Arts·Point of View

Why aren't we all fuming over the CRTC cuts? Because we don't see ourselves reflected in TV and film

Fewer Canadian stories will be funded because of a CRTC decision made last month. As if the industry's lack of diversity wasn't trouble enough...

As if the industry's lack of diversity wasn't trouble enough...

A still from "Queen of Hearts," a short film by Toronto filmmakers Kyisha Williams and Lindsey Addawoo. (Jeff David King)

When I learned about the CRTC's recent decision to change their regulations for private broadcasters, I was disturbed by the relative silence on social media platforms. Despite a quick burst of outrage from music industry heavyweights last month decrying the potential loss of MuchFact as a funding source, this time there was no mass swell of anger, no rallying around a hashtag and no cries of protest. Here was a direct attack on the industry that ensures the creation of Canadian content on our small and large screens — and few seemed concerned. I quickly realized that apathy was because few outside of the film and TV industry understood the gravity of what was happening. However, it was also a reflection of an audience disconnected and disengaged from Canadian film and television content and the people who create it.

Here's a quick rundown of the decision that sparked the headlines. The CRTC was renewing the five year licenses for the big three private broadcasters in Canada who deliver much of the television we all watch: Bell, Corus and Rogers. In the renewal, the CRTC announced that they would be decreasing the minimum financial contributions these broadcasters are required to allocate to Canadian content from 9-10 per cent to just 5 per cent. The Canadian content that is supported through these contributions (a.k.a Programs of National Interest, or PNI's) includes drama, scripted series, documentaries and Canadian award shows. In addition to this roll back, the CRTC also lifted the requirement for Bell Media to make contributions to MuchFact and BravoFact, two major funding programs for the creation of music videos and short films.

We're expected time and time again to band together for the greater good of 'telling Canadian stories,' but it's hard to take when our [...] stories are constantly being ignored.- Nathalie Younglai, filmmaker

Kyisha Williams and Lindsey Addawoo are two emerging filmmakers who earlier this month received a $50,000 grant from BravoFact, one of the programs potentially on the chopping block, to produce their short film "Queen of Hearts." (Full disclosure: Addawoo regularly contributes to CBC Arts.) 

"A lot of the film industry is about connection, so when you're starting out you don't necessarily know a whole lot of folks who can make things happen for you," Williams told me over the phone. "It's kind of this self-fulfilling prophecy — we don't get opportunities to get experience, and because we don't have experience, we don't get funding. So things like BravoFact kind of level out the playing field a little bit. That's why it's so, so important [that it] continue."

Williams and Addawoo describe "Queen of Hearts" as a supernatural period film set in a dystopian version of the Victorian era. When they began pitching the project to prospective investors, one funder told them that their film was not something the industry would be interested in. "The Canadian industry as a whole is very risk-adverse," Addawoo said over the phone. "They don't want to take huge leaps of faith on projects that don't have a proven track record. That leaves no room for growth, [especially] when it comes to young creatives of colour who are looking to push the envelope of what's possible in different realms and narratives." Agreeing with Addawoo, Williams added, "When we were able to secure this grant, it really gave hope to a lot of people that look like us and experience the world as we do."

The Queen of Hearts team (L-R): Alicia DeFour, Kyisha Williams, Lindsey Addawoo. (Dahlia Katz)

In their pitch to BravoFact, Williams and Addawoo noted the fact that their project was led by black women on both sides of the camera. Diversity has been an industry buzzword in recent years. I asked Nathalie Younglai, Toronto filmmaker and founder of the Facebook group Indigenous and Creatives of Colour in TV and Film, what impact these cuts will have on diverse creators — and she was quick to remind me that opportunities within the industry have been bleak long before these recent CRTC decisions. "Reality is, even before these cuts, there was so little opportunity for Indigenous, black and creatives of colour. Systemic racism is real in the industry. Year after year, the majority of writing rooms have been all-white. Season after season, most shows were all-white casts, or had one token person of colour on screen. And how many shows had white-only directors? Now factor in these cuts...People are discouraged. We're expected time and time again to band together for the greater good of 'telling Canadian stories,' but it's hard to take when our multitude of Indigenous, black and people of colour-rooted Canadian stories are constantly being ignored — or written only by white Canadians."

Do we want to embrace and be proud of our unique Canadian culture and stories? And I don't mean only hockey.- Nathalie Younglai, filmmaker

Given these recurring patterns, no wonder the people in my timeline are unbothered. The CRTC has made cuts to an industry in which they rarely see themselves reflected. In my conversation with Addawoo and Williams, they expressed their deep frustration at the limitations of the Canadian industry. Both confessed that they have considered leaving the country for the U.S. or the U.K., where they see more openness for experimentation. Younglai believes a creative brain drain is imminent given these latest CRTC decisions. But as Williams points out, "I don't think we should have to go elsewhere in order to succeed with our craft. The idea of having to immigrate somewhere to broaden our careers is also problematic for people who look like us. It's harder for black bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies to travel the world."

Canadian creators aren't going down without a fight. In the days following the announcement, the various organizations representing Canadian content creators in film and television — the Writers Guild of Canada, the Canadian Media Producers Association, the Directors Guild of Canada and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists — announced their concern over these decisions and launched a petition to the Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly.

When I asked Younglai why the average Canadian should care about the CRTC cuts, she defined it as a question of national interest. "We need to ask ourselves: do we want more American big box stores flattening our cultural landscape into just another American city? Or do we want to embrace and be proud of our unique Canadian culture and stories? And I don't mean only hockey."