The Sessions podcast transcription: Episode 4

This is a transcript of Episode 4 of The Sessions, presented by Playback and The Creative School. The special four-part series examines how Canada’s media industry is leaning into the global, online era with the new legislation called the Online Streaming Act, also known as Bill C-11.

This transcript is intended to increase inclusivity and accessibility, and has been edited for clarity and brevity. We’ve tried our best to accurately reflect exactly what was said on the podcast, while keeping in mind ease of reading. We encourage you to listen to the audio interview, if possible, to experience the full nuance of the conversation.

SPEAKERS: Host Irene Berkowitz; Joan Jenkinson, executive director of the Black Screen Office; and Jesse Wente, co-executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office and chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Irene Berkowitz 01:13

Hi, everyone. Welcome to The Sessions presented by Playback and The Creative School, a four-part series that unpacks history being made right now, as Canada’s media industry leans into the global online era. Listen in as key stakeholders weigh in on Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act.I’m your host, Irene Berkowitz.

In this fourth episode, we explore if, how, and how well diversity and inclusivity are encoded in Bill C-11. I’m so excited to chat with Joan Jenkinson, executive director of the Black Screen Office, and Jesse Wente, co-executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office.

Joan is a veteran TV executive. Now a partner with Artemis Pictures, she spent 14 years as vice president of Zoomer Media, five years as executive director of Women in Film and Television and was a full-time member of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System. She received the Visionary Award from Reelworld Film Festival in recognition of her work to promote diversity in the entertainment industry.

Joan was appointed in 2020 as the first executive director of the Black Screen Office. Its mission is to support the production and distribution of Canadian Black screen content around the globe and ensure Black Canadians are represented across the screen industries.

Jesse Wente is an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster, speaker, arts leader and advocate for Indigenous rights. Born and raised in Toronto, his family is from Chicago and the Serpent River First Nation, known for 24 years as a columnist for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning and 11 years with the Toronto International Film Festival.

Jesse is chair of the Canada Council for the Arts through 2025 and in 2018, was named first executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office. His many awards include Playback, our publisher, naming Jesse Trailblazer of the Year in 2020. The Indigenous Screen Office’s mission is to champion Indigenous Canadian storytellers and support their stories across all screen platforms.

Joan and Jesse, welcome, and thank you so much for being here. I’m so thrilled to meet you both.

Joan Jenkinson 03:43

I’m surprised you found all those things.

Jesse Wente 03:45

Sounds good. I’m always impressed to be with Joan.

Irene Berkowitz 03:50

Jesse, may I add that I’m listening on Audible to your 2021 book, Unreconciled with awe and tears. In addition to your gorgeous writing, I’m reconnecting to my own experience sharing a bedroom with my beloved Grandma Minnie, and stories about her nightly sobs, losing her entire family in the Holocaust, herself saved from evil by an arranged marriage.

Jesse Wente 04:15

Thank you for those beautiful words.

Irene Berkowitz 04:18

So let’s dive in with the same question I’ve asked all our guests. Joan and Jesse, would you each weigh in with your hot takes on Bill C-11?

Joan Jenkinson 04:27

We’ve recently launched our study called Being Seen: Creating Authentic and Inclusive Content. And what we’ve seen as we’ve spoken to over 400 people in focus groups across the country over the last several months is that there’s lots of choices for audiences in digital and streaming services and in the Canadian Broadcasting System. But not all audiences are satisfied with what they’re seeing.

But now there’s like a general awakening to the need for content for audiences that are created by Black creators. Shows like The Porter, which has finally been given the support by a broadcaster with enough money and marketing support that the talent of Black creators can actually shine, I see a lot of potential in that kind of support.

So, with the Online Streaming Act, I think if it gets it right, will create the landscape for a broadcasting system that can withstand technological and societal changes. And we can ensure that there’s more funding for programs like The Porter for Canadian programs that audiences really want to see.

Jesse Wente 05:38

Well, that’s a pretty good hot take, Joan, I’m not sure I can equal that. I mean, I think my hot take would be this legislation is beyond long overdue. It’s more than a generation, I think since the last time we had an update to this legislation. You know, a lot has happened in that time.

And I think certainly a part of that is the, I think, obvious need for as well as demand for stories that come from communities that traditionally haven’t had particularly good access to the Canadian broadcasting sector.

