Broken barriers and the road ahead: Four CSA-nominated women discuss diversity in film and TV

On International Women's Day, a quartet of female CSA nominees from Kim's Convenience and Mohawk Girls consider the state of their industry.

On International Women's Day, some of Canada's top talents consider the state of their industry

Kim's Convenience and Mohawk Girls are each nominated for a handful of 2017 Canadian Screen Awards. (CBC/APTN)

Diversity at award shows — specifically in acting categories, though that's certainly not the only problem — has been a big topic since the first days of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Have we made progress since? This year's Moonlight-led Oscars win certainly suggests steps in the right direction, but even with that landmark achievement, the awards were still problematic in the lack of women being nominated outside the gender-segregated acting categories. So, given that today is International Women's Day, we decided to turn our attention to our own big awards show — this weekend's Canadian Screen Awards — and ask four prominent female nominees how they feel about the representation of gender and race at the CSAs, and in the Canadian film and television industries as a whole.

Featuring diverse creators both behind and in front of the camera, CBC's Kim's Convenience and APTN's Mohawk Girls are both competing in the writing, directing and best comedy series categories at the CSAs. We asked a quartet of women from the two series — Kim's actress Jean Yoo and producer Sandra Cunningham, and Mohawk writing/directing duo Cynthia Knight and Tracey Deer — to answer some roundtable questions for CBC Arts about progress in our country's television and film.

Jean Yoon. (CBC)

Have we broken barriers this year for diversity in Canadian film and television? The CSA nominations seem to suggest so, but that doesn't always mean as much as it seems.

Tracey Deer: Yes, some barriers have been broken this year and it's both encouraging and a relief to see our film and television landscape beginning to actually represent the diversity of experiences in this country. Growing up, I never saw myself — my people — on television or in the movies (unless it was a sweeping historical saga about how a white person interacted with us). But this year marks the largest representation of Aboriginal stories, actors and productions on the nomination lists. That is absolute proof of progress. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure this isn't an anomaly. We need to get to a point where the topic of "representing diversity" is no longer something we have to talk about because we are doing it. We are a diverse country. Our media landscape needs to reflect that reality. So, yes, barriers have been broken — but there are many more ahead that need to be demolished too.     

Asian-Canadians have reached a point of 'critical mass' as a talent pool and as an audience so that not only can we no longer be ignored, we are now ready to create.- Jean Yoon
Sandra Cunningham. (Strada Films Inc.)

Jean Yoon: We have broken barriers this year with a lovely array of very different shows that feature Asian-Canadian stories and talent. In addition to Kim's Convenience, this year we have the drama/thriller series Blood and Water from Vancouver, as well as the millennial comedy Second Jen created by Amanda Joy and Samantha Wan. In previous years, we might see a mini-series here, a mini-series there...but here in Canada we are experiencing [an] awareness from producers and broadcasters that there is a significant Asian-Canadian community. Asian-Canadians have reached a point of "critical mass" as a talent pool and as an audience so that not only can we no longer be ignored, we are now ready to create a range of original Canadian stories, television shows, stage plays and films. It's an exciting and gratifying time after decades of exclusion, under-representation and sparse opportunities.

Sandra Cunningham:  In both film and television, this year has seen big strides in who we are seeing on the screen. Series such as Kim's, Blood and Water, Mohawk Girls and Second Jen absolutely demonstrate that. One of the most rewarding aspects of Kim's is working with such a stellar cast in leading roles. Jean Yoon and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee have more than proven their metal on stage and on screen, but never has either been given the opportunity to helm a series. Likewise, discovering young actors such as Andrea Bang, Simu Liu and Andrew Phung has been a thrill. And our partners at Soulpepper Theatre Company brought the very talented Nicole Power to our attention as she had just been selected for their Academy.

Cynthia Knight (left) and Tracy Deer. (Mohawk Princess Pictures)

Even if advances are being made in front of the camera, have there also been strides regarding roles behind-the-scenes — in particular for women of visible minorities — in your experiences?

TD: As an Aboriginal woman helming a hit show as an executive producer and director, I suppose my own experience does indicate that these advances are happening. The cast of our show, Mohawk Girls, is lead by four incredible Aboriginal young women, and there are dozens of supporting roles played by Aboriginal women. Unfortunately, in the crew department, while we are proud to say that women staff half of our crew, we only have a few that are from visible minorities — but not for lack of effort on our part. I can't speak to the situation on other sets, because that data isn't readily available. It's only recently that an in-depth examination of women's representation in the industry has occurred. So collecting this data should commence immediately. I have no doubt the numbers are low and this is a barrier that should be at the top of the list for us to pulverize immediately.

JY: Behind the camera, there are still relatively few artists in virtually every aspect of production. We need more writers, producers and directors. Most Asian-Canadian directors I know have been making indie features, shorts, animation and documentary forms. A number of Asian-Canadian directors are enjoying success in independent documentary film, then slipping into reality television which supports them as they work on their next film, documentary or drama. Those trying to break into directing episodic drama and comedy are still having a much more difficult time. 

In general though, I feel that things are shifting in our Toronto film and television industry. In recent years, I have worked on several shows — The Expanse, Orphan Black, Shoot the Messenger, Private Eyes — that all featured more people of colour both in front of and behind the camera than I had grown to expect after decades of being one of a very few people of colour on set. God, I remember my first days on set. I would enter the craft truck and very loudly announce my name and my role so that everyone would know I was "talent" and not some scavenging extra to be sent off to background holding.  So often, people automatically assumed I was [an extra] because I was Asian. That doesn't happen anymore.

