‘Black Life: Untold Stories’ Docuseries Explores 400 Years of Black History in Canada

Leslie Norville

Emmy winner Leslie Norville created, executive produced and acted as showrunner for 'Black Life: Untold Stories,' which explores 400 years of Black experiences, history and accomplishments in Canada. Photo: Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The new CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories is a compelling, multi-century examination of the diverse and sometimes obscure experiences of Black Canadians. It is also — critically for creator Leslie Norville — debuting during television’s prestigious fall season, instead of, say, February, when Black-focused programming abounds.

“It was really important for me that this not air during Black History Month,” the Emmy Award-winning producer said during a recent phone interview. “The idea behind the show is that Black history is Canadian history; this is not just for Black audiences. We really tried to prioritize interesting, innovative, entertaining storytelling, despite the fact that the subject matter is sometimes very difficult.”

In deeply researched explorations of enslavement, empowerment, migration, criminal justice, creative arts and sports that span 400 years of history, each of the series’ eight episodes combines archival and contemporary footage with reenactments and contextual interviews, including with some of the project’s notable producers — retired hockey star P.K. Subban, American cultural critic Nelson George, former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, and rapper and broadcaster Shad.

And some of it is startling, from the graphic description of the torture and death of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a young enslaved woman believed to have burned down much of Montreal in 1734, to hearing the full n-word from elders as they recall racist encounters. 

“A lot of these people have not had the opportunity to share their stories, to have their stories be heard, and this is how they are recounting their experiences. So it was very important for us not to censor these folks,” explained Norville about the decision not to excise the racial slur.  

“As Canadians we like to sanitize, we’ve told ourselves a myth, we’ve told ourselves lies, about the creation of this country, the treatment of Black folks, Aboriginal, First Nations peoples. 

“We’ve been telling ourselves lies for years, and I think for a lot of people, this is going to be tough. This is going to be information that they’re hearing for the first time, but I think we have to be truthful and honest. This is actual history. These are actual reports of what happened.”

Norville, whose credits include A Ballerina’s Tale,  documentary about Misty Copeland, the first African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, focuses her work on stories about the Black community, women, and people of color. 

Raised in Thornhill by a Guyanese mother and Ghanian father, she said the genesis for this spotlight on Black Canadian history was recognizing the deficiency of her own knowledge. “As somebody who was born and raised in Canada, did all my schooling in Canada, all the way up to grad school, there wasn’t much that I had learned.” 

Now, more than primetime ratings, Norville will gauge Untold Stories’ success on whether it spurs more interest in the topic, finds its way into curricula, and encourages more broadcasters to fund Black creatives.

 The series has been a boon for Black Canadian directors, featuring a different one for every episode — from seasoned vets Frances-Anne Solomon and Duane Crichton to emerging talents Karen Chapman and Thyrone Tommy.

“We were able to match directors with a subject matter that they were keenly interested in, and I think that was really important, because as Black Canadians, we are not a monolith … and one voice would not be able to represent the breadth of that experience,” said Norville, adding that the series itself is by no means exhaustive.

“There’s huge amounts of history that we just couldn’t tackle in the show,” she explained, citing examples of Black settlements in New Brunswick and British Columbia. “There’s a lot of history still to be mined.”

The first four episodes of Black Life: Untold Stories are streaming now on CBC Gem. The docuseries also airs on CBC TV on Wednesdays at 9p.m. beginning October 25.