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In 1998, Jennifer Podemski made a wish. Already fairly famous in Canada, she found herself in New York in the middle of winter, casting around for work. Back home, the Indigenous and Jewish actor had starred in Dance Me Outside, an adaptation of a W. P. Kinsella story about a northern Ontario reserve looking for justice after a white man kills a local girl. She had been nominated for a Gemini Award for the same part in the CBC’s spinoff series The Rez. Yet Podemski still had to eke out a living as a stylist for the Hudson’s Bay catalogue. That’s how she ended up in America, going to audition after audition. But then she had an epiphany. Eight years, several films, and four series into her career, she had rarely worked under someone like her. That day, she saw the snow falling to the ground outside her apartment and said, “Creator, if you’re listening, I want to be in control.”
Pretty soon, her wish came true. In 1999, Podemski launched her own company, Big Soul Productions, alongside producer Laura Milliken. They produced North America’s first Indigenous-created and -controlled drama, Moccasin Flats—and it was a hit. Moccasin Flats won a jury award at the ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival and was nominated for three Geminis, including best dramatic series. But that was possible only because of two developments: the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) had gotten its national broadcast licence the same year Big Soul launched, and it later agreed to license the series alongside Showcase. “I would not exist without APTN,” Podemski says. “I don’t think I would have gotten my foot in the door because all I want to do is tell Native stories”—something few other networks appeared willing to do at the time. Today, APTN commissions scores of series each year, a handful of which are original scripted fare like Moccasin Flats. It was and still is one of the only networks in Canada that regularly green-lights shows led by creators of colour.
Canada’s television programming is awash in derivative procedurals, like Coroner, if not outright spinoffs of American competitions, like The Amazing Race Canada, with the exception of the odd small-town sitcom, like Letterkenny, or period piece, like Anne with an E. Anything that deviates from this formula is considered risky to an arcane industry that runs on pre-digital rules. Here, advertising is still largely based on traditional broadcast networks rather than streaming; emphasis is often placed on licensing American shows rather than building homegrown catalogues; and rules around domestic funding often impede international partnerships. Only a few production companies are able to get scripted series to air. Shaftesbury Films, for instance, has produced fifteen seasons of the Victorian-era detective series Murdoch Mysteries, the cop-and-canine procedural Hudson and Rex—one of the only scripted series on prime time at Rogers—and the missing-plane drama Departure, one of the few scripted series at Corus. And, apart from its founder, a white woman, the company’s entire board of directors consists of older white men.
As inclusion has become a bigger part of the global cultural conversation over the past few years, Canadian broadcasters have scrambled to establish diversity plans. In October 2020, the CBC, Bell, Corus, and Rogers announced that they were foundational partners in HireBIPOC, a hiring database of creators and crew who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of colour, operated by the racial-equity advocacy group BIPOC TV and Film. But, among the panoply of diversity initiatives and mentorship programs, none of the major broadcasters seemed to make a point of truly diversifying their executive suites. The same execs shuffle from corner office to corner office, hiring one another again and again, says Adam Garnet Jones, who is Cree / Métis and has spent much of his career advocating for Indigenous creators. “Because these people have track records within the industry and they understand how the system works, they’re able to continue making deeply mediocre cultural content,” says Jones, who is now the director of TV content and special events at APTN. “And it keeps all of these different voices out of the system because of the big boring middle that’s taking up space.”
Licensing shows made for American television, like Grey’s Anatomy, to air on Canadian networks costs a lot less than making original shows.
This is the real risk. Interviews with executives and advocates within Canadian film and television point to the people in power—those who use imaginary risk as an excuse not to change—as the actual risk to everyone else. They are the biggest impediment to an inclusive television industry that actually reflects Canadians. In the words of Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund (CMF), which helps finance most of the country’s domestic programming, “We don’t have a problem creatively. We have a problem with our structure that has to be blown up.”
