Arts·Point of View

10 steps we can take toward a more equitable Canadian TV and film industry for BIPOC creatives

The time has come for transformational change — and BIPOC TV & Film founder Nathalie Younglai has some suggestions on where to start.

The time has come for transformational change — and Nathalie Younglai has some suggestions on where to start

Nathalie Younglai passing the mic to Lindsey Addawoo as (left to right) Floyd Kane, Brandon Oakes, and Dwain Murphy look on at a panel for the show Diggstown. (Gesilayefa Azorbo)

What's it like to be finally witnessing the Canadian TV and film industry's reckoning and their awakening with anti-Black racism and systemic racism?

In a word: exhausting.

As a non-Black and non-Indigenous Person of Colour, I need to acknowledge the privilege I hold in these conversations. Right now our inboxes are being flooded with requests for meetings, phone calls, input, seats on committees, requests for lists of writers, crew members, directors who are BIPOC. Everyone is afraid of being seen as racist — it's kinda great!

But it's been years of enduring frustration after frustration.

Hearing a showrunner say they can't find any diverse writers after they have been introduced and worked with BIPOC writers. Hearing "We don't know where to look, we don't know where to find you" — year in and year out. Scouring the trades and online job portals only to see show after show, photo after photo, of nearly all-white casts, writing rooms, crews, execs and decision-makers. Not being able to get a show greenlit without a white showrunner or senior white writers in the writing room. Walking on set, only to find fewer than five BIPOC working behind the scenes. Shows celebrated for queer representation even when none of that representation includes BIPOC, either on camera or behind the scenes.

We have had to stifle all of this frustration over the years, being told that our lead has to be white, our stories are too niche, not Canadian enough, or hear that an exec said behind closed doors that there's "enough Black" on screen. And we have to modulate and tone down the years of racism and exclusion we've experienced in the industry when we do finally have a chance to be heard.

And now that we are being listened to, the most frustrating thing is how hard it is for white people to de-centre themselves in their attempts to help, fundraise for the cause and hold themselves accountable for their pasts. We can't start with a clean slate until the past is acknowledged, addressed and redressed. I don't think white folks realize how frustrating or disrespectful it is to hear ourselves referred to as "new" or "emerging" when we've been working a long time, or how offensive it is to be told that no one has kept track of how many projects are created and controlled by BIPOC creatives because no white person cared or understood the importance of representation.

Thing is, we've been here. For years. You just haven't seen us. You just haven't spoken to us. You just haven't met with us. We're not "new." We're not only "emerging." We don't need to be trained to get to a level of "excellence," as if none of us has already received training, or reached a level of excellence, only to not be hired or promoted. We already have proven ourselves; we already have expertise. The fight to get that one credit for a BIPOC creative, with all the racism we've had to endure to get there and while working, with all the additional studying and extra work required to assimilate, behave and talk white enough...that's equivalent to at least five years of credits for a white creative.

Right now, there's an immense pressure on Black, Indigenous and People of Colour to take advantage of these new opportunities, this sudden influx of demand for BIPOC voices. Showrunners are reaching out. Agents are reaching out. Institutions are reaching out. Production companies, writers, directors, producers are reaching out. And when I say reaching out, I mean scrambling. The industry is scrambling to colour it up, and we are worried that this is just another flash in time. How can we say no when we have been struggling to be let in for so long? These are doors that were shut, locked and reinforced with scads of duct tape and metal bolts.

I am often asked by emerging BIPOC creatives what I did to keep going, to not get discouraged while working in the industry as one of the few. The real answer is that I created an organization to connect with other BIPOC creatives — but nobody should have to go to that length in order to be let into the industry.

Nathalie Younglai. (Gesilayefa Azorbo)

Take a quick look at the past 25 years in Canadian broadcasting history and ask yourselves: how many shows were created by white people and have white leads, had all-white writing rooms, were directed exclusively by white directors? How many long-running shows have BIPOC leads? BIPOC showrunners? BIPOC writing rooms? BIPOC directors?

I can't do the math, but I know the numbers are dismal. (Also, please someone more numerically inclined than me do the math!)

What if for the next five years, the only shows greenlit had Black and Indigenous leads and were created and run by Black and Indigenous showrunners? Controlled by Black and Indigenous producers and production companies? Shaped and noted by Black and Indigenous production executives, greenlit by Black and Indigenous C-suite executives and had majority Black and Indigenous writing rooms and crew? That would be just the tip of the iceberg in balancing out the history of Canadian TV for the past 25 years.

It would be transformational — revolutionary, even. But hey, we're living in a revolutionary time. And for those of us who are not top of the food chain, there are other ways we can use our circle of influence to bring about revolutionary change in the industry:

  1. Expand your circle. Make an effort to get to know more BIPOC creatives.
     
  2. Recommend BIPOC creatives to friends and acquaintances you know who are hiring. Prioritize Indigenous and Black voices.
     
  3. Sponsor a BIPOC creative on their career trajectory: invest the time to open doors, make introductions and be a resource.
     
  4. If you're in an all-white work environment, question why it is so. Make sure others know it is not acceptable in 2020.
     
  5. If there's only one BIPOC creative in your work environment, do what you can to be an ally. One BIPOC voice does not make an inclusive environment.
     
  6. Speak up when you see instances of microaggressions and racism. Educate yourself and others.
     
  7. If you're donating money to BIPOC-led organizations, make sure to de-centre yourself in the discussion and use the opportunity to highlight BIPOC creatives instead.
     
  8. When reaching out to BIPOC creatives or organizations to offer help, come with concrete suggestions that show you've given some thought to it, rather than placing the burden on BIPOC folk to do the work.
     
  9. Book an anti-oppression/unconscious bias training workshop for your work group, organization or company. This is an industry-wide learning and awakening that is taking place.
     
  10. Pay BIPOC creatives for our time. Consulting, "picking our brains," asking our advice on how to dismantle systemic racism on a TV series, on a production, at an organization — all of this is work.

We are in a time when the world is in a collective raising of consciousness, where the industry is finally acknowledging that racism and systemic racism exists, where both individuals and institutions are being called on to change. Let's keep the momentum going.

About the Author

A TV writer, director, and provocateur, Nathalie founded BIPOC TV & Film, a grassroots organization advocating meaningful representation of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in front and behind the camera. Nathalie hauled her parents to the Daytime Emmys after being nominated for her writing on Dino Dana. She's honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 CSA Humanitarian Award, the WGC Alex Barris Mentorship Award and one of NOW Magazine’s 2020 Trailblazers. She is currently working on a few projects in development and is writer/co-producer on CBC's Coroner. Black Lives Matter.

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