Kate Halpenny's story
Thom: How did theCanadian Film Centre's Great Canadian Story Engine (GCSE) make the leap from just one of many development projects at Habit@t to a project with a couple of million dollars in funding and international exposure?

Kate: The timing was right. Three years ago this was a very forward thinking project but even now it is still difficult to explain the idea to the public. The project by itself stood out as an exceptional idea not just as a project but because of people's current interests in the internet, and also because of the fact that Canada was celebrating the year 2000. The project fits naturally into that celebration, as a 'time capsule' of stories from this century. The project also fit in with the mandate at the Canadian Film Centre's to help Canadian storytellers to tell their stories, by providing them with the tools, training, and nurturing environment with which to hone their art and craft. The film center has always tried to not concentrate on technology but on the content and the stories being told. Story is the driving element in what the Film Center does and it is obviously the driving force behind the StoryEngine. The emphasis on this project was to say to people: Forget about the technology and gadgets, let's just look at the internet as an incredible medium for personal expression and community building and lets give ourselves a chance to tell our stories in a public forum, providing another, more personal view of Canadian history beyond that already communicated by journalists and historians. There is no status quo here, let's just open everything up for Canadian's to express themselves freely about what it means to be Canadians in the 21st century.

Thom: How was the project funded?

Kate: We first approached the federal government which had money set aside for Millennium projects. There were few internet related projects and the folks in the government saw the StoryEngine as a wonderful national level project to support. They gave us a small amount of funding and that started the wheels rolling so to speak. That was June of 99, when Ana Serrano, the Director of Bell H@bitat, and myself started working very aggressively searching for additional funding. The Millennium Bureau of Canada gave us a significant amount of funding to start off the project, and we had to not only match it, with a ratio of 1/3 Millennium Bureau, at least 2/3s other funding. It took us about 6 months to raise the $2 million dollars for the project. Half of that money is cash and the other half is donations of goods and services, We are lucky in that we have tremendous support from a variety of industry partners in both the private and public sector such as Immersant and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Immersant (http://www.immersant.com/en/public/) provided technical development for building and maintaining the web site. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (http://cbc.ca) is similar to the National Public Radio in the States. CBC has a mandate to help Canadians tell their stories and they have been doing a lot of exploration into how to use the internet as their 3rd medium along with television and radio. CBC saw this as a great project to move their radio listeners into the internet. CBC is housing the site for free.

Thom: How long will the site be housed?

Kate: Indefinitely. The Canadian Film Center will look after the project till the end of the year 2000. Then the CBC will continue maintaining the site. Another partner of ours is the Historica Foundation of Canada (http://www.histori.ca/). They are a foundation which has been recently created to facilitate the learning of Canadian history and their mandate is to assure that Canadian's know what it means to be a Canadian. Histoirca supports historical education programs and it also develops its own programs. Historica will probably taking on the StoryEngine in some capacity into schools. It currently has a program called Youth Links for shared learning between Canada and students in other countries.

Thom: Has anyone started to develop educational material with the StoryEngine yet?

Kate: Not yet. We are still educating the general public about what the StoryEngine is and how they can be involved. Historica is trying to develop some relevant educational models but I think what needs to be done first is to look at the body of stories we gather; we really won't have a complete picture until the StoryEngine reaches the west coast.

The other thing is that there are so many ways to view the StoryEngine. You can use the StoryEngine as an educational tool to teach people how to tell stories, pure and simple. You can use the StoryEngine as a tool to teach people how to create interesting work on the internet using multiple media. Many folks we work with have never used the internet before. We are doing workshops all over Canada just to introduce the StoryEngine and the internet to people who have literally never used a computer. The StoryEngine is a perfect tool to demystify the internet and see the internet as their friend. Finally, once the story body has been established there is a whole other aspect which comes into play for education which is teaching Canadian history through the personal voice. Students will be able to learn what it was like to live in an era like the 1940s when many families sent sons to war. Students will also be able to learn what it was like to live in a particular region of Canada such as growing up as a native person in Newfoundland?

We will have many viable educational options for using the StoryEngine once the stories have been gathered.