Canadian television may look simple, but making it is incredibly complicated. According to Dwayne Winseck, director of the Global Media and Internet Concentration Project, it’s significantly cheaper to buy American than to produce domestic. In other words, licensing shows made for American television, like Grey’s Anatomy, to air on Canadian networks costs a lot less than making original shows. The next most affordable option is unscripted television, which includes local talk shows, home-improvement shows, competition shows, and reality shows. This kind of programming doesn’t require top-to-bottom invention, meaning it takes fewer resources to produce and publicize. Scripted television, meanwhile, requires original writing as well as marketing and audience building. Because it’s so difficult to make Canadian scripted television, there is plenty of support. That includes access to the CMF, money creators need if they are to have any hope of getting mainstream attention, and the ten-point content rule, which awards a score—and funding—to a project based on how many key creative functions are performed by Canadians.
Yet the Americans prevail. In the mid-to-late 2000s, internet streaming services threatened the aforementioned system: they allowed viewers to watch whatever they wanted from whichever sources they wanted, and most chose the US. Around the same time, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the regulator created to serve the interests of Canadians, allowed four companies—Bell, Shaw, Rogers, and Quebecor—to buy up smaller competitors. And, after acquiring Astral Media, Bell ended up owning more than a third of the English television market. This concentration was by design, Winseck argues: if fewer companies monopolized the industry, they would be powerful enough, with pockets deep enough, to face off against global media giants. But, instead of using all that power and money to enrich local television like they were supposed to, these companies sold out for American programs they could license for a bargain. “The regulatory framework has molly-coddled a small group of national champions in the hope that they would return the favour by pumping money into Canadian content,” explains Winseck. “And they haven’t.”
Because each of these companies had growing telecom divisions, leadership became increasingly distracted by this more lucrative side of the business. And, while they were otherwise engaged, Netflix took over Canada. The American streaming monolith now owns 51 percent of the Canadian streaming market and, according to CRTC chair and CEO Ian Scott, is “probably the single largest contributor to the production sector” making American shows on Canadian soil. While foreign shoots in Canada have increased by 180 percent over the past decade, local production has risen by only 20 percent. That means Netflix—a company that, in 2019, according to the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC), had the least diversity in the industry among its Canadian writers—has been able to virtually command Canadian audiences for a subscription of less than $20 a month. Meanwhile, domestic broadcasters have desperately tried to hold on to their licences and fill the growing holes in their catalogues.
“We have enough strong relationships that we’re not panicking,” Justin Stockman, Bell’s vice-president of content development and programming, assures me. Having said that, the leading Canadian broadcaster does not want to be as dependent on American content as it has been, says Stockman, in order to “control our own destiny a little bit more.” So far, the majority of the company’s investment seems to be in unscripted programming, and it’s easy to see why: established franchises like Canada’s Drag Race come with prepackaged audiences and promotion. “I think that, if you look at some of our competitors, they’re doing more lifestyle than we are,” Stockman counters. It’s true: Corus had only one new original scripted show in 2021 (Family Law) while Rogers didn’t have any. In an email, Troy Reeb, Corus’s executive vice-president of broadcast networks, criticizes foreign streaming companies, calling them a “threat to Canadian programming.”
Among more than seventy-five titles announced for Bell’s 2021/22 season, there were only two scripted shows that people of colour had made from scratch, Du Me a Favor by Jermaine and Trevaunn Richards and Little Bird, co-created by Podemski, both airing on its streaming service, Crave. The latter is a co-production with APTN’s streaming service, Lumi, which aligns with Stockman’s comment that partnerships “reduce our risk overall, so that we can have more Canadian programs.”
And there it is, that word: risk.
