The Sessions Episode 4: Diversity, representation and the Online Streaming Act

In this fourth episode of a new podcast series, Joan Jenkinson of the Black Screen Office and Jesse Wente of the Indigenous Screen Office discuss Bill C-11's efforts to remove systemic barriers.

Playback and The Creative School at Ryerson University have partnered on The Sessions, a weekly four-part podcast series on the Online Streaming Act (Bill C-11). In Episodes 1-3, we spoke with the production industry (Canadian Media Producers Association); the regulator (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission); and the top funder (Canada Media Fund).

In Episode 4, now available to listen to below, host Irene Berkowitz speaks with Joan Jenkinson, executive director of the Black Screen Office (BSO), and Jesse Wente, co-executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) and chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation about diversity versus representation; why colour-blind storytelling is not a goal; why codifying diversity into legislation is essential to ending systemic discrimination; and why doing so will benefit all of Canada and accelerate our global success. A full transcript is also available, however we encourage you to listen to the audio interview, if possible, to experience the full nuance of the conversation.

Irene Berkowitz: Joan and Jesse, what are your hot takes on Bill C-11?

Joan Jenkinson: If we get it right, the Online Streaming Act will create a broadcasting system that can withstand technological and societal changes and ensure funding for Canadian programs like The Porter, that audiences want to see.

Jesse Wente: This legislation is long overdue. It’s often framed that the benefits of inclusion are reaped solely by our communities. That misses the point: stories from these communities benefit Canada as a whole. It’s future-looking, helping Canada get to a more mature place while addressing systemic barriers and broadcasting realities of 2022, radically different than the 1990s.

IB: BSO’s recent press release focused on systemic change. Why is codifying diversity into legislation so important?

JJ: If it’s systemic, it has no choice but to stick, because it’s been changed.

JW: I agree. I’m not sure people understand systemic. An example is Canada Council for the Arts. In 1957, if you were a First Nations artist applying, you had to be practising a European art form — of course, imported from another place.

Indigenous arts were ineligible, considered primitive or craft. C-11 presents an opportunity to bend — and, if necessary, break — assimilation systems so they serve more people.

IB: Is there a difference between diversity and representation?

JJ: Checkbox diversity is counting the number of Blacks, Asians, Indigenous people in a show. Authentic representation is about complexity of characters and stories. When we spoke to 400 people across the country, the most passionate were parents whose kids lacked role models: “You can’t be it if you can’t see it” was a mantra that kept coming up.

JW: Representation means being seen. In advertising, there’s a huge shift in the people onscreen, proving diverse faces will not prevent people from buying. Also key to representation are the decision points behind the screen: funding bodies, crew, executive offices, CRTC commissioners.

Also consider the streamers; while a threat to legacy players, they haven’t said no to us for 30 years. Who were among ISO’s first partners? Netflix and Amazon.

There’s an eagerness from our communities to explore options that don’t have a history of excluding or presenting false images of us. Onboarding those folks into our system means an avenue of representation for our communities.

IB: Will strengthening inclusion strengthen Canadian storytelling on the global stage?

JW: Canadian content often looks like content created elsewhere; I’m not sure that stands out in a global marketplace. There’s lots of evidence culturally specific storytelling travels well. The audience is way ahead; it’s us catching up.

JJ: Irene, I really like the quote from your book, Mediaucracy, about how radical specificity creates radical authenticity and universality. For example, The Porter was snapped up by BET+ in the U.S.

IB: Considering a show like Netflix’s Bridgerton, is colour-blind storytelling a utopian goal?

JW: I don’t think colour-blindness is possible. The goal is to realize the pigment of our skin is not the most different thing about us.

JJ: Not a colour-blind world. One that recognizes differences but doesn’t impose values on them.

IB: C-11: pass or no pass, and why?

JJ: C-11 is a very important step. I’m definitely for it, and optimistic the efforts will bear fruit.

JW: I want it to pass. I think it will pass. I want to celebrate the moment we’re in now and the promise of the moment to come because it’s absolutely glorious. We’re getting closer to where we can dance together.

There is a need for reconciliation, reparations, and restoration, to see each other as we are. To love all humanity and celebrate that.


Irene S. Berkowitz, Senior Policy Fellow, Audience Lab at The Creative School, is author of the 2021 book on legacy media, Mediaucracy: Why Canada hasn’t made global TV hits and how it can, and lead author of the 2019 study of new media: Watchtime Canada: How YouTube connects creators and consumers.