With that in mind, I think the proposed bill, which the Indigenous Screen Office fully supports, does take steps to address some of those systemic barriers that exist, particularly for our communities. It removes some qualifying language from the previous set of the bill, which perhaps well intentioned, proved to be a large long-term barrier to our growth within the sector.

Of course, there are some challenges in terms of the implementation because it still leaves a fairly wide variance for letters from the government in terms of providing direction, and it does require the CRTC to actually implement some of these changes. But I certainly think we’re optimistic at this point.

Joan and I represent specific communities that have specific desires. And I think it’s often framed that the benefits of inclusion or for my community, a little more self determination, are benefits that are reaped solely by our communities. But that misses the entire point. The benefit is actually for Canada as a whole.

Stories from these communities benefit everyone, not just us. If we think of the challenges we are currently having around social cohesion, and sense of community and belonging and togetherness, if we’d had a better or more fundamentally equitable story ecosystem for the past 30 years, maybe some of those challenges would be, I don’t want to say eliminated, but maybe lessened.

And so I think it is a very future-looking bill, in that it’s trying to help Canada get to a more mature place, while addressing systemic barriers and addressing the realities of broadcasting in 2022, which are radically different than the early 90s when the last time we saw this bill amended.

Irene Berkowitz 08:03

So do you think the recent past, not only the pandemic and the inequality of COVID death rates, the searing long-tolerated inequities that it revealed, the unspeakable horror of mass graves of Indigenous children raising murder of people of colour by state authorities, the rise as you mentioned, yet again, of white supremacy, the weaponization of hate, all of this in the last two years, do you think this finally made us act?

Because section three includes inclusivity for all diverse people and forbids discrimination on the basis of colour, race, gender, religion, LGBTQ plus ability and age? Is it a good start? Is it enough?

Jesse Wente 08:51

I think my concerns are that the bill tends to take a carrot approach to the situation in terms of offering supports. And I think that is certainly a key part of it. Where I have concerns is around the stick-end of the equation.

Will there be…I think they once called them like, conditions of licence. I think now they’re conditions of service. Will those be applied to certain measurables around the creation and exhibition of content from marginalized communities created by marginalized communities? We don’t know yet.

I think we’ve tried the carrot for at least a little while. And we haven’t seen huge results with just the carrot. And I think we understand so that there may be more measure of a stick.

To the first part of your question, sure, the last two years may bring stark relief to some of these issues. But I think we always have to be cautious. I think we frame it as well, the larger culture has suddenly decided that this should do this thing. And we erase the fact that our communities have been asking for these things to be done for generations.

And so sure, the last few years are important in that a large portion of the population who maybe had not been as aware, are maybe a little bit more aware and are acting, but the ISO exists because of 25 years of solid advocacy of people that have been doing the really hard work for a very long time.

We could have done this before. We shouldn’t need to see harm caused to actually get us to respond when our communities have been saying these things for so long.

Irene Berkowitz 10:34

Joan, that BSO’s recent press release zeroed in on this concept of systemic change. Do you think most people get what that really means? How do you define it and why is codifying this into legislation, not just regulation or policies, so important?

Joan Jenkinson 10:52

So I think the current system of funding, commissioning, and broadcasting Canadian content favours straight white, able-bodied, often male creators. They have been the gatekeepers for a very long time. And that’s what we’ve lived through as a system.

So when we talk about systemic change, we’re not talking about, you know, tweaks here and there, or one or two programs that we get excited about; we want to change the entire way that content is created, funded, commissioned and promoted. That’s what we need to do to ensure that the content reflects Canadian audiences.

If it’s systemic, it has no choice but to stick because it’s been changed. With section three of the Broadcasting Act, it already refers to the need for programming that reflects the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society. So, diversity is already codified in the law. So, we have seen that when it’s used, it can have a good effect.

But the Online Streaming Act is more specific in the wording and reflects a greater understanding of the need to ensure that all Canadians are reflected in the Canadian broadcast system. So, I think it’s a commitment. And it will be used by stakeholders like the BSO and the ISO to argue for regulatory support at the CRTC.

It’s long overdue, some parts of it have been there but hadn’t been enacted. And we’re certainly going to do everything we can to support this bill that is really going to change the landscape of the work that we do.