“Big, big, big, like, yellow”—Amanda Coles is miming a billboard, here, for emphasis—“The Canadian system is so much more risk averse than the US,” says Coles, a Canadian academic and senior lecturer at Deakin University, in Australia. “I think this is a massive part of the problem.” Coles recently published a report on risk and intersectional inequality in the Canadian film-and-television industry during COVID-19. The pandemic was a good pretext because everyone was openly talking about what was usually just tacitly understood: that narratives around risk play a role in decision making. Her frustration is palpable when she discusses executives regularly using “risk-proximate words” like “trust” and “familiarity” and relying on “trusted networks” that are narrowly defined. Her report, which was co-authored by Deb Verhoeven, the Canada 150 Research Chair in gender and cultural informatics, came out at the end of October 2021. “Risk narratives about equity-seeking stories and storytellers persist to preserve the status quo,” it states. Coles’s team interviewed twenty people, but the majority of the most powerful executives did not participate, and none of the most senior men did. The report argues that executives believe they’re using evidence about viewer preferences when they make decisions—but they’re not.
Broadcasters traditionally choose the kinds of programming they air based on numbers provided by Numeris, the organization that compiles ratings for Canadian radio and television using surveys and digital devices that track viewing habits in recruited households. When asked how the organization selects which households to survey, Karen McDonald, Numeris’s manager of marketing and communications, failed to adequately clarify the process. “The questions you raised would require many hours of intense training in order to grasp the intricacies of the themes presented,” she explained. I was able to grasp, however, from her last email, that approximately 450,000 individuals are part of the company’s annual survey, which says a lot already—this country’s population is eighty-five times that. With a sample size that offers no breakdown by race, Numeris’s data is too limited and lacking in detail. Only a portion of the total Canadian viewership is accounted for, and executives’ preconceived notions of what Canadians want are never disproven. As Coles’s report puts it, “Current data used by broadcasting and streaming decision-makers to inform investment decisions, based on perceived audience demand, reinforces straight white men as the core target audience.”
Nathalie Younglai, the founder of BIPOC TV and Film and the co-creator, with Simu Liu, of Hello (Again) on CBC Gem, confirms that executives use genteel euphemisms to express their preference for white content. “How is this Canadian?” executives tend to ask. “How does someone in Saskatchewan relate to this?” Stockman points out that the company’s biggest issue is a lack of regional demographics, which it is now gathering with the help of organizations like the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists, the trade union representing Canadian performers. Both the Bell Fund and the CBC also helped finance the Black Screen Office’s six-part Being Seen report, on representation in Canada’s screen industries, the last instalment of which will be released in May.
“I don’t think anyone has any idea of the cultural impact that small data set is having on the country as a whole,” says the APTN’s Jones. Coles has some idea. One of the findings that surprised her most was how much an “imagined audience” was used to justify decisions “laced with racism, sexism, homophobia.” Prioritizing white audiences based on inaccurate data results in a lack of investment in audiences of colour, which means a lack of investment in broadcasters and production companies that specialize in programming for those audiences.
The dearth of data is not limited to audiences either. Annmarie Morais and Marsha Greene epitomize how creators of colour can be tokenized by the industry. They officially met in the writers’ room for The Porter (a show about the first Black union, which was established by Canadian railway porters in the ’20s), but they had actually bumped into each other much earlier. This was in 2014, while Morais was working on the space-adventure series Killjoys and Greene was working on the medical drama Remedy. Both writers’ rooms, despite being on different networks, were in the same building, and one day, the two women ended up in the bathroom together. “Seeing another Black person in there, I was like, ‘What’s happening?’” Morais says with a laugh. While Greene had collaborated with a few other creators of colour, Morais had not. This is the norm in Canadian television—to know other creators of colour but not work with them. That proved to be an issue for Morais and Greene, the showrunners of The Porter, since they wanted to build a diverse writers’ room but couldn’t make choices based on their own experiences. “We knew of all these Black writers,” says Greene, “but we had never worked with any of them. We were always the one.”
In the past, this would have been just one more piece of anecdotal evidence that the industry is overly white. Greene is one of the reasons there’s now proof that it is. As chair of the diversity committee at the WGC—which the guild established only five years ago—Greene helped push for an annual report on race in the industry, arguing that, without data, ample testimony from marginalized creatives could be ignored.
