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8 TV Programs to Understand Canada Better

“Trash TV”, graffiti in Montevideo, Uruguay, 2018

If it aired between 2003 and 2006, I watched it—yes, even the first season of The Apprentice.

Back then, my days revolved around studying classical Chinese for my finals, filling out immigration papers, and waiting for Feng to come home from his shift. I had a lot of free time on my hands and not that many entertainment options. This was before high-speed Internet, smartphones and cheap international calls—I felt very lonely. So, just like millions of other lonely and bored people around the world, I’d turn the TV on.

Alone at home, I spent many evenings trying to recreate French recipes with Canadian ingredients and eat the dubious result of my experiments watching reruns of The Simpsons or Friends, the only sitcoms I understood because I had watched the dubbed version as a teen. Eventually, I discovered other channels and shows, picking up English along the way, often more entertained by cultural differences than by the content of programs. Commercials for lawyers and prescriptions drugs! Channels dedicated to the weather forecast or traffic news! Trashy talk shows and professional wrestling! Feng came home to find me eating a cheese sandwich in front of infomercials so many times…

And then, at one point, I got sick of watching TV—too many commercials, too much forced cheerfulness, too many breaking news from Detroit I had no interest in.

I briefly stepped back into the world of daytime and late-night TV when Mark was a baby, mostly to stay awake during feedings. This is when I realized that there were interesting programs. So if you don’t want to waste time in front of Judge Judy, here are a few shows worth watching to better understand Canada.

If you can’t access content from outside Canada, try YouTube!

The Passionate Eye: This CBC News Network show presents documentary programming from around the world. While few episodes focus on Canada, it’s interesting to get a Canadian perspective on foreign news and affairs. Fun fact: the program’s former host was Michaëlle Jean, before she was appointed Governor General of Canada in 2005.

Border Security: Canada’s Front Line: This National Geographic Channel use to follow the work of officers of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) enforcing Canadian customs, quarantine, immigration and finance laws. The show was eventually cancelled after the third season when the Privacy Commissioner found that the CBSA breached the Privacy Act, but you can still find earlier episodes online.

The Fifth Estate: This investigative journalism program airs on CBC Television network and CBC News Network and features both Canadian and international stories. One of the weirdest side effects of living in a huge country is that you don’t always know what’s going on in other provinces. News tends to be very local—think traffic accidents, community events, etc. I watch The Fifth Estate for a more global picture. For instance, check out the 2010 chilling final confession of sex killer Russell Williams, admitting the murder of Marie France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd, or the episode on The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada.

Dragons’ Den: In this reality show, aspiring Canadian entrepreneurs pitch business and investment ideas to a panel of five venture capitalists—the “Dragons”—in the hope of securing business financing and partnerships. As far as reality TV goes, this program is actually pretty interesting as you can see what it takes to launch a new business. Plus, it’s a good example of people pursuing the “Canadian dream,” with many first-generation immigrants looking for business opportunities. There was even a special episode focusing on foreign-born entrepreneurs.

Hockey Night in Canada: What started as a play-by-play hockey broadcast from Toronto’s Arena Gardens in 1923 has been entertaining Canadians on TV since 1952. Don’t miss Don Cherry with his questionable fashion sense and statements.

CBC Marketplace: This CBC Television series is a consumer advocacy newsmagazine featuring investigative reports on issues such as product testing, health and safety and fraudulent business practices. This is where you learn about cross-border shopping, the dirty secrets of the fashion industry, how not to buy a car or superfoods myths.

How it’s made: Ever wonder how cork, bulk chocolate, office chairs or greeting cards are made? This documentary series takes you through the entire manufacturing process! I always think that one day, this show will be renamed “How it was made,” as the world is changing and many common products become obsolete…

Til Debt Do Us Part: In this series, financial writer Gail Vaz-Oxlade visits couples who are in debt and having relationship troubles. The goal? Bringing finances and debt under control and helping the couple’s relationship. Money is often taboo and I’m always curious to see how other people spend it, plus you get to see the cost of living in other parts of Canada.

Have you ever watched any of these shows? Anything else to recommend?

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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