Why diversity in Canadian sci-fi film and television still has a long way to go
Canada's obsession with all things abnormal and strange...is also pretty white
When it comes to speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, mythology and supernaturalism), we've been seeing otherworldliness on our screens for quite some time now. With shows like Lost Girl, Orphan Black, Killjoys and most recently Travelers, it's hard to ignore Canada's obsession with all things abnormal and strange.
It's not just Canada who's obsessed. For one reason or the other, we're in a resurgence of sci-fi and fantasy as shows like Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, The OA and Sense8 continue to build traction and cult followings while maintaining their popularity throughout multiple seasons.
And yet, with all this brilliant new content, we still find ourselves falling overwhelmingly short when it comes to one thing: cultural diversity.
Canuck shows Orphan Black and Killjoys, which feature female leads — one of whom is a person of colour — are prime examples of women's representation in sci-fi. But overall, Canadian television still lags significantly behind when it comes to showcasing memorable characters of colour on our screens in science fiction and fantasy.
It's not just about diversity in front of the camera, either; we need more diverse writers, directors, producers, researchers and showrunners who are able to tell stories from authentic places rather than relying on far-reaching, harmful stereotypes or ignoring race altogether.
Diversity doesn't mean tokenism, nor does it mean writing generic storylines with people of colour plugged in as aids to white leads. As former Degrassi actress Andrea Lewis once admitted about her experience on the show, "The writers and producers had no intentions of developing the storylines of [her] character unless it was to enhance the story of one of their other white characters."
This is a problem.
When it comes to creating progressive representations of people from racialized communities, we're way behind — especially in comparison to avant-garde content from the U.K. (e.g. Misfits, Black Mirror and Crazyhead).
Even Australian success Cleverman, a supernatural show about a kid who experiences superhuman possessions, features an 80% Indigenous cast and is rooted in Aboriginal mythology.
We need more diverse writers, directors, producers and showrunners who are able to tell stories from authentic places rather than relying on far-reaching, harmful stereotypes or ignoring race altogether.- Lindsey Addawoo , writer
Why is it, then, that the Canadian film and television industry cannot simply create speculative fiction content with roles for people of colour as three-dimensional characters? The answer isn't so simple. For starters, it takes a lot for a Canadian show to get greenlit in the first place. And some of our best Canadian sci-fi shows have had to rely on co-productions with American networks.
Orphan Black had a huge boost with production and visibility as a co-production between Temple Street Productions and BBC America. Killjoys was a teaming up of Space Channel (Bell Media) and Syfy, an American basic cable channel under NBCUniversal. Typically, the most compelling Canadian shows — speculative fiction or not — usually have some sort of American involvement (e.g. Motive and Rookie Blue aligned with ABC, Flashpoint being picked up by CBS and The Listener with NBC). And now we have Travelers, arguably one of the most successful Canadian science-fiction shows currently running, which is a co-production between Netflix and Showcase.
When the Writers Guild of America striked in 2007, American broadcasters were driven to look to the north for new content. For CanCon, this was great: it forced Canadian productions to look within for domestic production. Of course, these co-productions wouldn't automatically mean better or more nuanced content for people of colour — but alas, one would've hoped that with the influence of outside talent, there'd be more opportunity for diverse storytelling. Nevertheless, offspring like Flashpoint and the like would go on to feature a primarily white casts instead.
We're a country built on diverse narratives with cultural backgrounds riddled with captivating tales, mythology and folklore. To say that we're not able to draw from our organic makeup is to ignore the cultural vastness that exists inside our borders. We're able to imagine fictional lands full of orcs, hobbits, clones and cyborgs, but for some reason content creators find it difficult to fathom people of colour as major occupiers of these spaces. We've also subconsciously built and perpetuated a narrative that says speculative fiction still must still largely revolve around white casts in fictional European-esque worlds with, for some reason, fake British accents.
Growing up, I was captivated by shows like The Famous Jett Jackson (starring the late Lee Thompson Young), which served as a visual representation of what fantasy, action and supernaturalism could look like for someone like me. It's coming to the point where there's literally no excuse to not diversify our screens. Ask J.J. Abrams, whose Star Wars remake franchise was originally met with backlash over its black and female leads — but later went on to become a massive commercial success. On the opposite end, Hollywood flops like Ghost in the Shell should serve as an indication of just how important cultural authenticity and casting for speculative fiction is.
Now, with Canadian juggernauts like Orphan Black coming to a close, we've got to ask: where is speculative fiction in Canadian film and television going next?