Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, What’s the Fairest Representation of Them All?

Photo courtesy of Festival du nouveau cinéma

Visible minorities, ethnic, sexual, cultural, and linguistic minorities…When we add up all the “minorities” in Canada, we get a significant proportion of the population that’s underrepresented in audiovisual content. Without this audiovisual feedback, it’s hard for them to identify themselves in society or take any real interest in what they see. How can we see beyond this problem and take appropriate action here and now?

According to the 2016 Census, the population of visible minorities, as defined in the Employment Equity Act, represented more than one-fifth (22.3%) of Canada’s total population. Of these, 3 in 10 were born in Canada. Statistics Canada predicts that this proportion of the Canadian population could reach 31.2% to 35.9% by 2036.

In metropolitan areas such as Montreal and Toronto, that forecast has already come true or even been exceeded. Despite this, we’re still far from achieving this type of proportional representation on the screen.

A smaller pool of actors, difficulties with recruitment, lack of minority representation among decision-makers, systemic racism – these are just the tip of the iceberg of the possible reasons explaining the poor reflection of Canada today in our audiovisual culture.

This is shown in a number of studies and surveys conducted in recent years, including a report presented by Angie Landry on Radio-Canada concerning ethnic diversity on screen and the glass ceiling for starring roles on Quebec television.

Many organizations have mobilized across the country to raise awareness about this problem and provide support and tools for companies to introduce best practices for inclusion and diversity.

While awareness of the mechanisms hampering this crucial adaptation of the images projected in audiovisual content is certainly necessary, what will really change things is action – real steps, large and small, in the right direction.

Quotas – the inevitable issue

It’s difficult to ignore quotas as a solution, though this is certainly not unanimously accepted, and yet it applies to all industry players, from broadcasters and producers to funding agencies.

Some see quotas as a hindrance to creativity. Others, such as Diversité artistique Montréal, favour quotas, but would prefer to talk about a “threshold of awareness” instead.

“Rather than setting a quota in numbers, organizations and even individuals must develop their own threshold of awareness by deciding how many people from diverse backgrounds they want to include on their teams, and then doing everything they possibly can to make that decision stick,” says ethnologist Jérôme Pruneau, executive director of Diversité artistique Montréal, who in 2018 published a report containing 31 recommendations on ways to “decolonize” the arts, culture, and media.

“The main advantage behind the idea of a threshold is that we should force ourselves to get proactive about finding the resources,” Pruneau says. “Otherwise, the project simply won’t happen.”

This is also reflected in the 2017 report presented by Interactive Ontario (IO), which focused on interactive digital media, but whose toolkit of proposed solutions is transferable to other industry players and can be adapted to fit the context, according to IO president and CEO Lucie Lalumière.

The report stresses the importance of making managers and executives responsible for implementing diversity and inclusion strategies with specific goals in mind, with appropriate adjustments to fit the size of the company.

The idea of quotas, or specific inclusion goals (to echo the currently preferred catchphrase), though imperfect, would make it possible, as the Union des artistes (UDA) at Radio-Canada has pointed out, to open doors at all levels until everyone’s inclusion reflexes become more sensitive and render the need for such goals obsolete.

More recently, the Construire la diversité panel on building diversity, presented as part of the Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal, brought together a diverse set of local notables to discuss the issues and possible solutions for a more inclusive film industry. It emerged that some challenges depend on the player’s professional point of view.

Here are a few specific solutions – obviously not an exhaustive list – that every audiovisual industry player could implement to reverse the domino effect of cultural or ethnic exclusion.

Broadcasters

Because they make the programming choices, broadcasters play a major role in delivering what appears on Canadian screens.

At a time when they face the challenge of renewing audience interest against content on offer by international competition in television series and films, the inclusion issue is becoming a strategic factor they can’t afford to overlook.