SC: Change is happening. We can all feel it. On Kim's we were very clear about wanting diversity behind the camera as well as in front. I'll be honest — we were more successful in below-the-line roles than we were on the director front. It became obvious to me that women just hadn't been offered the same high profile series so would naturally not have equal resumes. I am excited by season two because both in the writing room and on the director front we are pushing much harder to expand the world of Kim's and I think that will have an impact on set and on the screen. I am fortunate to be working with a team of creators, producers and a broadcaster that have made this important.
We are a diverse country. Our media landscape needs to reflect that reality. So, yes, barriers have been broken — but there are many more ahead that need to be demolished too.- Tracey Deer

What to you make of what just happened at the Oscars? I don't mean "envelope gate," but the fact that a remarkable micro-budget film about a black gay man — with a very diverse team working behind the camera —ultimately won best picture. 

SC: I must admit to my personal bias. I thought Moonlight was the most important film of the year because it achieved what all great films do: it transported us into another world and into the lives of others in a way that left us changed. The fact that is was low budget and made by a team that included an African-American writer, director and cast should give us all hope. Imagine the influence Barry Jenkins can have in the next few years. We can and should make films of the same scope and scale here in Canada.

Cynthia Knight: It's such a huge and complex issue and I have a million disparate thoughts about it. But the main one is that these are definitely heartening and encouraging developments, though I'm not yet sure what they mean. With all the attention last year about the Oscars being so white, it's highly possible that this year's marked increase in diversity in front of and behind the camera is a reaction to it, whether conscious or subconscious. Hopefully that's not the case and it's a sign of a more lasting change. Only time will tell.

JY: From an Asian perspective, well, it will be a while before Asians feel included in the Oscars. Many of my Asian friends didn't watch the Oscars at all, still put off by Chris Rock's Asian accountant jokes in 2016. That no one thought to rein Rock in on that was appalling, especially since child actors were used as props for the joke. And that was only last year...Asians at the Oscars are anomalies, and I have gotten used to noting Asian spouses in the audience, because Asian representation at the Oscars is so shockingly sparse. This year was no different. John Cho was one of the presenters this year. Were there any others? Jackie Chan got an honourary award. Other than that, there were some Asian nominations for sound editing, sound mixing, animation and documentary short.

Where do we go from here? Even if you feel progress has been made, obviously we're not close to being "there yet." How do we get there?

JY: We just keep going. One foot in front of the other. We need to keep developing writers, directors. We need producers, and we need stars. I don't particularly believe in "stardom" but I do understand that in order to sell a film or a series it helps to have recognizable talent. Personally, I feel that if you cast based on talent rather than on number of Twitter followers you'll end up with a better show, but I'm not a producer and yeah, I still don't really get Twitter...

CK:  This is an interesting question. How do we "get there" in terms of diversity in film and TV? Or is there a bigger picture that's the ultimate goal? Diversity in culture-making is important in and of itself to give people of all ilk a voice. To that end, all the steps being taken by the government and our industry regulators, funders, broadcasters and producers to increase minority representation is a wonderful thing. And the push for gender parity is particularly encouraging and exciting for me. However, it's also extremely important for us to remember that, as I recently heard Fran Lebowitz say, it is not possible for the culture to make up for the society. In other words, there may be more diversity apparent at awards shows this year but unfortunately that doesn't mean that our society's prejudices and misconceptions have disappeared or altered and, for me, that's the real challenge that we have to tackle. As such, it's of paramount importance to maintain this trend toward encouraging a multiplicity of voices not only for its own sake but because having people of different worlds, genders and ethnicities creating culture, depicting relatable, three-dimensional characters from all worlds and walks of life is a great way for audiences to see the commonalities between groups, to see the humanity and hope and flaws that unite us all.

What is really hard is that there are only ever so many seats at the table, so some people have to get up to let others have a seat.- Sandra Cunningham

SC:  I have to say that on International Women's Day in 2017 I never thought I would still be talking about the need to achieve gender parity in any profession. But there is still work to do. Of the best director nominations at the CSA's this year, only one is a woman. And women are still in a minority as showrunners in television. Let's face it: change is an involuntary muscle. I believe in Canada, to become successful at telling stories that reflect who we really are, those in charge have to invite others to be in charge. Those who make decisions need to look like the rest of the country. What is really hard is that there are only ever so many seats at the table, so some people have to get up to let others have a seat.

JY: As artists, we will continue to grow insofar as we continue to grow together, sharing our experience with our peers, working generously to advance each other's projects in whatever way we can — by paying attention and seeing the work, by applauding the success of our peers, by approaching every project with generosity and by just working damn hard. We've had a great year in television. I want to see it continue for years to come. And me, I'd like to see some Canadian films with Asians in the lead. A nice juicy well-funded Canadian film with a great big shining Asian talent in the lead. Maybe a whole bunch all together —something with Andrea Bang, Grace Lynn Kung and Sandra Oh. Super sexy, super talented ladies all in each other's faces. And maybe I could be a cranky auntie or something. Yeah, that would be sweet...

(These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

 The 2017 Canadian Screen Awards air Sunday, March 12 starting with the red carpet at 8pm local time (9pm AT/9:30 NT) on CBC TV or stream them online here starting with the red carpet at 7:30pm ET.


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.