Actors' union files grievances claiming unequal treatment of BIPOC members

A Canadian actors' union has filed grievances against two production associations, claiming unequal treatment of BIPOC performers in hair and makeup services on sets.

Hair and makeup services at the heart of problems on set, says ACTRA

From left, actors Ife Alaba, Samora Smallwood and Kevin Hanchard say they have experienced unequal treatment for hair and makeup services on set. (CBC)

A Canadian actors' union has filed grievances against two production associations, claiming unequal treatment of BIPOC performers in hair and makeup services on sets.

Eleanor Noble, national president of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists — or ACTRA — told CBC News on Thursday that its members who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour regularly show up for work on set to find hair and makeup artists who are unprepared to work on their hair or skin tones. 

"We brought this to our negotiations and in the end we decided to file a grievance. We realize there is systemic discrimination on hair and makeup, and while it's an industry issue it's also a huge societal issue," Noble said. "Being treated equally, anywhere, is a fundamental human right."

On Dec. 22, ACTRA, which represents roughly 27,000 English-language performers in television, film, radio and digital media, sent a letter to its members outlining its complaints against the Canadian Media Producers Association and the Association québécoise de la production médiatique for what it says is a violation of human rights protections. 

The letter states that during recent negotiations on the Independent Production Agreement — which governs the employment of performers in most Canadian film, television and digital media productions — the two producers' associations gave "inadequate assurances and proposals" to ensure that hair and makeup services are provided equally to all performers.

"Our negotiating team made the decision to continue our fight through the legal process of arbitration where we are arguing this systemic practice violates the human rights protections we have in Canada," says the letter.

Among other demands, ACTRA wants all hairstylists and makeup artists on productions be adequately trained to work with all performers — regardless of skin tone, facial structure or hair texture — and provide a full range of products and equipment on set.

Common experiences

Toronto actor Samora Smallwood — originally from Mount Pearl, N.L. — told CBC News hair and makeup problems on sets have been talking points among BIPOC performers for years

From actors having their wigs "pushed back" by an untrained hairstylist — clipping their hairlines far from their foreheads — to makeup artists who don't get skin tones correct, she said, BIPOC performers share common experiences. 

"I've been in that situation, where I will say, 'I think that foundation is a little too dark,' and then the makeup artist won't speak to me for the rest of the day," said Smallwood, who was co-chair of ACTRA's diversity committee.

Smallwood said BIPOC performers often don't speak up for fear of repercussions.

"I've had a makeup artist not show up on touches, and I'm standing there … and the other actors are getting their touches. There is a punishment for the actor if you do speak up." 

Smallwood says the unequal treatment of BIPOC performers on film sets has been an ongoing conversation for years. (Samora Smallwood/Instagram)

BIPOC performers often deal with a "close enough" standard when it comes to their hair and makeup, said Smallwood.

"We're still not allowed to demand or expect the perfection that other performers get to look like on screen and have everything just right," Smallwood said.

"That's the part culturally that we're shifting away from, is being happy for crumbs."

In a statement to CBC News the Canadian Media Producers Association said it's disappointed by the grievance.

Spokesperson Kyle O'Byrne said the association worked with ACTRA to issue a joint bulletin last month to outline agreed-upon practices for providing hair and makeup services for BIPOC. 

"In addition, in late 2021 we also put forward proposals related to this issue during labour negotiations with ACTRA, but found they were unwilling to meaningfully engage on this topic," he said, adding the association "remains committed" to working with the actors' union on the issue.

CBC News has asked the Association québécoise de la production médiatique for comment but did not receive a response by publication.

'Lack of willingness'

Actor Kevin Hanchard said the issues outlined in the grievances can be found on all levels of productions, from sets with the biggest budgets to the smallest independent productions in Canada and the United States. He said BIPOC performers' needs for hair and makeup have been blatantly disregarded.

"There are very unique needs and very unique processes that need to be taken in order to get BIPOC performers ready for camera and then for a performance," he said. 

"The lack of willingness of producers to accommodate those needs forces BIPOC performers to go out and at their own expense and at their own time get themselves camera-ready on their own dime."

Hanchard says there's a lack of willingness by some producers to accommodate the needs of BIPOC performers. (Kevin Hanchard/Instagram)

Every BIPOC actor has at one point had to seek hair and makeup services outside of production sets, he said, but some productions do make an effort to employ stylists who can work on BIPOC performers, and it's a relief to performers hired to work on those productions.

"We're not even asking for anything that's above and beyond. We're asking for fair and equal treatment that our Caucasian brothers and sister get when they sit in the chair," he said.

"The artists who can do the hair and makeup are out there. BIPOC people have been out there getting their hair and makeup done forever. So the idea that the producers are putting forward, saying 'we don't know how' — it's frankly lazy."

St. John's actor and musician Ife Alaba said she recently had to do her own hair for a three-day shoot for a short film on a set with a hairstylist who didn't know how to work with her braided hair.

"If you're a main character but you have other main characters who are white, you're not getting the same treatment. So that does make you feel like you're not as high calibre as your counterparts," she said. 

"It's really not that hard to get makeup artists or hairdressers who are well versed with Black hair or BIPOC artists' skin tone. I feel like it's just a matter of asking. I don't really feel like the effort is made into asking."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)

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Mike Moore


Mike Moore is a journalist who works with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. He can be reached by email at