Canada’s screen world ‘decades behind’ on Black representation, say industry members

Canada’s screen world ‘decades behind’ on Black representation, say industry members

TORONTO — The Toronto Black Film Festival is hosting a panel discussion series with a title that speaks to a pervasive problem in the industry: Show Me the Money.

Amid a racial reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last May, it seems awareness is heightened, and arts organizations are paying attention to systemic racism and barriers facing Black creators in Canada’s film and TV industry, says festival president and founder Fabienne Colas.

But money isn’t flowing throughout the entire ecosystem, and there’s still a lack of representation onscreen and in leadership positions behind the scenes, Colas adds.

That needs to change soon, because as the clock ticks, “tons of white people are making decisions on what’s going to be funded to go onscreen next year, and in two years,” she says.

“Billions of dollars are going through this industry, and tens of millions of dollars are being distributed through our public funders, and they don’t necessarily go to Black producers and Black filmmakers. That’s the problem,” says Colas.

As Colas’s festival, which runs online through Sunday, and other screen projects help mark Black History Month in Canada, those in the country’s arts world say the past year has been a critical one in terms of institutions responding to the calling out of racism, tokenism and microaggressions.

Several organizations have announced funding for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) creators in Canada in the past year. Last summer, for instance, Telefilm Canada pledged $100,000 a year towards the creation of a Black Screen Office, and Bell Media partnered with the grassroots organization BIPOC TV & Film.

But “the Canadian screen world has a long way to go,” says Amanda Parris, a CBC TV and Radio host, writer, and playwright behind the monodrama “The Death News,” which is part of the new CBC Gem anthology series “21 Black Futures” from CBC Arts and Obsidian Theatre in Toronto.

“I feel like Canada is decades behind when it comes to representation onscreen of Black stories by Black creators,” Parris says. “It’s really depressing. And I think being so close to the United States and to the United Kingdom and seeing the things that are emerging there, it’s hard to imagine when the time will come when Canada will see similar stories.”

Parris points to director Steve McQueen’s recent “Small Axe” anthology series of five films for the BBC and Amazon Prime Video, which tells the story of London’s West Indian community.

“It really hit home because there’s such a huge Caribbean diaspora that lives here in Canada that has yet to see their historical stories told with the level of production, deep nuance of storytelling, the kind of budget that he clearly had,” says Parris.

Parris was born in the U.K. and felt a connection to the material but also “a certain level of sadness” at the idea that such programming may not be possible here for a while, she says.

“I’m so reticent to have faith in a lot of the promises that have been made by so many of the networks. I’m not sure if they’re going to feel a fire under them when the protests die down and when things get quieter in the same way.”

If Canada wants to have a vibrant screen industry, it needs to give everyone access to the same resources, says Colas.

“Because otherwise, you’re going to have white films that are really well done, and then you’re going to have, what — Black films very low budget?” she says. “It doesn’t make sense. So we need great, well-funded film across the board.”

Colas, who also founded film festivals in cities including Halifax and Montreal, says the Toronto instalment that’s in its ninth edition still doesn’t have all the support it needs from the industry. But several new partners have come onboard this year. She also sits on various diversity committees and says “things are moving in the right direction.”

Parris says she’s encouraged by several projects underway in Canada, including the upcoming CBC series “The Porter,” about railway workers in the historically Black Montreal community of Little Burgundy in the 1920s. Director Charles Officer, who helmed Parris’s “The Death News,” is working on the series along with several other Black creators.

Then there’s the CBC News prime-time show “Canada Tonight with Ginella Massa” and the new YouTube news program “The Brandon Gonez Show,” launched in January by the titular Toronto broadcaster, who left CP24 to launch the project.

Parris says Gonez as well as The Black Academy, recently launched by Toronto actor-brothers Shamier Anderson and Stephan James, are among several examples of a shift “away from a lot of these mainstream institutions to Black folks being like, ‘What can we build ourselves?’”

Anderson says he thinks change is happening, with even major Canadian broadcasters acknowledging a lack of diversity in their ranks, for instance.

But “it needs to happen faster,” he adds, noting The Black Academy is still looking for more funding besides that offered by the Canada Media Fund, as it builds its own award show and programming.

