Video in the Classroom: Exploring the CBC Digital Archives

Andrea Eidinger

Anyone who has searched the internet for videos to use while teaching Canadian history has run into one big problem: the overwhelming dominance of American media online. Adding “Canadian” or “Canada” to your Google search doesn’t necessarily solve this problem. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great Canadian videos, soundbites, and films available. You just have to know where to look for them! This post is going to focus on my favourite place for Canadian audio-visual material: the CBC.

What is It?

All of the images in this post are screnncaptures used with permission from the CBC.

All of the images in this post are screenshots used with permission from the CBC.

Whether you love it or hate it, the CBC is one of Canada’s most prominent national institutions. Founded officially in 1936, it is the oldest network of broadcasting stations in Canada. When most of us think about the CBC, we think about Peter Mansbridge and The National, Rick Mercer and the Mercer Report, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But it has also stood witness to the history of Canada for more than 70 years.While many broadcasting corporations keep their archives private, the CBC has gone the opposite route by opening up select portions of its archives to the public and to educators.

The public version of the CBC Television and Radio Archives is called the CBC Digital Archives.[1] According to their Facebook page, the archive contains more than 6,500 clips (video and audio) dating back to 1927. These clips cover just about every topic you could possibly imagine. Don’t discount the use of these websites for Pre-Confederation classes! CBC Digital Archives can be great for teaching students about historical perceptions of past events. It is completely free to use, though you will have to sit through ads to watch your selected clip. The website also contains coordinating lesson plans for many of these clips.

How Does it Work?

CBC Digital Archives is an absolute treasure-trove of information. However, like treasure-troves, it is often difficult to find exactly what you need. So how do you find the clip you want? Most people would just go to the search box, type in a keyword, and expect results to appear. While you will get results with CBC Digital Archives, they don’t necessarily make any sense. For instance, when I type “The Cold War” into the search bar, I get clips on the RCMP “fruit-machine,” but I also get clips about backyard hockey, lacrosse and Mackenzie King’s diaries. Fascinating videos, but not all related to the Cold War.

CBC digital archive

Cold War search results

To be fair, some search terms will work better than others. For instance a search for “birth control pills” results in clips on that topic. However, I’ve had such problems with the search function that I’ve basically abandoned it. So what is a poor researcher to do?

You can basically go two ways. The first option is for people who are organized. It involves sitting down one afternoon with a cup of tea and familiarizing yourself with what’s available, and maybe bookmarking the videos that look interesting. For the rest of us, those who fly by the seat of their pants, there is option two: browsing.

What do I mean by browsing? While the regular search function is terrible, the CBC Digital Archives do have their clips organized into categories and subject tagged (internet speak for “labelled”).  As long as you have a general sense of what you are looking for, you can use these tools to find the clips that you want. Searching through the categories is easy. To access these categories, click on the “Categories” tab, as you see below.

Categories Dropdown menus

Categories Menu

There are 10 different main categories as well as a host of sub-categories:

Arts and Entertainment
Economy and Business
Science and Technology
War and Conflict

There is also a great level of detail within each subcategory. Each sub-categories contains one or more curated collections of radio transmissions or video clips. Some of these collections are very large, while others are limited in scope. In this photo, you can see what comes up when I click on the category of “Lifestyle,” and then the “Fashion and Beauty” sub-category:

"Fashion and Beauty" sub-category

“Fashion and Beauty” sub-category

After you’ve found the collection you are interested in, all you need to do is scroll down, and select the clip you’d like to look at. Once you click on the video or radio transmission that you want to see you will be brought to a page like this:

Media Clip information page

Media Clip information page

In addition to the radio or television broadcast CBC Digital Archives provides you with information about the broadcast itself such as details about the medium, program, broadcast date, guests, host, reporter, and the duration of the clip.

Once you find a video related to your topic, you can also use the tags function to find additional videos. How do you do this? On the page where the video is located, scroll down to the bottom. Here is what you will see:

CBC video page

Additional videos in curated collection.

The bottom of the page includes additional videos from your curated collection. However, just above them, you will see words in square outlines. These are subject tags. If you click on one of the words, you will be brought to a list of additional videos that contain the same tag. Here’s what I got when I clicked on the “pageants” tag:

Using tags to search content

Using tags to search content

In this case, the selection is fairly limited, but you can see that I have pulled up all of the radio or video clips on the website with the tag “pageants,” even if they are in separate categories.

Using CBC Digital Archives in the Classroom

Lesson Plans

In addition to providing audio-visual material the CBC Digital Archives also offers coordinating lesson plans. There are hundreds of lesson plans available on a range of subjects. Unfortunately, they are not organized into topical collections and the search function doesn’t necessarily include them.  Lesson plans need to be searched manually. You can access the lesson plans by clicking on the tab at the top of the page entitled “For Teachers.”

Lesson Plans section of CBC Digital Archive

Lesson Plans section of CBC Digital Archive

You are presented with featured lesson plans, lesson plans by grade, and lesson plans by type of activity. Even though the highest level here is Grades 11 to 12, much of the material in this section is still suitable for introductory undergraduate Canadian history classes. Here’s a sampling of what’s available in this section:

Lesson plans for Grades 11 and 12.

Lesson plans for Grades 11 and 12.

Once you’ve clicked on the subject that you’d like, you will be brought to a lesson plan like this one:

Sample Lesson Plan

Sample Lesson Plan

In the top section, CBC provides information about the type of lesson plan, the duration, the learning outcomes, and a summary of the lesson. Immediately below is the lesson itself with detailed instructions. Any handouts that accompany the lesson will appear in the pdf document at the bottom of the page.

While the grade levels are fairly self-explanatory, the lessons are also categorized by type:

  1. An introductory activity is simply a fact-finding mission.
  2. Assignments are specific lessons that involve some level of critical thinking.
  3. Web-quests are assignments that require the use of the Internet (to watch or listen to the clips)

During Lectures

It’s one thing to talk about historical events like the FLQ Crisis, but it’s an entirely different one to show students news footage from the bombings. I find that there is nothing quite like films to allow students to connect with people in the past on a very visceral level.

As Part of Active Learning Activities

In recent years, I’ve taught my Canadian history survey classes once a week in a 3-hour block. In the first hour or so, I lecture. But for the rest of the time I have my students do active learning activities. The lesson plans provided by CBC Digital Archives are really great for this. Sometimes I use the lessons as they were originally outlined, but more often than not, I modify them to suit my own purposes. These activities generally ask students to watch videos and then analyze them, making them great for teaching about historical perspectives.

Many of the CBC videos are also primary sources and can be used to teach students not only that the term “primary source” is a broad category, but to handle different kinds of primary sources. They also work well with the other Historical Thinking Concepts. At the same time, videos and radio transmissions can also be used much in the same way as photographs.


Though admittedly the search function on this site needs improvement, I still recommend the CBC Digital Archives. It’s definitely among my most used resources for teaching Canadian history courses of all levels. If you’re not sure where to start, my personal favourites for CBC Digital Archives are the curated video collection, “Cold War Culture: The Nuclear Fear of the 1950s and 1960s” and the lesson plan, Vignettes: Women’s Programming Through the Decades. I’ve used both in my Post-Confederation course several times to great success.

Have you ever used CBC Digital Archives in your classroom? What have your experiences been? Do you have any favourite clips?

Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and has spent the last six years teaching as a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.

 [1] While I’m talking about the English-language version of the website, there is also a French-language version, which you can access here. Just be aware that the French site has totally different content and is organized differently as well.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

2 thoughts on “Video in the Classroom: Exploring the CBC Digital Archives

  1. CBC Digital Archives

    Thanks, Andrea! We are well aware of the deficiencies of the site’s Search function but the development resources devoted to our project are minimal, so we’re pretty much stuck with it.

    The Search is pretty basic – it’s just looking for the words you type anywhere within the text in a given entry. A couple of tips:

    – Quotation marks help in Search when you want a particular phrase, i.e. if you type “cold war” the results will not include a hockey clip. Type this – “Cold war” soviet – if you want to narrow it down even more.

    – Results are posted in reverse chronological order. The most recently broadcast item will appear at the top of the results; the earliest aired item for your search term will be at the bottom of the results on the last page.

    – We have tried to streamline and unify our tags since the first version of the website in 2002, but the process from Day 1 has never been uniform, so not every clip appropriate to a given tag will be included.

    We much appreciate your efforts to share our treasure trove with your readers. We’re still adding new clips every week and we’re up to about 8,000 now, most of them from CBC’s news and current affairs programming over the years.

  2. Will Pratt (@WillJPratt)

    I find a major barrier to using the site in lecture format is the ads. Even audio clips are loaded in video format, so advertising is presented for 10seconds or more before you can move on. If you are quick to mute the projection, you can always give a short preamble to the clip that you are about to play, but it isn’t always a seamless transition as you wait out the ad.
    I like the Second World War material from CBC announcer Matthew Halton which shows what folks in Canada were hearing about the war.

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