Jesse Wente 12:38

I really agree with what Joan said there. Do people understand systemic issues? I’m not sure they do. So I’m going to give you a quick example. But it’s going to be slightly outside the sector. I’m going to use the Crown Corporation of which I am a chair as an example, the Canada Council for the Arts, the single largest arts funding body in the country.

So, when the Canada Council was founded in 1957, after the Massey Commission, it was given this endowment and was there to promote and encourage Canadian culture. So, 1957, if you were a First Nations artist, and you wanted to apply to the Canada Council for the Arts for a grant, you had to be practising a European art form.

All Indigenous arts were ineligible for funding at the Canada Council for the Arts, they were considered primitive or craft. So, if you were a First Nations artist, you had to be a ballerina, you had to be a concert pianist, you had to be an opera singer. All art forms, of course, that are not of Canada, but are in fact imported to Canada from other places.

If you think of what that means, right, then the Canada Council for the Arts, when it was launched, was part of a tool of assimilation that the Canadian government has used, of which in the same tool bag, and I’m not equating them.

I’m just saying they are in the same tool bag, that includes residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the Indian Act, all of the various ways that the Canadian government and the state has used to dispossess Indigenous people of their land, their language, their culture, their families, their communities, and so on and so forth. So, there you have codified exclusion into a Crown Corporation that then exists.

Now you fast forward to 2017. So, 60 years later, which is when I first joined the board of the Canada Council for the Arts, and it was just about a year after they had launched the Creating, Knowing and Sharing Program, which is an Indigenous-designed arts funding program, Indigenous-administered, Indigenous led for Indigenous peoples and their style of creation.

So you begin to see some measure not of inclusion, but actually of self-determination and sovereignty, even within a Crown Corporation for a community that when that system was first created, were not only excluded, but were expected to erase their cultures in order to be assimilated into the culture.

So, I just gave you the story of how you have a system built that excludes by its very creation, it is meant to exclude, and not just to exclude, but to assimilate.

We should be asking ourselves, are they serving a different purpose in 2022? Because I think a lot of our communities would say, actually, they’re serving the exact same purpose. And so that if we don’t want that anymore, then we have to either have systems change, or we have to not have the system.

We have to build a new system entirely. And the other thing I would say is systems change is incredibly hard. Incredibly hard. These systems were not built to change. So, can you transform something that was built with that intent into something that doesn’t?

I think we’re seeing some progress. So, there’s definitely been movement. But we do need to see systems change. And I think the bill presents an opportunity to actually further that system change. And if not change the system, allow us to begin building something that serves us.

Joan Jenkinson 16:03

I’m hoping I’m seeing something different with the Broadcasting system. And I’m trying very hard to be optimistic, we happen to be at a time of heightened change. So maybe that’s going to help to move things further along.

But I think we need to be so diligent right now with this opportunity with this government and this groundswell desire to make that change that we have to do everything we can to keep our foot on the pedal to help move it forward.

Irene Berkowitz 16:36

Joan, in your panel at Prime Time, there was a deep discussion about the difference between diversity and representation. Could you weigh in on this distinction? And do you think that is or needs to be reflected in Bill C-11?

Joan Jenkinson 16:52

One of the things we spoke about a lot in the consultations was about checkbox diversity. And so, diversity is about counting how many of those people are on screen, like how many Black people are in a show, how many Asians, how many Indigenous people, but what we’re not seeing is representation, which is about characters and stories.

It’s about, you know, their complexity as individuals and in communities, we’ve said it over and over again. But as Black people were just tired of showing up as gangsters, or drug dealers, or slaves, that diversity really is nothing more than stereotypical representation.

We want authentic representation, which is why we wrote this report. It’s easy to say equity, diversity and inclusion is foundational to what we believe now. So, representation is a really emotional expression for people.

As I mentioned, we spoke to 400 people across the country. And I can’t tell you how many times people cried because they weren’t being heard, but also about how much they’ve been hurt by the poor representation, or the lack of representation that they’ve seen.

And the most passionate expression of that was parents who talked about their kids not having any role models that they can emulate. And the term “you can’t be it if you can’t see it” was a mantra that kept on coming up.

You know, I think we’re all thrilled that this conversation is happening. We think that the Online Streaming Act does talk about the needs and interests of Canadians, and that the Canadian broadcasting system should reflect these circumstances and aspirations.

