Although Tanya Ballantyne's The Things I Cannot Change (1966) is generally considered a precursor and Peter Pearson's dramatic The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar (1968) a pilot, the program originated with Colin Low's innovative series of films made with the people of Fogo Island, Newfoundland, in 1967. Low's approach, as director Boyce Richardson later remarked, "turned on its head the usual exploitative and predatory relationship between media technician and subject and handed over editing authority to the people in the film." Almost simultaneously, Bonnie Sherr Klein made Encounter with Saul Alinsky (1967) and Organizing for Power: The Alinsky Approach (1968) using a more traditional form of social activist documentary and David Hughes and John Kemeny made Indian Dialogue (1967) and Indian Relocation: Elliot Lake (1967).
For Colin Low and others, the program represented a return to the Griersonian philosophy of government-sponsored documentaries — governments informing the public and the public informing the government of its opinions. As Low wrote in 1972, "The means of communication — real two-way communication — must be made accessible to ordinary people for dialogue in meaningful local debate. In this way, we would generate a much more vigorous problem-solving capacity based upon local initiative and creativity."
Only a few films emulated Low's original participatory approach, of which
St-Jérôme (1968) VTR St-Jacques (1969), These Are My People (1969), Travelling College (1968), Citizen's Medicine (1970), God Help the Man Who Would Part with His Land (1971) and Cree Hunters of Mistassini (1974) are key examples. Others followed an activist approach to promoting social change; they gave a voice to the voiceless or recorded dissent, but maintained control over the means of expression. Examples include Up Against the System (1969), Occupation (1970), Dans nos forêts (1971), The Point: Community Legal Clinic (1972), Urbanose (1972), Do Your Thing (1973), Promises, Promises (1973), Our Land Is Our Life (1974), Temiscaming Quebec (1975) and the Working Mothers series. Yet others were traditional social documentaries: A Crowded Wilderness (1972), The Question of Television Violence (1972), Our Health Is Not for Sale (1978), Who Will I Sentence Now? (1978) and some of the En tant que femmes series.
The Challenge for Change program, which began as a brave initiative of the federal government, attempted to use film and video to promote social change and put the means of communication into the hands of people. But by the late 1970s, it had degenerated so rapidly (despite some notable exceptions) that at its end it was being used by the NFB as a device to finance, package and promote any film of a vaguely social character. The government departments withdrew funding, and the program was allowed to quietly wither away.