Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Challenge for Change launched, a participatory media approach to citizenship education  

This year, the National Film Board of Canada launched an unprecedent project called Challenge for Change. This project, which lasted until 1980 and enjoyed its most active years between 1967-1975, represented an innovative approach to citizenship education in Canada during the boom years of state funding for social services and cultural productions.

Considering the scope and influence of the project, it is surprising that Challenge for Change has received little mention in cultural histories of Canada, and that scant attention has been paid to the program by academics, activists and cultural critics.

Designed to popularize film and video production in order to illuminate the social concerns of various communities within Canada, Challenge for Change was funded by eight different departments of the federal government. It ran on a considerable budget divided between English and French-language programming (in Francophone Canada, the program was known as Societé Nouvelle).

The impetus for the program was the belief that film and video were useful tools for initiating social change and eliminating poverty , and initially entailed filmmakers entering what were considered marginalized communities to document everyday realities and struggles. Among the most notorious of the projects made were Colin Low's twenty-seven films about life on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, produced in 1967. While the Fogo Island projects were actually preceded by earlier Challenge for Change films, their notoriety helped to launch the program, which went on to produce over 140 films across the country.

Challenge for Change films and videos typically portrayed local struggles for change and adopted a cinema-verité aesthetic, with the camera work and direction increasingly taken out of the hands of professional filmmakers and surrendered to community members themselves. The program corresponded with the introduction of the video "portapak", making video production a cheap and accessible alternative to film. Titles of videos made in the program's peak years include Citizen Discussions (Colin Low, 1967), Building An Organization (Bonnie Sherr Klein, 1968), Community Action Theatre on Tour (Tom Shandel, 1973) and Co-op Housing: Getting It Together (Laura Sky, 1975).

The National Film Board of Canada's (NFB) founding mandate to "interpret Canada to Canadians and the world" (Druick 1998: 125) changed little between the film board's inception in 1939 and Canada's centennial year in 1967. Understood as a means of communicating the needs and struggles of particular communities in particular regions to communities in other regions, Challenge for Change emerged out of the intersection of the NFB's guiding vision and a flourishing of funding for "Canadian culture".

The centennial year witnessed the introduction of in the Trudeau's bilingual and multicultural policy, the World Fair in Montreal (Expo 67) and the birth of the Canadian Film Development Corporation. Growing social unrest and a flourishing of resistance movements, including the feminist movement and First Nations sovereignty movements, also marked this period.

Started by John Kemeny, Colin Low, Fernand Dansereau and Robert Forget, and later run by George Stoney , the Challenge for Change program was designed to give voice to the 'voiceless' (Marchessault 1995: 133). The program functioned as a form of research into the struggles of "everyday" communities in order that the government might better address their needs (Stoney, quoted in Sturken 1984).

According to Stoney, executive producer of the program between 1968-1970 who would go on to be a key figure in alternate media production in North America, the success of Challenge for Change rested on timely government responses to the content of the films. Community dialogue and government responses to the issues were crucial to the program and took precedence over the "quality" of the films produced: "The films and tapes were not important in themselves. It was the process and the ideas." (Stoney, quoted by Sturken 1984:2).

As the program developed, responsibility for the film production was put increasingly into the hands of community members, who both filmed events and had a say in the editing of the films, through advance screenings open only those who were the subjects of the films. In order to make VTR St.-Jacques, directors Dorothy Henault and Bonnie Sherr Klein, trained community members in video so that they might better represent their struggle for affordable and accessible medical care. VTR St.-Jacques was the first Canadian community-made video and numerous showings across the country and south of the border inspired a wealth of similar projects.

The goal of Challenge for Change was social change but significant questions remain about what the program actually accomplished. According to George Stoney, the Challenge for Change approach was distinctly Canadian and was met with a certain level of disbelief and hostility by audiences in the USA. The fact that films such as Up Against the System, a harsh critique of the Canadian welfare system, were being produced by an arms-length government agency led to considerable skepticism about the program south of the border (Boyle 1999:54).

Some Canadian scholars and critics have shared this critique. Janine Marchessault, in her 1995 book Reflections on the dispossessed: video and the 'Challenge for Change' experiment, argues that the program delivered "access without agency". While communities represented themselves, power relations were not challenged by the program and few of the videos went beyond a "social reproduction" of "difference" as essentialized by the liberal government. Marchessault suggests that the dialogical process which Challenge for Change claimed to initiate was rarely found and that most of the films instead represent a packaging of "difference" for an outside audience (Marchessault 1995:140-142). Challenge for Change has also been criticized as a liberal nationalist project that served to essentialize group identities and attempted to conquer difference by framing "differences as typical of our shared nationality" (Druick 1998:1).

In spite of these criticisms, Challenge for Change remains a pioneering effort in using film, and one of the most important experiments of the 20th century in adult education and participatory development through community-produced media.


Boyle, Deirdre (1999). "O' Canada! George Stoney's Challenge", in Wide Angle, 21:2, 48-59

Clifton Moore, Rick. (1987). "Canada's Challenge for Change: Documentary Film and Video as an Exercise of Power through the Production of Cultural Reality" Oregon: University of Orgeon PhD Thesis.

Druick, Zoe (1998).,"'Ambiguous Identities' and the Representation of Everyday Life: Notes Towards a New History of Production Policies at the N.F.B. of Canada," Canadian Issues, 10 (1998).

Forsyth, Scott. "The Failures of Nationalism and Documentary: Grierson and Gouzenko

Harding, Thomas (1997). The Video Activist Handbook. London: Pluto Press.

Jones, D.B. (1981)."Challenge for Change: The Artist Nearly abdicates," in Jones, D.B., Movies and Memoranda: An Interpretative History of the National Film Board of Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 157-175.

Kurchak, Marie (1977). "What Challenge? What Change"" in S. Feldman & J. Nelson (eds) Canadian Film Reader. Toronto: Peter Martin, 120-127.

Low, Colin (1984). "Grierson and 'Challenge for Change,'" in The John Grierson Project, John Grierson and the NFB. Toronto: ECW Press, 111-119.

Mackenzie, Scott (1996). "Societe Nouvelle: the Challenge for Change in the alternative public sphere" in Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 5:2, 67-83.

Marchessault, Janine (1995). "Reflections on the dispossessed: video and the 'Challenge for Change' experiment", Screen 36:2, 131-146.

Marchessault. Jan (1995). "Amateur Video and the Challenge for Change" in J. Marchessault ed. Mirror Machine: Video and Identity. Toronto: YYZ Books.

Morris Peter, (1987). "Re-Thinking Grierson: The Ideology of John Grierson," in P. Veronneau, M. Dorland & S. Feldman eds. Dialogue: Canadian and Quebec Cinema Montreal: Mediatexte, 21- 56.

Nelson, Joyce (1988). "The Curse of Nations," The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend (Toronto: Between the Lines, 59-79.

Sturken. Marita (1984). "An Interview with George Stoney", Afterimage, January (part 1 of 2) from

Wadland. John. "Voices in search of a conversation: An unfinished project", Journal of Canadian Studies, 35: 1, 52-54

Watson, Patrick (1977). "Challenge for Change" in S. Feldman & J. Nelson (eds) Canadian Film Reader. Toronto: Peter Martin, 112-119.

Prepared by Maggie Hutcheson, OISE/University of Toronto


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