Thom: You said that CBC is a major sponsor of the StoryEngine. Is CBC using any of the stories on radio?

Kate: The target audience for the StoryEngine is not the young urban hipster because they do not have as much time or inclination to make a contribution to the storyEngine as other market target segments. A main goal of the project was to take the StoryEngine out of cyberspace down to the grassroots level. To do this the StoryMobile was created which is a 30 foot airstream trailer which has been converted into a digital training environment with 5 iMacs from Apple hooked up to the internet. CBC has a radio producer on board the StoryMobile for the entire 3 months of the tour. His job is to look for great stories. The best stories he finds he turns into segments for 'This Morning' which is CBC's flagship show. There is a really nice give and take happening where people go to the web site and hear about the radio part and then tune in to 'This Morning' or people listen to the radio show and decide they want to make their own contribution so they go to the web site.

Thom: So, the stories get edited?

Kate: We have tried to be as faithful as we can to the story teller so the stories that have been submitted so far have not been heavily edited either for the web or for the radio. We are also restricted in our use of the stories so we can not turn stories into fictional movies or anything like that. But there is the potential to incorporate them into a documentary in the context of the storyEngine, as we don't have the right to take stories and do with them whatever we want. This is further protection for the storytellers.

Thom: When people write a story is there a release they sign?

Kate: Yes. The release says that they are the owner of their stories. They are in essence giving us the right to use it on our site and use it in any corollary educational development. While we don't edit the stories, we do crop pictures. There is also the issue of our liability. We ask people to sign a statement saying that they know who has taken a photo or it is a photo they have taken themselves and that the story they are writing is true. People are restricted to writing about someone they know so they can't just make up a story. We have to be careful not to accept anything which is defamatory or heavily pornographic. The warning is mild but essentially we are taking every story we can possible take. It doesn't matter if a story is not beautifully crafted, that is just the way someone wants to tell their story and that is as relevant a story as a story by a professional writer.

Thom: Do you have any folks who come to tell stories who can't read or write?

Kate: I don't know but we certainly have had people who can not type and are much more used to the oral storytelling tradition. Some people actually submit stories in audio. For instance, if we are doing a workshop for senior citizens they can ask one of our trainers to just tape them and we transcribe the tape later.

Thom: So what types of media do people bring for their stories? Movies? Videos?

Kate: We are not allowing movies or videos because we felt that is a little beyond what the regular computer/internet user right now can deal with and we wanted to make the site as accessible as possible. People can submit text, audio and photos in any combination. It is a very simple format making it as easy as possible for folks to submit.

Thom: So what type of folks are showing up to tell stories?

Kate: We have all kinds of folks coming out. We have all ages. The least represented age is the 20-30 something heavy internet user possibly because they don't have a lot of story yet. We get a lot of families interested in telling their family history and telling others about something important to them which has not been recognized. We all have a history of sitting around the kitchen table and telling our stories. Usually someone says: I wish we could get grandmas story recorded, or maybe her voice telling her story. There has always been the need to make our voices heard and keep some sort of memory of the people who have come before us. The storyEngine is just an obvious way to meet this very human need so as I said, all sorts of folks show up to tell stories.

Thom: Where did the tour begin?

Kate: The tour started June 21st in a small town in Newfoundland called Placentia. When we did the first workshop there they brought out their town cryer to announce to all present that the tour had officially started. After Placentia we went to St. John's Nfld which is the capitol of Newfoundland and the most easterly point in Canada. We opened a new city park in Saint Johns and have been slowly moving westward across the country ending September 16th back in Toronto.

This is a 3 month tour and more than a third of those days we are on tour are travel days. It takes a long time to get across the country and we are stopping on average for 10 days in each province; we have about 10 provinces. We will do about 25 workshops and those are geared toward community organizations which represent people who might not have been on the internet before. We are also trying to reach out to as many different types of Canadians as possible so we can get a really representative portrait of Canada. We are trying to tie-in to community event days which get a lot of traffic. We just drive up and park the StoryMobile in the middle of the action.

Thom: As you move across the country is attendance increasing?