However, it will be up to the CRTC to enact the policies and regulations to ensure that this happens. So, we want to have a close relationship with the CRTC as this is moving forward.

Jesse Wente 18:51

You know, I think representation is vitally important, because it means that you’re seen. When you’re unseen, it means a whole lot of things can happen to you that go unnoticed. So, I agree with Joan that you need the representation just on the baseline so that people can see themselves.

A great example is advertising, where we’ve seen a huge shift in just the people who are in ads. And I think it’s so great. I think it proves a couple of quick things, which is one, the idea that brown faces or faces that don’t look like the majority on their screen would somehow prevent people from buying whatever product. It doesn’t, it doesn’t matter at all.

So, I think it’s erasing some barriers. But of course, like that’s just sort of a very surface and very capitalist sort of way to position it. What we really need is authenticity.

And I think that another key part of representation is broadcasters, content creators to not just consider us as people they should put on screen. Consider us as people who are watching what you put on screen. Consider us as an audience who’s going to react to what you are putting out.

And if you actually think of us, not just as objects to be consumed, but as consumers, as people who are going to take this in — what will that do to what you were putting out, if you actually have to consider us as someone who’s going to watch, how you might be positioning our communities?

And then it might actually begin to dawn why it’s important to have the communities not just on screen, but in all the phases behind the screen that lead up to the onscreen part.

And that includes everything from funding bodies, to crew, to the greenlight rooms, to the executive offices, to the commissioner chairs at the CRTC, to all various points where these decisions and the stuff gets made, also require those communities to be present.

There is a huge chasm of trust there between communities that haven’t been a part of these systems, who are now suddenly asked to be a part. The streaming giants, as much as they seem a threat to the legacy players, to many of our communities.

Well, those streaming giants haven’t said no to us for 30 or 40 years. They don’t have that history of not portraying us, of exclusion of all of that. The ISO, who was among our first partners? Netflix and Amazon. Where were our partners from the private broadcasting sector in Canada? Crickets, crickets Irene. We don’t have them.

And so there might be a bigger eagerness or opportunity to build relationships faster with those organizations and broadcasters who don’t have that history. I think we also need to focus on that.

And the fact that the bill onboards those folks into our system means that that can be an avenue for our communities, where traditional broadcasters have not been an avenue for our communities.

Irene Berkowitz 21:52

Let’s shift to the storytelling part of this. Both of you, in addition to your executive positions and advocacy work are skilled storytellers. And Jesse, I was just enthralled this year at Prime Time, when you spoke about the connection between diversity and globally popular storytelling, and how will strengthening diversity strengthen Canadian storytelling on the global stage.

Joan Jenkinson 22:22

I really like the quote from your book, Irene, Mediaucracy, where you say in Israel, they say radical specificity creates radical authenticity. I love that saying because it’s so true.

And I think one of the heartbreaking things over the years has been to see Black filmmakers who made their very first feature film 13 years ago, but to great acclaim and travel the world and went to Cannes and literally waited 10 to 13 years before they got their second film made. And I’m not exaggerating.

So to be in this moment, after having gone through the trenches, I think it’s so important to people. And the talent that we’re seeing behind a show like Porter, it was always there. These people just didn’t come out of nowhere to create this spectacularly rich and beautiful, well told story.

And I think we’ll get a broader and deeper talent pool as these opportunities come up. And that will definitely increase the chances of better storytelling. We’ll always be telling stories that have never been told before, because we’ve been holding them in for such a long time.

Jesse Wente 23:38

I’ve always found it interesting that the Canadian content that the system seems so invested to create often looks like content created elsewhere. And it’s an interesting phenomenon, because I’m not sure that’s what makes you stand out in a global marketplace.

And so just speaking for, when I think of say, Anishinaabe community of which I’m a part of, or if you want to speak more broadly of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit storytelling, well there are stories that actually you can’t get anywhere else in the world, they actually only come from here.

And it’s interesting that for so long, Canadian culture systems have been sort of, their point has been to not share those and try to create something different, instead of embracing the actual storytelling that is inherent to this very place.

I think there’s a huge opportunity there to differentiate ourselves in empowering some of these communities. We have lots of evidence that just storytelling that is actually very culturally specific travels enormously well. And so, I think that is where enormous opportunity lies.

For a long time this industry pointed the audience to where we wanted it to go. That isn’t true anymore. The audience is already way ahead. And so, it’s us trying to catch up to it.

