The NFB's mandate over the years

John Grierson, the NFB’s founder and first Commissioner, wanted the NFB to be the “eyes of Canada” and to ensure that it would “through a national use of cinema, see Canada and see it whole: its people and its purpose.”

Initially known as the National Film Commission, the NFB was created by an act of Parliament in 1939. Its mandate, as set forth in the National Film Act, 1950, is “to produce and distribute and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations.”

The NFB’s mandate has been revised several times over the years to take into account the changing audiovisual landscape and financial and social circumstances. Here is a short overview.

1939: Creation of a National Film Commission

In May 1939, the federal government proposed the creation of a National Film Commission (soon to be known as the National Film Board), to complement the activities of the Government Motion Picture Bureau. The enabling legislation stipulated that the NFB was to “make and distribute films designed to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts.” The legislation also provided that the NFB, with its headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario, would co-ordinate the film activities of all federal departments.

1950: The National Film Act

In October, the Canadian Parliament approved The National Film Act, which defines the Board as an agency established “to initiate and promote the production and distribution of films in the national interest and, in particular, to produce and distribute films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations” and to:

1965: Regionalization of NFB activities

As a result of a report commissioned by the federal government and written by independent producer Gordon Sheppard on government cultural policies and activities, the NFB began regionalizing its English production activities. Producers were appointed in Vancouver and Toronto and, soon thereafter, in the Prairies and the Maritimes.

The goal of this initiative was to recruit young filmmakers and encourage local production, particularly by spreading sponsorships more widely throughout the regions. The report also recommended that more films be made by the private sector.

Finally, the NFB closed some film depots in a number of Canadian communities, to begin the distribution of its own films in 21 Canadian cities. This marked the beginning of the decline of what were known as film councils.

1973: Greater assistance for private-sector filmmakers

This year saw the introduction of the regionalization program in Quebec, Aide artisanale au cinéma et à la formation. The Program to Assist Filmmakers in the Private Sector (PAFPS) was launched seven years later for the NFB’s English Program. These programs, today known as the Aide au cinéma indépendant du Canada (ACIC) for the French Program and the Filmmaker Assistance Program (FAP) for the English Program, assist independent filmmakers with various production-related services. 

1978: Contracting-out of sponsored films to the private sector

Secretary of State John Roberts, appearing before the Standing Committee on Broadcasting, Films and Assistance to the Arts, announced that the government intended to contract out more than 50 percent of its government-sponsored films to the private sector. The NFB created a review committee for sponsored films.

Three years later, in response to long-standing pressure from private industry and Ottawa’s desire to strengthen that sector’s economic viability, the NFB announced that most sponsored films for government departments, accounting for about 25 percent of its activities, would be made by the private sector. The NFB would act as executive producer, a role that represented a major shift in its mandate.

1980: NFB Board of Trustees makes changes to the original mandate

The NFB Board of Trustees ratified changes to the NFB mandate, with five new objectives:

1980: Creation of the Applebaum-Hébert Committee

The federal government established the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, better known as the Applebaum-Hébert Committee, in part to study the NFB’s role. Two years later, the Committee recommended in its report that the NFB be transformed into a research and training centre and give up producing and distributing films. The NFB rejected this recommendation but accepted the cultural thrust of the report.

1984: The National Film and Video Policy

Minister of Communications Francis Fox released his National Film and Video Policy, which added two new dimensions to the NFB’s original mandate. In addition to “making and distributing films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations,” the NFB was now to become “a world centre of excellence in production of films and videos” and “a national training and research centre in the art and technique of film and video.”

What is meant by a “world centre of excellence”?

Since its creation in 1939, the NFB had always enjoyed an enviable international reputation for the high quality of its products, in particular its documentary and animated films. While the NFB had maintained a “Canadian” viewpoint, it had often surpassed its mandate of “interpreting Canada to Canadians and to other nations.”

The federal government, in its National Film and Video Policy, wished to change the NFB’s mandate to give it the opportunity to focus on its skills as a producer working on the cutting edge of the artistically possible and as a commentator on major issues affecting Canada and the world, and thereby to complement private-sector production.

And what is a “national training and research centre”?

The federal government, in line with the recommendations of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, also urged the NFB to devote more of its resources and energy to research, asking it in part to:

1995: Re-evaluation of the NFB’s mandate by the Mandate Review Committee

When the federal government brought down its budget in February, it informed the National Film Board, along with Telefilm Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that their mandates would be redefined during the course of the year. A special committee made up of Pierre Juneau, Peter Herrndorf and Catherine Murray was formed to study the mandate of each institution and to report back. The committee’s report, entitled “Making Your Voices Heard: Canadian Broadcasting and Film for the 21st Century,” was tabled on January 31, 1996. While supporting the National Film Board’s role as a public producer, the report suggests, among other things, that the NFB’s activities be streamlined in order to focus on production, that this production be renewed, and that television be emphasized as a distribution channel.

1996: NFB Board approves the Action Plan for the NFB in the Year 2000

The Board of Trustees of the National Film Board of Canada, at a meeting held in March 1996, approved the comprehensive plan to restructure the organization. The restructuring reflects budgetary reductions, technological changes and the Mandate Review Committee’s Report.

2002: NFB Board approves the 2002–2006 Strategic Plan

In January 2002, the NFB Board of Trustees approved the 2002–2006 Strategic Plan, which was designed to address the impact of major reductions to the NFB’s parliamentary allocation in the 1990s, which was cut by approximately 32 percent. The new plan placed particular emphasis on rebuilding the NFB brand and rekindling the NFB’s connection with Canadians, while recommitting the NFB to producing and distributing distinctive, culturally diverse, challenging and relevant audiovisual works that provide Canada and the world with a unique Canadian perspective.

2008: Launch of the 2008–2013 Strategic Plan: A new NFB strategy for the Digital Age

In April 2008, the NFB introduced its five-year Strategic Plan. At the heart of the plan was a return to the roots of the NFB: supporting creators, privileging imagination and socially engaged creation in all technological forms, and making the results accessible to all Canadians.

With digital technologies transforming how media is created, experienced and shared, the NFB was changing too: utilizing new technologies to push boundaries, take risks, and connect with Canadians in every region of the country, in exciting new ways. In keeping with these changes, the NFB’s online screening room was launched in January of 2009.

2013: Launch of the 2013–2018 Strategic Plan

In May, the NFB launched its 2013–2018 Strategic Plan. Some of its goals were: to further the NFB’s global leadership in creativity and innovation throughout all its activities, to increase the presence and the impact of the NFB by promoting meaningful relationships with Canadian and world audiences, to develop a new economic model and new business opportunities, and to transform the NFB into a dynamic and evolving organization that enhances its ability to work and create differently.

2020: Launch of the 2020–2023 Strategic Plan 

In December 2020, the NFB presents its 2020–2023 Strategic Plan, entitled New Ways of Storytelling for New Ways of Seeing.

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