“All these speeches and throne speeches and mandates and black squares and hashtags — I think we’ve got to put the money on the table, put the money where your mouth is,” says Anderson. “Putting a social post just is not enough.”

In the theatre world, there’s also “a very heightened, almost panicked awareness of the lack of diversity and the lack of Black representation,” says Obsidian Theatre artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, who conceived the idea for “21 Black Futures.”

Tindyebwa Otu says that conversation needs to extend beyond the faces seen onstage to those backstage and in the board rooms, so theatre companies don’t burden any single individual working within a historically white institution to speak for the whole race.

The “21 Black Futures” series, she says, is “almost like a catalogue of an example of who’s out there and saying, ‘Look at their work, see what they have to say, listen to their stories and contact these individuals,’ so that there’s never an excuse in the future of ‘I have no idea who to reach out to or who to connect to’ in the future.’”

Black History Month gives institutions a convenient opportunity to think of funding and programming for four weeks out of the year, but the big shift is in realizing that “Black people are living these lives all year round,” says Tindyebwa Otu.

“Good for you for becoming more aware, but this is an investment, this is our daily lives, this is not a moment, this is our reality.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

racism

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kids at Lotsa’Tots West Day Care in Red Deer act out how a caterpillar moves with co-owner and instructor Shireen Sewcharran-Wiebe. Child care providers are hoping Alberta’s provincial government will help fund the national child care program announced this week. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alberta day care providers hope Alberta will get onboard with national child care program

Some question whether the UCP’s ideology will stand in the way

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, minister of Environment and Parks after being sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Town council from the largest municipality in Nixon's constituency is concerned over the province's consultation plans for open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Town of Rocky Mountain House wants better coal consultation

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — Town council from the largest municipality in… Continue reading

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming for more financial literacy learning in junior and senior high schools

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

Two roundabouts will be built at each end of the Highway 2 and McKenzie Road overpass in Red Deer County at the south end of Gasoline Alley. Major detours will be in place this summer while construction is underway. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Powerline work causes delays on Highway 2 in Red Deer

Southbound drivers on the QEII are experiencing delays Wednesday morning. Powerline work… Continue reading

Ponoka RCMP said Traytyn Okeymow, 22, was last seen at this residence at about 9:45 p.m. on April 4. (Photo contributed)
Missing man located by Ponoka RCMP

Ponoka RCMP seek public’s help

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘We hope to help a little more’: Biden says he spoke to Trudeau about more vaccines

WASHINGTON — Canada can look forward to an unexpected shot in the… Continue reading

The Mission Correctional Institution in Mission, B.C. is pictured Tuesday, April 14, 2020. A new federal study found that people released from prison were much more likely than the general population to have trouble finding gainful employment, even over a decade after returning to society. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Ease employment hurdles for former prison inmates, federal study urges

OTTAWA — A new federal study found that people released from prison… Continue reading

Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem holds a press conference at the Bank Of Canada in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Bank of Canada keeps rate on hold, sees brighter economic outlook

OTTAWA — The Bank of Canada is keeping its key interest rate… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. Tam says new information on COVID-19 and variants prompted the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to suddenly cancel its planned update on who should get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
AstraZeneca advice from national panel delayed by new data on COVID-19 and variants

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says new information on COVID-19… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pressured to adopt tougher emissions target for Biden climate summit

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure to step up… Continue reading

Passengers from Air India flight 187 from New Delhi wait for their transportation to quarantine after arriving at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
ICU pressures mount as COVID fells younger people; Ottawa mulls India travel ban

TORONTO — Amid mounting pressures on critical care in hospitals and concerns… Continue reading

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on in Ottawa on Monday April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Three confidence votes to determine fate of minority Liberal government

OTTAWA — A pair of proposed changes to the federal budget put… Continue reading

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland talks with parents during a virtual discussion on child care in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Freeland is calling for patience and “flexibility” in response to questions about the government’s criteria for reopening the economy and border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Freeland urges patience as business looks for answers on reopening border, economy

OTTAWA — Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is urging Canadian companies to… Continue reading

Most Read