8 TV Programs to Better Understand Canada

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“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 used 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 in 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 broadcasts 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?



About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Martin Penwald on

    I don’t watch TV often, but when I’m in the office, there is one where I watch some stuff. Or in truck stops, with often reruns of “Law & Order”. But the omnipresence of commercials is very irritating.
    I’ve seen a few time “How it’s made”, but none of the others, except glimpses of “Dragon’s Den”, which is a little bit annoying: it looks like to get financed, you have to have an “original” idea, something never heard of (I’m not sure it is always the case, but still, it is the impression I had). Which is the typical randian (from Ayn Rand) worldview, where only entrepreneurs with a revolutionnary idea are worthy of their attention. By the way, one of the “dragon” promised to offert 1 million dollars to Alberta if they got rid of Rachel Notley when she was elected. I only have contempt for this kind of people.

  2. Martin Penwald on

    On another hand, I’ve seen a few episodes of “Canada’s Worst Driver” recently. It is one of this reality show where the goal is to humiliate people on TV.

    For people who don’t know :
    A group of 8 to 10 people, who have probably be denounced as bad drivers by a parent or a “friend” have to pass different tests evaluating their driving skills. At the end of the episode, one of them is judged good enough to go back on the road and leave the show. Each test is designed to emphasize on a specific skill : backing, speed control, environment check, etc.

    However, a point can be made about driver’s formation in Canada. Curiously, the majority of contestants seems to be from their early 20 to their mid-30’s, even if one or two are between 50 and 70. So one can’t say that it is old people with bad habits. They are first followed in trafic, and i’ve seen some dangerous or clueless behaviour, it is amazing that these people got their driver licence in the first place. But if I got that correctly, it is only since 10 years that people in Québec are required to learn with an approved driving school. I don’t know about other provinces, but I know that in Ontario, getting one’s truck driver licence was extremely easy, resulting in a lot of incompetent drivers.
    To come back to the show, I’m not convinced that even a relatively good driver could always succeed in each test, the conditions are very artificial. The main difficulty contestants seems to have is control of their speed, but they don’t use their own car, and I don’t know how long they had to get confortable with the ones they use in the show. Even if it is clear they lack driving skills, sometimes it looks like they are set up for failure.

    • Hell, Ontario gave ME a driving license…! Coming from France where the process to get a driving license is long, tedious and expensive, I was shocked to see that you weren’t actually required to take lessons in Canada. I took the written test (just show up pretty much anytime… not like in France where spots are booked months ahead). Then I took the road test and I got a G2. I did know how to drive because… ahem, I failed the test twice in France. Feng told me that most teens just figure it out with their parents or learn at school.

      • Martin Penwald on

        It’s not because you failed it that you didn’t know how to drive.
        I failed twice too, even if I drove since I was 16. The first time in part because I barely slept the previous night, due to a familial emergency, and the second time I was so stressed I drove on an island. But I got it the next five times.

        • To be honest, I wouldn’t have given myself a license back then. I wasn’t a careless driver but I was absolutely terrified behind the wheels. I wasn’t taught properly… I finally got over my fear of driving in Canada.

  3. I discovered the same things as you when I got to Canada 😉 And yes I also felt lonely
    Something I am trying to be conscious of now that I have moved.
    And we didn’t have cable for years but I hated that Netflix took such a big place in our life (along with a giant TV). Now that I’m on my own I don’t have (and don’t want) a TV

    • I don’t want to start an addiction to Netflix so I haven’t signed up for it. I can’t say I miss watching TV… now I watch the shows I like on YouTube once in a while. WE still have a TV BTW, it’s just that Feng or Mark are always watching something 😆

  4. You’re right, those things you mention in the third paragraph are weird when you think about it! There’s also a channel that just shows game shows.

    • Mind you, I never thought it was weird that THE nightly movie starts at 8:50 p.m. in France, but come to think of it, it must be weird to foreigners. Such an arbitrary time! And on all channels! (it may no longer be the case with cable and all, I haven’t watched TV in France much since 2002).

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