I think if we just listened a little bit more, we’d realize there’s opportunity in these stories, it’s not about forcing them in. It’s like this is actually the new phase and the new way Canada’s going to grow into itself.

Irene Berkowitz 25:11

Considering shows like the Netflix hit Bridgerton, a multiracial period drama, where race is never acknowledged, is so-called “colourblind” storytelling a goal?

Joan Jenkinson 25:23

I think that our ultimate goal is not to have a colour-blind world, but one that recognizes the differences, but doesn’t impose values on those differences.

You know, what we really need is authentic representation, where, shows like We Are Lady Parts, which shows a range of Muslim women, some Asian, some Black, some straight and gay, some different religions, that we see those people authentically represented, because we are individuals, and we do have very complicated lives and communities that we live in. And personally, I don’t want to gloss that over.

Jesse Wente 26:05

You know, the whole notion of colour blindness has been around for a very long time. And it’s actually one that in the end supports white supremacy, because there is a need for reconciliation, reparations, restoration, repair, all of those things that actually require us to see each other as we are, and not just accept.

But actually, what is required is that we love what the other is, and we celebrate what the other is. The Anishinaabe teaching would be, if you imagine you’re in a forest clearing, and you’ve asked all the creatures of the forest to come to this clearing, they all come bearing their unique gifts, their unique histories, their special talents, all of these things.

But if you were to ask all of them to climb a tree, would all of them be able to do it in the same way? Of course not. Because some are going to fly right up to the top, and some are going to go “I’m not climbing that tree ever.” And the point is to celebrate all of that, that that is all of what humanity is, and to love all of it.

Because I think we all have this ideal of organic diversity, like where it just is. But we have to understand that the systems that we’ve inherited have overlaid that organic diversity and created one that is farmed.

And if we think about how we would let a farm go back to grow [into a forest], one of the things to do would be to tear down some of the systems that have kept it and to actually allow those things to crumble, and to be reabsorbed and something new to grow in its stead.

That is the project as a globe we are undertaking as we try to understand and unpack what 500 or 600 years of European colonialism has wrought on this planet. And it in fact has sought to turn forests into farms.

And what we need to understand is we need to reforest and that will require some very difficult decisions. And the decision to let some things that we’ve invested in go away, because all they do is produce farms. And what we want is the forest.

Irene Berkowitz 28:21

This is big. We’re getting towards the end. So, with all we’ve discussed on C-11, pass or no pass, and why?

Joan Jenkinson 28:30

Yeah, I definitely think that C-11 is a very, very important step as well as the CRTC hearings to implement it. So I’m definitely for it. And I’m optimistic and believe that the efforts will definitely bear fruit.

Jesse Wente 28:39

I want it to pass, I think it will pass. And I want to celebrate the moment that we’re in now. And the promise of the moment to come because I think it’s absolutely glorious. And I think we’re getting ever closer to a moment where maybe we can truly dance together and see what comes of that.

Irene Berkowitz 29:04

Thank you, Joan and Jesse, for a remarkable conversation. Wonderful chatting with you today.

Joan Jenkinson 29:09

Thank you for the opportunity. And Jesse, you always remind me of my mother who was one of the best storytellers I’ve ever come across. She was able to tell you the most mundane thing and you’d be at the edge of your seat, and it [the story] doesn’t have an ending and the ending would be her laugh.

Jesse Wente 29:28

To be compared to any mother is an enormous compliment.

Joan Jenkinson 29:33

Anyway, I really appreciate you.

Jesse Wente 29:35

Yeah, and I have to say I’ve been called mother before but in a very different context. So, I certainly appreciate that and Irene, Miigwech for the opportunity. It’s always a pleasure to talk.

Irene Berkowitz 29:48

For previous episodes of The Sessions, transcriptions, show notes and more coverage on the Online Streaming Act, please follow the link from the Playback website. Because our mission is to inform and future proof Canadian media policy, we’d love it if you could spread the word to colleagues, friends, and on social media.

The Sessions is presented by Playback and The Creative School. Executive produced by myself, Irene Berkowitz, and Playback. Content producers are Victoria Ahearn and Kelly Townsend. Technical producers are Samantha McNulty and Ethan Geoffrey Lee. Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Irene Berkowitz. This has been The Sessions.