By Daniel Macfarlane
The Raccoons “Run with us – we got everything you need!” Does that line from a certain theme song jog any memories for Canadians between the ages of about 20 to 40? What about Ralph, Melissa, Cedric? If not those names, then surely Bert or Cyril Sneer?
The theme song, and the aforementioned characters, are from The Raccoons. This cartoon staring the eponymous anthropomorphized scavengers appeared on CBC for over a decade between 1980-91. This piece of Canadiana started as four specials, and then became a syndicated half-hour series. Cyril Sneer (an aardvark, by the way) was the corporate tree-cutting, money-grubbing villain who served as the foil to main protagonist, the bumbling but lovable Bert and the rest of his crew in Evergreen Forest (apparently somewhere in B.C.).
The show clearly had an environmental activist edge, and that is why I’m writing about it right now. Along with Ryan O’Connor, another Active History blogger, I’m doing a little study of The Raccoons as emblematic of 1980s Canadian environmentalism. (As an aside, this project got off the ground because of the response to a partial jest on Twitter that we should study this subject).
I’ll admit that a variety of other projects and events (such as the birth of our second child and getting a book manuscript off to the press) have been taking precedence, but over the last few I weeks I managed to watch half the specials and about a quarter of the episodes. Actually, tracking down copies of all the episodes has been tricky, and I have been viewing them through a combination of a trial subscription to Zip.ca and Library and Archives Canada (if anyone wants to lend or donate episodes, let me know!). In fact, there is probably another important story there – how is that all the episodes of a show with such resonance among my generation, a unique piece of Canadiana, are basically impossible to acquire? Only in Canada. There are some DVDs for sale, but they don’t have close to all the episodes.
From the outset, The Raccoons were consciously ecological: a major theme of the very first special (the 1980 Christmas special) was deforestation. The plot problem is that all the trees in Evergreen Forest are disappearing. The culprit is Cyril Sneer, who intends to cut down the entire forest, but is partially hampered by his reluctant son, Cedric, who keeps referring to lumber quotas and permits. This prompts the lumber baron Cyril to ask Cedric, whom the narrator (Rich Little) pointedly identifies as a recent college graduate, that “money doesn’t grow on trees – it is trees!”
As part of the attempted clear cut, the tree in which the raccoons live is removed, and the human children of Ranger Dan (all phased out of the show soon after) unknowingly take it home as a Christmas tree. The raccoons attempt to retrieve it, becoming friends with Schaefer the dog in the process. They track the disappearing tree problem to a lumber mill, where they confront the Sneers, calling them “ecological disasters.” In response to Cyril’s pleas that he is not the only one lumbering, one of the raccoons states that there are many “responsible” lumberers: trees limits can be followed and trees replanted.
In the next special, “Raccoons on Ice”, hockey is a major theme – not a bad idea if one is trying to get Canadians to watch it! Cyril Sneer tries to build a super dome arena over top of the natural lake where the raccoons and friends have been playing hockey. Meeting resistance, Cyril reveals his instrumentalist view of nature when he queries: “what real use have you for this lake?”
These are just some examples of the themes and tone. As The Raccoons transitioned into a syndicated series, the numbers of episodes with an overtly environmental theme started to decline, I think probably in large part because they were simply running out of environmental plot ideas. After all, 60 episodes were eventually produced. Nonetheless, there are episodes such as “Power Trip” where Cyril Sneer attempts to build his own hydro-electric power dam. Even when an outright environmental theme is dropped, the show takes a number of anti-corporate, anti-greed, and even anti-capitalist stances.
On the other hand, the show arguably gives off a somewhat confused view of technology. While it is bad in the hands of the forest-cutting capitalists, technology (such as a portable video camera, or video games) that would have been cutting- edge at the time are prominently displayed, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to kids. Something else that I’ve picked up so far, but still need to verify through further research, is that animals foreign to Canada (e.g. aardvarks, rhino, crocodile) seem to be the bad guys. Maybe it is just coincidence, or maybe there is something more there.
In addition to watching the shows, we hope to interview the creator, Kevin Gillis. It turns out Gillis is from the Ottawa area and has a cabin in eastern Ontario. But it gets better. Through two passing remarks about the show in the span of about a week, I learned that my Dad had dated Kevin Gillis’s sister many years back, and that one of his neighbours currently works for him. We’ve put out feelers, and we hope to interview him in the near future.
We also want to find some information about influence and viewership – maybe that will take the form of Neilson ratings or other means of assessing viewership. In the meantime, the amount of enthusiastic responses when people find out what we’re doing strongly suggests, if only anecdotally, that the show had an impact.
But why talk about all this? I think The Raccoons is first-off a historical “document.” Viewing The Raccoons gives us some idea of what the environmental discourse was like in popular culture in a certain time period, especially if things like viewership, influence, and causality can be established. It also shows the power of the medium to influence opinion – indeed, a kids cartoon probably has a played a bigger role in shaping attitudes than what environmentalists and academics wrote about the subject. And, of course, we get to relive childhood memories while watching cartoons and call it “research”!
Daniel Macfarlane is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University and for 2012-13 the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Canadian Studies at St. Lawrence University and Michigan State University. He is working on several projects related to Canadian-American water history, including a forthcoming book on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project.
Check out “The Unofficial Raccoons Home Page”
You can get Season 1 on iTunes, or buy DVD collector sets from Amazon