Canada's diversity not reflected on the silver screen, say actors, screenwriters of colour

A McGill University study found nonwhite actors are disproportionately underrepresented in Hollywood films — a phenomenon also seen in Canada, according to industry professionals.

McGill study says nonwhite actors are underrepresented in Hollywood. Racial minorities say it's no better here

A man views the Hollywood sign from a walkway. at a Hollywood shopping mall on October 16, 2017 in Hollywood, California (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Mariah Inger couldn't believe she was in this position.

It was 2005. She was on a movie set, coaching another actress who was painfully struggling to get through a scene.

Montreal-based actress Mariah Ingers has been in the industry for more than 30 years (Submitted by Mariah Ingers)

Inger herself had auditioned for the actress's role but was given a bit part as a secretary.

Inger wondered why the casting director didn't just hire her for the bigger role in the first place — until it dawned on her: the actress had blue eyes and blond hair. Ingers, whose parents are from Norway and Barbados, simply did not fit the Hollywood mould.

Thirteen years later, Ingers says, little has changed.

People of colour are underrepresented in Hollywood films, according to a new McGill University study. The study, called Racial Lines, found not only are they less visible on screen, they also speak much less frequently. 

The study, produced by students at McGill's cultural analysis lab, .txtLab, analyzed 780 films from 1970 to 2018.

It found white actors are three times more likely to appear as characters in movies than their population size in the U.S. would predict.

Toronto actress Sedina Fiati says that after 10 years in the film industry, she's not surprised by the study's results. (Submitted by Sedina Fiati)

The findings are even more stark when it comes to speaking parts: White actors are just over three and a half times more likely to speak than their population size would predict, leading to the underrepresentation of all other groups.

The study also found that two leading roles are 111 times more likely to go to white actors than to visible minority actors.

For Ingers, as well as other Canadian actors of colour, the findings come as no surprise.

"As a woman of African descent, I don't see a lot of women — a lot of black women — in leading roles," says Sedina Fiati, who co-chairs ACTRA's national diversity committee.

'Why are we not represented?'

The McGill study only looked at Hollywood films.

However, Li Li, a Montreal actress of Asian descent, says Canada's diversity is not reflected much better on the silver screen.

Montreal actress Li Li says seeing diversity in theatre encouraged her to pursue a career in acting. (Submitted by Sedina Fiati)

She points out that in Canada, the film and television industry gets a lot of government funding.

"This is taxpayers' money," Li says. "As immigrants, as people of colour, we're paying for this, so why are we not represented?" 

"I wish they had done their study on Canadian TV," echoes Nathalie Younglai, a film writer of Asian descent. "Those numbers are dire."

Writer and producer Nathalie Younglai created BIPOC TV & Film, an organization designed to support black, Indigenous, and other people of colour in the film and TV industries. (Submitted by Nathalie Younglai)

Younglai, who founded an organization to support black, Indigenous and people of colour in Canada's TV and film industry, says she does feel things are getting steadily better.

"I think the industry is in a time of flux," she says. "We can either embrace it, or we can drag our heels and try to stay in the 1980s."

Being part of the change

Martin Edralin, of Filipino descent, is one young film writer and producer who is part of the change.

Edralin said it was a wake-up call for him to discover that he is writing mainly for white people, because others are missing from the screen.

Edralin, a participant in The Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) prestigious Writers' Studio program, says the consequence of missing some of those diverse voices is a cultural erasure, of sorts.

FIlmmaker Martin Edralin emphasizes that lack of diversity onscreen translates into a loss of diverse cultures. (Submitted by Martin Edralin)

"Even in a multicultural city like Toronto, it's so multicultural, and we're still seeing a majority of white stories," says Edralin. "With the loss of culture and languages, it's also a loss of ideas and ways of life."

Edralin is now working on feature films which take place partly in Canada and partly in the Philippines, and he's casting Filipinos.

Need for 'more digging and self-reflection'

Beth Janson, the CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, says that the Canadian industry needs to do "a lot more digging and self-reflection" to figure out why actors of colour are excluded.

"As Canadians, we have this narrative of ourselves that is very much about a cultural mosaic," Janson says,  "I think sometimes, it's hard to admit, actually, that's not the experience for everyone, you know?"

Janson said there is a difference between diversity as inclusion and diversity as token representation.

Diversity as inclusion means that people of all backgrounds and races are not only in the picture, they're also listened to.

Or, as diversity advocate Vernā Myers puts it: "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance." 


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited Nathalie Younglai. It initially contained the following sentence. "[Younglai] says she has struggled in writers' rooms, often dominated by white men." In fact, she said she hasn't personally experienced writing rooms that are dominated by white males, but she also said that does characterize the industry norm.
    Jul 20, 2018 8:17 AM ET


Jennifer Yoon


Jennifer Yoon is a journalist at CBC Montreal.