Kate: Definitely. We have a good publicity machine. When we arrive in town people say that they have heard we were coming. A lot has to do with the radio coverage. The radio segment happens every week and CBC will announce where we will be next and to keep an eye for us.

Thom: How many people are on the StoryMobile?

Kate: 6 ... and these same 6 are going to be on board for the entire tour and probably beat each other up at the end because it is unbelievably close quarters. They aren't sleeping on the bus but it is tight during working hours.

Before the tour began we did mapping exercises of all the things which might go wrong and one of the possible problems we tried to plan for was mutiny. We figured that people might get really sick of the length of the tour and the tightness of the working quarters but so far they are doing well and it is summer. If the tour was taking place during the winter this would be another story I am sure.

Thom: How far north will the tour get?

Kate: Not far. We are sticking to the trans Canada highway because the costs of moving north are prohibitive. We are trying to build relationships with the north through the radio and via online activities.

Thom: If people can't get to the storyEngine can they just go to the web site and submit a story?

Kate: All they have to do is go to the web site and right on the main page there is a link called 'Tell Your story.' They just type in their story and upload audio and/or graphics. We have a lot of helpful hints such as an entire section just devoted to how to tell a story. There are technical tips which our partner Adobe has helped us with. If a writer wants to try out some new technology like Photoshop, the tech tips will take them through a step-by-step guide. You can learn a lot by just going to the site without even going to a workshop.

Thom: How many stories do you have so far?

Kate: I think we have around 350 stories and by the end of the year we will have more than a thousand stories which is a pretty good number. Telling a story is not an easy thing, people have to make a commitment and an effort.

Thom: What happens after the 3 months?

Kate: After the three months the tour team comes back exhausted and we'll have our final event in Toronto where we are teaming up with TV Ontario, another broadcaster. We will continue our promotions through CBC and our other partners through the end of the year and then begin working on educational development. After that CBC will take over.

Thom: Are you looking for additional funding?

Kate: It depends on if we take on any new activities. We have a few ideas in our back pockets but we are waiting to see what stories we collect. If we get some really great ones we may put together a book or something with permission from the authors. But, on the other hand the StoryEngine is all about recognizing the internet as an artistic medium so we don't have to move everything off line to make it relevant.

Thom: Do you have a favorite story?

Kate: I do. There are a lot of great stories but there is this one story I was just amazed at. This guy tells his story of being a British soldier in an Italian prisoner of war camp and planning an escape. They spent months tunneling in the middle of the night and two weeks before the tunnel would be finished they received notice that they would be moved to a German camp. Not only were they devastated that the tunnel would never be finished but they knew that once they were in the German camp it would be almost impossible to escape. Anyway, there was nothing they could do so they were moved to the German camp. Now this guy was hell bent on escaping and he and his friend devised this crazy scheme where they would dress up as German officers. They learned just enough German to pass if they meet anyone. The day finally arrived to attempt an escape. They put on their outfits and marched out of the camp as Germans. As soon as they rounded the corner they started to run for their lives. They rounded the next corner and ran smack into 2 senior offices who apprehended them and marched them back to camp to the firing squad and execution. As they were walking to the wall and certain death, this guy says to his buddy that he refused to die. He said to his buddy, "When we get to the wall, turn around and start laughing." And that was what they did. It so confused the Germans that the Germans just stared at them for 2 minutes and then they burst our laughing. This Canadian guy goes up to the Germans and offered them cigarette and the Germans said "30 days in isolation without food or water." And this guy lived to tell his story, a story unlike anything we normally see in movies. There are a lot of neat stories like that.

Thom: Any final thoughts on the storyEngine?

Kate: The storyEngine is a testament to the openness of Canadian culture to open immigration. The big challenge is to tell everyone's story, all the stories which make up Canada. Canada is so diverse that not even federal statistics can explain where the Canadian people have come from and who they are anymore because family histories are so interwoven with families from other countries. It is a big leap for many to accept the stories of the common person as significant. We are used to the stories of the famous but not the ordinary. I think it would be wonderful if the StoryEngine carried on and developed into an unsurpassed Canadian history. It has the potential but only time will tell.