In 2016, 27% of Canadians 15 to 34 years old identified themselves as members of a visible minority. In Toronto alone, 76% of this age group were either first-generation immigrants or second-generation with at least one immigrant parent. Not to mention the fact that from 2006 to 2016 the 15-to-30 age group in the Métis, Inuit, and First Nations population increased by 39%, compared to about 5% for non-Indigenous youth.

“It’s absolutely essential to deliver content that will appeal to these people and make them loyal, otherwise they’ll go watch it elsewhere,” says Jérôme Pruneau. “In particular, we recommend that advisory committees be set up, each with a member from the diversity population segment, if the internal team doesn’t include such a person.”

Quotas and openness to proposals from authors with a diversity background, who are able tell their own stories, are other possible avenues – also more diversification on broadcasting networks.

“If you always broadcast in the same place, you may reach a large number of people, but not everyone,” says Pruneau. “I guarantee you that if you plan a Bollywood venue and promote it in Park Extension here in Montreal, you’ll fill the hall.”

The argument that “the public isn’t ready” for other types of content no longer holds water in his opinion, since we know that residents in urban areas and remote regions alike all watch Netflix, including stories that don’t feature white people. “If the story is good and main character is good, we’ll fill the halls and win audience interest,” Pruneau says.

Producers and casting agencies

As soon as producers – or directors, for that matter – have an organization to back them, the various diversity-promoting organizations all urge the production company to introduce awareness training on these issues.

“Companies can easily put a structure in place to enhance diversity and encourage inclusion, regardless of size,” says Lucie Lalumière of IO. “This could include clearly communicating the company’s values in this regard, setting and tracking measurable goals, implementing favourable hiring policies for permanent staff and freelancers, organizing educational workshops and participating in relevant outside events, or participating in placement programs such as ipprenticeship.”

There’s also the whole matter of casting agencies, which are sometimes asked to supply talent on the basis of a given character’s appearance.

“Colour-blind” casting, which puts the focus on certain features of personality desired for the main characters, rather than their appearance, could be a solution to break this vicious cycle and allow agencies to broaden their spectrum of artistic selection.

Creators

The first thing to note from the various reports produced has to do with reflexes in assembling their production teams. “Individually, a director should try not to always work with his or her own gang of regulars, to be more open,” Jérôme Pruneau says.

By openness, he means knocking on doors not necessarily familiar to the director – somewhat like the concept of open auditions in theatre.

While Pruneau admits that it may be hard to break these reflexive habits, and that it demands more effort than dialing a familiar phone number, he points out that this approach will be rewarded by discoveries of new talent, as well as penetrating into new networks of contacts.

When we look at the creative content – the actual stories – the experts reiterate the importance for a screenwriter or author to think differently about their characters. An Asian character doesn’t need to have an accent, still less work in a convenience store. If the main character does have an accent, that doesn’t necessarily change the story, either.

Funding agencies

Any audiovisual content project that hopes to see the light of day generally requires funding from one or more agencies. However, projects are selected by juries and decision-making staff that frequently do not include members from diverse backgrounds.

“As soon as there really is diversification among the players around the table, it can bring different perspectives, a contextualization that can’t always be grasped by those who haven’t experienced the same realities or who don’t have the necessary sensitivity,” says Jérôme Pruneau.

Schools

Several industry players mentioned the difficulty of finding talent in our diverse population segments.

However, initiatives by professional and trade union associations such as ACTRA, with its database of performers from diverse backgrounds, and the Union des artistes (UDA), with its enhanced search engine, seek to facilitate searches for their members who represent diversity.

Despite this, Lucie Lalumière believes that a concerted effort is required in the years ahead to expand the pool of candidates from underserved communities. “The industry must work closely with academic institutions and community organizations to reach out and cultivate talent,” she says. “It’s also important to inspire young people in these communities to explore careers in the industry.”

According to Lalumière, this should begin at the primary and secondary school levels, with initiatives that allow young people to interact with industry professionals as role models.

But this mobilization must also continue during the training of these future actors in conservatories and theatre schools, so as to change certain structures within the institutions themselves.

The addition of people from diverse backgrounds on audition juries and faculty is one example.

 

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