The first report came out in April 2021, and it was bad. The WGC analyzed 280 series between 2016 and 2019 and found that 76 percent of consulting producers and 93 percent of executive producers—both of whom call the shots during production—were white. (An updated report was released last October, adding sixty-two more series that had begun production in 2020, but it showed predominantly single-digit changes, with the most significant improvement being an increase of 14 percent in entry-level story editors of colour.) This came two months before Women in View, an organization that documents women’s employment in Canadian film and television, reported that, of the 43 percent of women in key creative television roles in 2019, only 6 percent were women of colour and only 0.94 percent were Indigenous women (whose representation had in fact decreased). But the WGC thought the biggest issue was the decline in the number of scripted Canadian series: from 2014 to 2019, Bell’s number dropped 82.6 percent, Corus’s 65.1 percent, and Rogers’s 61 percent. Along with the trend toward shorter programming and smaller writers’ rooms, that meant a lot of people had been squeezed out of the industry. But, of course, not everyone was squeezed out equally.
Canadian television is a “massive privilege sieve,” says Coles. “The arts in general are filled with people who come right from middle and upper classes because they have the money and the resources to be able to do free internships,” she explains. “It’s not just the networks, right? It’s the, ‘Can you hang in there?’” Amar Wala, the founder of Scarborough Pictures and the producer of CBC Gem’s Next Stop, can’t recall ever working as a director with a nonwhite executive producer despite having been in the business for over a decade. He says the financial struggles in the first years of starting a company are sustainable only if your own personal or family wealth floats you, cultivating both your social capital and your track record, before the actual money rolls in, whether through tax credits or other investments—if it ever does roll in. “You sometimes give funding to the people who are the best at applying for funding,” says Beth Janson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, “not necessarily the people who create the best content.”
For the people of colour who make it despite all of these obstacles, success doesn’t come without its own limitations. Jones has heard many stories of powerful companies with ample resources scooping up buzzy BIPOC talent. “It’s the dream, right?” he says. “You get approached by a big fish who wants to amplify your voice.” But then that voice doesn’t do what the company wants. “The pattern is that those people who are accustomed to being in power are extremely reluctant to let go of the control that they’re accustomed to having,” says Jones. This explains why the Indigenous thriller adaptation Trickster and the Asian-fronted comedy Kim’s Convenience, both produced by the CBC, were mired in representation scandals involving white producers. Podemski is blunter. “People are very reluctant to be led by an Indigenous woman,” she says. “Especially the very experienced white men who have been doing this a long time.”
Instead, according to Coles’s report, “‘diversity’ efforts focused on adding a minimal number of ‘diverse’ people (i.e. those who are not straight white men) to meet agendas set by policy makers.” When I spoke to broad-casting executives about diversity, I heard a lot of the usual phrasing, like “listening” and “discussing,” which is appropriately deferential but always implies a sort of passivity. “We’re having the diversity conversation about what our expectations are, but we aren’t prepared to go public with that,” says Stockman from Bell. “We’re having a conversation with every single producer, and we’re really putting the pressure on each of them to ensure they’re meeting expectations.”
Regardless of the difficulty of implementing expectations, the broadcasters mostly seemed to be talking about external changes—about the way producers they hire are doling out work—rather than changes within the companies themselves. In other words, says Kadon Douglas, executive director of BIPOC TV and Film, the changes are cosmetic.
“Everybody said they did diversity,” says Coles. “The degree to which it was a tokenistic, surface-level engagement was terrifying.” You can tell the level of tokenism by asking the following questions: Are marginalized people being hired in decision making roles? Are multiple marginalized people being hired? Are they actually staying? Are they being financially supported to develop their work and then allowed to maintain ownership of it? As with the grant system, it’s a full-time job to master the numerous programs meant to ensure that marginalized creators have a chance to penetrate a seemingly impenetrable system. Not only do you have to know about them, you have to study their individual requirements. And, for underfunded, undersize creative teams, that’s added labour they don’t have time for. Douglas confirms that, when it comes to the list of diversity rules, “because it keeps shifting, it’s really hard for us to keep up.” Her colleague, Younglai, meanwhile, questions the process of having to perform your identity. “Do white people have to explain or justify how white they are?”
All of the major broadcasters have diversity programs, but as the public broadcaster, the CBC has borne the brunt of public scrutiny. While its initial 2018 diversity-and-inclusion plan involved internship and development opportunities, in 2020, the broadcaster announced that it was ramping things up and that half of all new hires for senior management and executive positions would be marginalized people. That same year, the CBC released a breakdown of its workforce: 49 percent women, 14 percent minoritized people, 3 percent people with disabilities, and 2 percent Indigenous people. (LGBTQ2+ people were conspicuously absent from the roll call.) Diversity remains a “top priority” for the CBC, Lea Marin, a director of development for drama, said in a joint interview with Trish Williams, executive director of scripted content. But some of the organization’s plans have prompted questions from creators of colour.
One of the CBC’s goals is for 30 percent of those in key decision-making roles on scripted and unscripted series to be people of colour or people living with disabilities. Wala is concerned that this might not be self-reflective enough. To handle the production of its scripted series, the CBC commissions outside companies with producers who do their own hiring. “CBC is not ultimately the one hiring writers and hiring directors. Production companies do that,” Wala explains. “So they’re putting the onus on the production company, which I think is great. But how about also putting the onus on yourself?” It would be more meaningful, Wala says, if the CBC committed to diversifying the outside producers it hires. He also wonders how the CBC came up with its numbers. Here, Williams explains that the broadcaster decided on them after two years of internal discussions. “Sometimes you can be paralyzed by indecision, and we wanted to do something that we could act on immediately and set that as a floor,” she says, noting that, after the CBC set an initiative for 50 percent of all directors of scripted television series to be women, the number they ended up with was 62 percent.
When I ask Williams and Marin what they think about the CBC shouldering the progress of the entire mainstream Canadian broadcasting industry, they simply say they are excited about their upcoming slate. And, relatively speaking, they should be. “If you see the highlights of the new stuff that’s coming out, almost everything is CBC,” says Wala. Their fall 2021 schedule had more than thirty-five original series, among them a number of new BIPOC-led shows, including The Porter, crime drama The Red (from writer Marie Clements, who has another series, Bones of Crows, forthcoming), and Kim’s Convenience alum Andrew Phung’s comedy Run the Burbs, which, along with Sort Of, a comedy about a gender-fluid millennial from Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo, just got renewed for a second season. And, on CBC Gem, there’s Liu and Younglai’s romance Hello (Again), Amanda Parris’s comedy Revenge of the Black Best Friend, and the Madison Tevlin talk show Who Do You Think I Am? This is a big deal because, the more inclusive programs you have, the less you can argue that each one is a risk. Things are no longer zero sum—one failure is only one, not the one.
The most inclusive option in mainstream Canadian television appears to be CBC Gem, the streaming arm of the public broadcaster. At the same time, it’s only three years old, and it’s still small—the CBC’s digital-subscription revenue, which includes Gem, is $13.6 million, while the CBC’s total self-generated revenue is $504 million—not to mention that Gem shows have shorter runs and shorter episodes. Wala says the budget for his series Next Stop is a fraction of one episode of a prime-time series. Less money means less of a gamble, or as Wala says, “I think it’s safer for CBC to take risks on the Gem side for sure.” Asked if the streaming service acts as a testing ground for new voices, Williams confirms. She says first-timers can get their shot there, that the audience is younger and with that comes more diversity. All of that sounds persuasive. But then you see familiar names, like Liu’s, and you start to wonder why they aren’t given prime-time spots, considering their experience. “I just don’t want people to always be told, ‘You can do the smaller thing,’” says Younglai. “‘You can do YouTube.’ Why? Why do we have to be relegated to that when we have huge, full, epic stories to tell?”
YouTube is, however, how Next Stop ended up on the CBC. The first season—vérité-esque vignettes of young Black life in the city, perhaps the most gloriously Toronto thing I have ever seen—was made independently by Jabbari Weekes, Tichaona Tapambwa, and Phil Witmer. Wala came across it because of the buzz on social media among local creators of colour. He knew the series editor, Jordan Hayles, having worked with him before. “I can’t believe someone else with an established company didn’t see these guys and go, ‘Holy shit. This is amazing,’” he says. Wala knows that creators of colour have a hard time connecting with white-run broad-casters, so he acts as a conduit where he can. He introduced the trio to then CBC Gem head Gave Lindo—who was one of the few Black execs in Canada and now works at TikTok—and the show got money for a second season. Wala has been approached by other filmmakers since the first season streamed, but Scarborough Pictures doesn’t have the capacity to take on more projects. He says this is common among BIPOC companies: significant capital is required to grow, and they don’t have ins with investors. According to the Canadian Audio–Visual Certification Office, tax credits can take around two months to come in, though Wala says it takes much longer. Banks can fill in the fallow period, but this can be difficult without major assets—which many marginalized creators don’t have.
Wala acknowledges that it’s been relatively easy for him because he’s male, straight, light-skinned, and has no accent. Besides working with Gem, he also has a documentary series coming up on the CBC. “A ‘diverse filmmaker’ like myself is seen sometimes as an asset on the documentary side,” he explains. “The problem is, it’s always in service of a production company that’s white owned.” Less-experienced creators, often writers, are matched with more-experienced peers—a process some call “pairing”—but their vision is supposed to be preserved. Think Lena Dunham making Girls with Jenni Konner: it’s still regarded as Dunham’s show, she just happened to have guidance from Konner. But who has creative control is not always so clear when a person of colour is paired with a white mentor. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you need someone in the room who has, you know, ten years of procedural experience,’” says Younglai. “Well, who was in all those rooms writing those cop shows? They’re always white. Like, basically, you’re saying you want a white person without saying you want a white person.”
The Shine Network, an online support system for Indigenous creators, was established by Podemski to counteract these systemic mentorship issues. “No Indigenous woman should be expected to work on a project where she’s the only Indigenous woman,” she says. “When you are working with an Indigenous producer, they’re able to say, ‘Well, this is why it’s that way. And I’ll help you all understand why this is being presented this way. It’s not a story problem. It’s a cultural difference.’” While none of us are purely objective, Canada has its own particular brand of national distortion. “Part of this system that we live in and the way that it’s been built is that we want to see even our characters reflected to us through the colonial lens,” Podemski explains. Just as there needs to be a shift in how we approach marginalized perspectives, there needs to be a shift in how we approach marginalized creators. With Indigenous story-telling, says Jones, that means the lines of communication should always be open. “Really fundamental is the idea of ‘nothing about us without us.’ If you’re going to tell these stories, you have to tell them in a way that acknowledges this ongoing reciprocal relationship.”
“I cannot underscore this enough,” says Coles, the Deakin University professor, “we desperately need a leadership change.” She points to boards of directors and CEOs in the television industry, and her report provides further context: “To advance an innovative industry built on foundations of equity, diverse inclusion, and belonging, the screen industry’s longstanding and widely used risk management tools and practices need to be systematically undone.” To do that, Coles’s report offers a series of recommendations that amount to one thing: data. Without data, those in power can continue to act as though accusations of prejudice were merely anecdotal. Women in View and the WGC have made some inroads, clarifying with their stats that representation alone is not sufficient—limiting marginalized people to lowly positions remains a barrier. The Racial Equity Media Collective’s November 2021 report proposed a centralized system of data collection along with government mandates around data and funding targets.
Almost all the creators and producers of colour I spoke to agreed that we need diversity mandates. “There’s a lot of pushback about mandating different aspects of diversity,” says Jones, “but it’s very clear to me that the industry is unable to police itself.” This has been proven by the sheer number of databases pointing to people of colour for hire in the industry, which marginalized creatives have felt the need to establish to encourage the industry to do better. Array Crew, a database for diverse crew launched by Ava DuVernay, just expanded to Canada. It joins a number of other local databases, including HireBIPOC, Access Reelworld, and Film in Colour.
