Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler on why the franchise resonates with so many

Degrassi franchise co-creator Linda Schuyler talks about the inspiration behind the beloved Canadian series, the difficult subjects and whether she's ready for more.

If kids are talking about it 'we must not be afraid to talk about those topics,' Schuyler says

Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler talked all things Degrassi with The Morning Edition's guest host Julianne Hazlewood. (Epitome Pictures)

The Degrassi franchise is known around the world, but is particularly special to Canadians who grew up with the series.

This week, co-creator of the franchise Linda Schuyler gave two talks at the Brantford campus of Wilfrid Laurier University. 

She also sat down with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition guest-host Julianne Hazlewood to talk all things Degrassi.

You can also listen to the full interview below.

Julianne Hazlewood: I understand that Degrassi is inspired by your time growing up in Paris, but also your time as a junior high school teacher. Tell us about that experience and how it led you to creating your first Degrassi series.

Linda Schuyler: Well certainly my personal formative years were spent right here in Paris, Ont., attending Paris District High School, which still is here today. 

Then very importantly, my first professional job was as a junior high school teacher. I taught for four years in London and then for four years in Toronto. And it was moving to Toronto that really opened my eyes, because I faced a classroom of young people who, there was a ray of diversity I'd never seen before: skin colour, ethnic backgrounds, religion, language.

It was very interesting for me because we had moved to Paris, Ont., in the 1950s as immigrants from England and I used to get teased by a lot of my buddies because of my English accent and the clothes I wore.

And as a school teacher I looked at this class with all its diversity and I thought, 'oh my goodness, if I felt like an outsider being a white girl and speaking English, how are these kids coping with being Canadian during the day and going home to old world attitudes at night?'

And that was a really pivotal experience for me and it actually inspired my very first documentary Between Two Worlds, which I made while I was still a junior high school teacher.

JH: That's quite a turn from working as a junior high school teacher to producing documentaries and going on to produce Degrassi. How did you make that pivot?

LS: I had been studying whatever film courses I could in university, and in those days, we're talking like the early 1970s, and there was not a degree of choice that you have today. 

So I was only able to pick up two or three film courses, but I was very interested and, as a teacher, you get your glorious summer off. So I was making a lot of documentaries and a little short films just on my own for my own pleasure. 

So that combination with my love of education was what got me going with Between Two Worlds. But then there was an added impetus and that was, I couldn't find any good materials like films that I could share with my class. There was really good programs out there for preschool and of course for adults. But there was nothing that really captured a teenage voice.

And I used to complain to the board of education like 'where are these materials? My young people need relevant materials.' And finally it was a combination of that, 'Oh my goodness we need these materials. I love kids. I love film. Let's put it all together.'

JH: I think back to growing up we actually watched Degrassi films on reel, like at our Friday assemblies, and then I watched it on my own as well. What was it like to really see the show take off and resonate? Was there a point where you realized, wow this is really breaking through?

LS: That was a slow realisation because the mandate had never been to produce a show that would eventually travel across the world and have fans from all corners of the earth.

It really was to just try and be authentic and as realistic as possible to the teenage voice.

I don't even have an 'a ha' moment when we broke through. We did Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High up until about the 1990s and then I took a break from it for a bit. 

And the interesting thing that happened: Degrassi never went off air. CBC stripped it and we got a whole new generation of audience and that got me thinking, 'Oh my goodness, maybe we do have a little bit of magic here.' And that's what eventually led to the development of Degrassi: The Next Generation when we came back.

Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyer (third from left) stands with Laurier history students (from left) Tyler Britz, Steve Parr, Lillia Dockree, Jeffrey Sit and Kaylin Steckly. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

JH: And I think it's fair to say part of the magic is the issues that you tackled. I think Degrassi has a reputation for really talking about capturing the issues that teens deal with. So how did you decide what to cover on the show?

LS: Well, basically our feeling is that, if the kids are talking about it in the schoolyard, if they're talking about at the malls, if you're talking about it now on social media, we must not be afraid to talk about those topics. 

But it's how we talk about the topics that's important. And what I like to say is our job is not to over sensationalize these topics. Doesn't matter if we're talking about abortion or gay rights or whatever we're talking about. Our job is not to make choices for young people. It's to give them information to make their own choices. 

And it's not to sensationalize the story, so we're not sort of blowing it up but also not to trivialize it. 

We don't want to say to young people, 'Oh don't worry, you'll get over it.' So it's that matter of being bold with our subject matter, taking on anything that we feel is relevant for the time, but treating it with sensitivity and always treating it from the viewpoint of our young protagonist.

JH: Were there any times where you couldn't talk about something that you wanted to on the show or times you wish you had left out an issue? Something you regret?

LS: I think the answer, in the long run, is no to both of those. 

I can tell you that abortion is, of course, one of the big lightning rod subjects and both times when we did an episode on abortion our American broadcaster either made changes to it or delayed the broadcast because it's an incredibly touchy subject south of the border. 

And the other topic which, again, I only did twice and again needed incredible sensitivity, was the topic of suicide because there's such a big fear of your audience then picking up on it and that having a copycat effect. 

So we had to be incredibly sensible and do a lot of due diligence when we were telling those stories as well.

JH: Are we going to see even more iterations of Degrassi. What's next?

LS: Well if I had my way the mantra would be 'Degrassi forever.' I'm game.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Listen to the full interview with Linda Schuyler:

Take a look back at the Degrassi theme songs: