Leaders in the Canadian media industry came together on 28 April 2022 to discuss the need for creating a more inclusive Canadian media landscape.
UNACTO President, Staci Benny, facilitated a 'Beyond the Screen: Representation in Canadian Content', a virtual panel discussion with Karen Bruce, Executive Director of Women in Film and Television (WIFT) Toronto; Nick Davis, Executive Director of Equity & Inclusion at CBC/Radio-Canada; and Kadon Douglas, Executive Director at BIPOC TV & Film. The panellists spoke about the unique struggles faced by underrepresented creators and how the Canadian screen industry must foster space to highlight and include diverse voices to pursue Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10: Reduced Inequalities.
The panel began with a discussion about the definition of Canadian content. Nick Davis spoke about how the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has specific rules determining what counts as ‘Canadian’ content for public broadcasting. For example, producers responsible for monitoring the production process need to be Canadian, as do directors or screenwriters. These rules have existed since the 1920s.
“Online is where a lot of unique and diverse Canadian content lives because they’re not held by the rigid and strict standards of CanCon [Canadian content]”, Nick Davis said.
Kadon Douglas added that these standards can exclude people of colour. “The nuance of the definition of Canadian content goes beyond if you are just born in Canada or if you are a permanent resident. It goes beyond that based on your culture, racial background and proximity to whiteness”, she said. “Many of us are locked out of that because of inherent systemic racism”.
While the Massey Commission strove to define Canadian culture outside of American and British influences over half a century ago, Douglas believes the context of the commission can create an exclusive definition of Canadian content.
“The people defining that were largely white and came from wealthy and privileged backgrounds”, Douglas said.
Karen Bruce said a single statement cannot capture the essence of Canadian content. “If you ask five people who work in this industry what their definition is, you will get five different answers”, she said. “There’s also a demand to rewrite what Canadian content means”.
Davis agreed. “Everything needs to be reviewed through a lens of equity and inclusion”, he said. Douglas added that diverse representation is necessary for the Canadian media landscape to combat stereotypes and promote authentic and respectful narratives.
“Representation is seeing us depicted in the fullness of who we are”, Douglas said. “We are so complex. I want to see more than a singular version of who we are on screen”.
According to Douglas, the media is responsible for representing the public because it helps people shape their perspectives. Davis agreed, saying, “Representation is about capturing the fullness of the Canadian experience and who we are, and it is about the accuracy”, he said. “We need to look, sound and feel like the people of Canada…There is such power in being seen and feeling seen”.
Davis asserted that representation in Canadian content is “[...] really around accuracy, like are we really painting an accurate portrayal of what this place looks like?”
Davis said the people at executive levels have the power to decide what authenticity is. He called for more marginalized voices in decision-making positions because it is more difficult for someone without lived experience to understand how that experience is being represented in a meaningful way.
“We have an opportunity here to do better, but for some reason, we think it’s okay to be mediocre”, Davis said. “We can do better than that”.
Bruce spoke about a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004 that examined film industry demographic data, researching gender balance and people’s stereotypes on screen. It found that a conscious realization of how the media propagates narratives does not negate the influences.
“The stories we choose to tell can send very specific messages about who matters”, Bruce said.
The panellists went on to discuss the challenges faced by BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour] people behind the scenes. Douglas spoke of a lack of access to financing, training, decision-makers and supportive networks. She also said the inaccessibility of training and mentorship results in a lower representation of BIPOC students in media-related post-secondary fields.
“We need to create a strong pipeline into post-secondary programmes. As they come out of school, what resources do they have?” Douglas said.
While some companies are developing BIPOC-specific programmes, Davis said there needs to be more advertisement of BIPOC content after production.
“We need to give them access to resources to market and promote these films to normalize these experiences”, he said. “We share universal values, but our perspectives are different, and this needs to be normalized”.
Davis said diverse and representative content does exist in the Canadian media landscape, but it is not known.
“We need to flip the script. It’s not just about giving people access, but also about getting behind it and telling people why it’s important to promote and market it”, Davis said.
Bruce added that stagnant narratives in creative media, particularly ones that push harmful views like objectification and violence against women, are a product of following money-making formulas.
“It’s when people see something that works and decide to do it repeatedly”, she said. “But these narratives only stop when we stop telling them”.
Bruce said that the one designated equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) department or officer in companies are not sufficient because they often do not even have hiring capabilities.
“It’s still, for the most part, white men leading this industry—hiring white men to lead these projects”, she said.
Douglas referenced a 2021 report by Women in View which found that women and people of colour were often only hired by other women and women of colour in leadership positions.
“It goes back to who is leading; who has the opportunities to make hiring and funding decisions”, Douglas said, adding that having an EDI department is not enough.
“It has to be a core value in your culture. It has to be seen in every decision that you make. It has to be part of your organizational DNA, not a thing you are doing because it is a trend at the moment”, Douglas said. “We need to see actions and a mindset shift right now”.
Davis said that he noticed a belief that inclusion means excluding white people, tying the work to diminishing themselves or treating EDI as a separate group. But inclusion means more perspectives and voices, which would improve programming.
“Inclusion is about adding another chair to the table”, Davis explained.
The panel drew to a close as the panellists were asked about what they hoped the industry would be like by 2030—the deadline for implementation of the SDGs. Douglas spoke about the necessity of BIPOC voices and representation in leadership on the screen and behind the camera. “I would love for it to be the default”, she said.
Douglas added that there should be change on a policy level in defining Canadian content and building the eligibility criteria. She said there should be a redesign through an equity, justice and reconciliation lens.
“We have to do it at the policy level, industry-wide, and think about investing in our communities”, she said.
Davis and Bruce agreed but added that community engagement is necessary. The Canadian public needs to demand change and the active representation of diverse narratives in the Canadian media landscape. Davis said success would be visible.
“If we’ve done our job well, whatever I’m watching looks, feels, and sounds like this country in its fullness, richness, and all of its diversity”, he said.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha