BIPOC TV & Film panel breaks silence on discrimination in Canadian TV

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The panel, which is the first of two planned discussions, tackled the complicated issues around reporting discrimination when it comes to creative decisions and microaggressions.

A s the one-year anniversary of the global Black Lives Matter protests approaches, the veil of silence on the industry practices upholding systemic racism in Canadian film and TV is beginning to lift.

While industry organizations have been vocal about support for Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) colleagues in the months since, those currently working in Canadian TV aren’t necessarily seeing results with industry gatekeepers.

“I’ve yet to see the reckoning happen from within,” said Coroner writer and executive producer Noelle Carbone during BIPOC TV & Film’s Meanwhile in Canadian TV panel and town hall on Wednesday (May 5). “Every time change has been made it’s been because someone in a vulnerable position came forward… then there’s a groundswell of voices of people on social media outside of that room or that show saying it’s unacceptable.”

The panel and town hall was created to give BIPOC, disabled and LGBTQ+ members of the industry a safe space to break their silence on exclusionary practices.  It was moderated by Radheyan Simonpillai, NOW Magazine film critic and culture editor, with panelists Carbone; Deaf performing artist Natasha Bacchus (21 Black Futures); Rainy Storm Productions co-CEO and Playback 10 to Watch alum Ryan Cooper; Overlord and the Underwoods creator and showrunner Anthony Q. Farrell, and JANN writer JP Larocque. BIPOC TV & Film plans to hold another conversation in early June.

The panel was created in the aftermath of reports from NOW Magazine that U.S. channel BYUtv censored the inclusion of queer characters in the sitcoms The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker (marblemedia). While BYUtv has since changed its course on the decision, it opened a wider discussion on the closed-door conversations in writer’s rooms and network executive email chains.

Part of the problem is that vulnerable industry members often feel too afraid to report issues to their respective unions or guilds. Cooper said they felt “terrified” to report instances of racist discrimination against him as an Indigenous person on set. “If I go to them, will they protect me or will they just slide it under the rug? I was the only person of colour in those productions.”

Warren P. Sonoda, president of DGC National, tells Playback Daily that the guild is “working hard to gain trust” with marginalized community members. “It’s up to us, the industry stakeholders, to make people empowered to come forward,” he says. “We have to build trust on these specific issues with specific communities, with individuals and our members, and that’s something I’m personally deeply committed to.”

Union and guild members do have reporting options available to them, either to their local district council or to the HAVEN hotline, which is available to members of ACTRA (excluding UBCP/ACTRA), the DGC and the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. However, when it comes to incidents of racism and homophobia, they’re often at the level of microaggressions, where unions are unable to take action in the same way as when a member is fired or harassed.

One instance Carbone shared during the panel was where a network executive requested a Black character be rewritten as white because they “already had Black stories.” Bacchus also shared that even in 2021 Deaf roles are being given to non-Deaf actors, further diminishing opportunities for performers with disabilities.

“[The WGC] can’t do anything if a network exec says, ‘don’t put BIPOC people on TV,”’ said Carbone, who is a member of the guild’s diversity committee alongside Larocque and Farrell. “That’s not their purview; they’re not the arbiter of creative decisions from the network. It comes down to who are the gatekeepers and what [is] their value system.”

It’s an issue that the actors’ unions have to contend with as well.

“Casting decisions are subjective, artistic decisions. With few objective standards to go by, it is very difficult to demonstrate that a performer is being excluded from the workplace as a reprisal for whistleblowing, organizing or simply refusing to be bullied or harassed,” ACTRA Toronto president David Gale tells Playback Daily. “The union recognizes and acknowledges that performers’ fears about reprisal are grounded in fact.”

Another part of the problem is the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), according to Farrell, who said that a certain percentage of producers abuse them to force writers and crew members to stay silent on their behaviour on set. “You should only be signing an NDA to keep the content secret, not the behaviour,” said Farrell, adding that while entertainment lawyers can help workers negotiate what they do or don’t agree to, lower level workers generally don’t have that access.

On the guild and union level, Sonoda says they’re working to create safe spaces on set and enable members to call out co-workers on discriminatory behaviours. He and VP Tracey Deer are working with R.T. Thorne, chair of the BIPOC Members Committee at the DGC, to build initiatives that will support marginalized members in the long-term. “We want to see it not only happen, but to sustain it and to grow it,” he says. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”

One of the solutions Farrell shared during the panel was giving more BIPOC writers opportunities to rise in the ranks to the showrunner level, where they’ll have more decision-making power to push back at the networks. Carbone added that a number of veteran showrunners in Canadian TV are pushing back as well, but not all of them.

Cooper is among the emerging producers and creators that won’t be silent on set anymore. “We have to fight; we have to argue and tell them that they’re wrong,” they said. “We have to band together because if we do they won’t be able to stop us.”

Carbone added that while being the sole voice in the room speaking against discriminatory practices and behaviours can be risky for junior writers, staying the course is oftentimes necessary. “There is something about staying in the fight that I think is important, because when you leave, in my experience, there will be a straight white guy who will take your place without any qualms about doing it,” she said.

At the end of the day, however, change can’t solely come from below the line.

“It requires diversifying the funders, it requires diversifying the networks, on all levels of the industry,” said Larocque. “[We need] people who fully understand the need for inclusion in storytelling and who are not looking to tokenize or tick a box, people who want television that’s representative of the way [the country] looks.”

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