film. I worked with an archeologist in Peru, toured in Europe with a company associated with the Living Theatre, and helped on a farm in the interior of B.C., as well as shepherding in the Falkland Islands. My working life was spent at Wilfrid Laurier where I taught film, and worked in the a-v department, then joined the NFB in Ottawa, producing sponsored films. I started the Canadian Non-Theatrical Film Fund, and also worked for the Queen's Printer. I completed my working career with United Way Canada as the first national director of marketing, and chaired the Canadian Film Institute.


  1. Jack, I want to thank you for sharing your experience, working on the NFB Sponsor Program, and in sharing your story with this website.
    As well, a big thank you to all your colleagues at the NFB for sharing the imagery used in this post.

    I also encourage other visitors to visit the NFB (, and Library & Archives Canada, (, to learn more about Canada’s early motion picture film history.

    Dale : )

  2. Hey Jack,
    Bravo. Congratulations. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about the important work that the Sponsor Program Division accomplished in its time in the growth of our current film and video industry.

  3. Thank Dale & Jack

    This is a very unique view of the NFB’s activities under its Sponsor Program. Crawley Films was one of the first recipients of sponsored funding during WWII and continued making
    films for the NFB for 50 years, including “Acid Rain: Requiem or Recovery” which Jack mentions in the article. The graphic at the top is from “Hot Stuff” a home safety short made for
    the Dominion Fire Commission, and one of my family’s favourite animated films. It had a screenplay by Don Arioli and was produced by Wolf Koenig and Robert Verrall.


  4. Thx for the reviews, here is hoping others who know about the division chime in – that’s how history is made!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.