We’re not marketing content as content; we’re marketing it as Canadian content, and I think that does a disservice to it.
In the meantime, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television is trying to help change the conversation around domestic programming’s identity. Academy CEO Janson, whose offices include a mural that reads “Canadian is not a genre,” says, “We’re not marketing content as content; we’re marketing it as Canadian content, and I think that does a disservice to it.” Several people interviewed for this story believe that, rather than this country’s shows being approached as predestined liabilities, they need to be framed as potential benefits, especially online, where younger viewers live and audiences come from everywhere. Wala wants the industry to see work from racialized communities as “a tangible asset that we can sell all over the world.” Kim’s Convenience, for example, found international success after being released on Netflix and went on to land one of its stars on The Mandalorian and another on blockbuster superhero movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As the CMF’s Creighton puts it, “It’s a global business, for God’s sake”—something the Canadian system is not fully capitalizing on.
The industry also needs to seek out young people, who are less inclined to watch old-school programming, so they know that a career in television is still an option. “I’d also like to see more internships,” Greene explains via email, “because there’s no better training for writers than to be in a writers’ room.” Multiple creators of colour also suggested more development rooms, even for shows that are not necessarily green-lit for production. “Development really helps keep writers writing and at least learning and working the muscle,” says Greene. It also keeps them employed. “So many diversity initiatives exist,” Jones says. “And you’ll hear Indigenous creators and creators of colour say, again and again and again, ‘Just hire us, we’re ready to work, we don’t need another class, we don’t need another networking event.’”
While it’s easy to be despondent about the industry, the overall feeling is not one of defeat. Change is not impossible, Janson says, “and I work in the depths of the hellfire.” The creators of colour I spoke to appeared surprisingly hopeful. “There’s so much that’s fundamentally changing about the industry,” says Jones. “It’s a great time to just knock it down and build it up.” Coles is particularly heartened by the momentum generated by racialized communities through advocacy groups representing creatives who have historically been mistreated by the industry. “I think we are seeing a level of coordinated action and commitment to systemic change that has not happened in my lifetime,” she says. Within the existing structure, the CMF has launched Persona-ID, a self-identification system that collects and stores equity-related data on the Canadian television industry. “My personal feeling is that the Canada Media Fund has been one of the best organizations when it comes to really leading these changes,” says Wala. “They’re starting to put their money where their mouth is.”
And it’s beginning to pay off. Podemski has personally experienced the effects of all this action while working on Little Bird. “I can tell you as someone seeking Indigenous talent for my own show . . . everybody is busy,” she says. “I almost look forward to reaching out and finding out someone is booked.” Little Bird started out at the CBC but eventually landed at Bell. “It was, for us, the easiest green-light you could ever give,” says Stockman. A six-part series about an Indigenous woman searching for her birth family, it started shooting in April. Podemski, who co-created the show alongside playwright Hannah Moscovitch, was herself taken from her mother for a short time during the Sixties Scoop. As for how the show got to Bell, Stockman says the process was typical: it was pitched. What was atypical was how quickly his team accepted it. Stockman describes them as “a pretty cynical group” that has “seen everything.” But Little Bird made them cry, and according to the Bell exec, “these are people who don’t cry ever.”
In the midst of fighting to keep the industry sustainable, it can be easy to forget the actual work being made. Perhaps Bell’s emotional response will be what ultimately persuades the broadcaster to invest more in scripted programming and, within that, in diversity. “All of these systems are in place to support an industry, and supporting industry generates revenue, I understand that,” says Jones. “But a big part of it is cultural. They are supposed to be supporting stories that are of deep importance and also provide entertainment to Canadians. So it’s really important for people to think about, Why does this exist? Why is the thing getting made? What kind of value is it providing?”