Industry leaders feel ‘heard’ after National Culture Summit

Tonya Williams; Jesse Wente; Valerie Creighton
Leaders of the Reelworld Screen Institute, the Indigenous Screen Office and Canada Media Fund discuss key takeaways from the 'significant' summit in Ottawa.

A s the film and TV industry awaits what will happen with Bill C-11, several industry leaders say they’re optimistic the government is committed to strengthening the sector after the recent National Culture Summit.

Held in Ottawa earlier this month, the summit was the first of its kind with over 300 in-person attendees, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez. The summit allowed delegates to meet with politicians and featured panel discussions about the future of arts, culture and heritage in Canada.

For Tonya Williams (pictured left), founder and executive director of the Reelworld Screen Institute, the summit “sent a message to us all that the work we have all been individually doing has been noticed and valued” by the federal government, in particular the prime minister and heritage minister.

“Seeing them at the summit with many senators and staff from the Heritage offices milling around and being completely accessible to us all, we all felt heard,” Williams tells Playback Daily, noting attendees hailed from a range of arts sectors.

Jesse Wente (pictured middle), co-executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office and chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, says the summit “was significant, in no small part” because of Bill C-11, a.k.a. the Online Streaming Act. The event was also a rare chance for the whole sector to come together in one of the first major gatherings since the pandemic started, he adds.

“These events are often as valuable for the conversations that take place offstage as they are for the ones that take place onstage, and I felt this was also true of this conference,” says Wente. “While there were many great conversations programmed, it was the meeting of minds in the hallways and sidewalks that likely will energize the change we will see and need, going forward.”

Canada Media Fund president and CEO Valerie Creighton (pictured right) says the summit was a positive initiative at a time when the industry is “at a crossroads” facing myriad issues, including the effects of the pandemic as well as “the streamers’ competitive advantage in the content sector.”

Creighton also cites “the need to unlock outdated systems through legislative and regulatory change, the decrease in funding from the private sector, [and] consolidation and reduced competition from media service providers.” There are also new consumption habits as well as “the service sector outpacing the domestic content sector” and “the ongoing transformation of arts and culture through digital and social media,” she adds.

“All these issues create somewhat of a perfect storm, but it’s about how we harness the opportunities ahead. You can’t regulate change and disruption, but we can give ourselves the right tools to ensure the sector survives and thrives in the global marketplace,” says Creighton. “We can collectively discuss and debate the issues we face. We may not always agree on the specifics, but common ground to ensure recovery and growth across the sector both domestically and internationally is a starting point.”

Williams says the event addressed topics including good wages and health benefits for artists, language access, an end of appropriation “and the importance of authentic storytelling; making sure that Black, Indigenous, Asian and people of colour are the masters of their own stories.”

Other summit takeaways for Williams: that a bottom-up financial structure rather than a top/down one might be the best process for underserved communities; “that eligibility for current funds is still a barrier for most racially diverse communities”; and that there’s a need to ensure “that American [companies] coming up to Canada does not overshadow or derail our own artists and creators.”

Williams was also struck by conversations about “expanding coproduction treaties to the Caribbean islands and more African countries,” the importance of safe spaces for those who are racially diverse on a production, attracting national and international audiences for Cancon, and “that decolonization is still very much needed.”

Overall, Williams felt the summit showed the government of Canada is “committed to financially supporting the arts, especially artists and creators from historically underserved communities — including Black, Indigenous, Asian and people of colour.”

It also showed “that the definition of Canadian stories and culture has widened to include many diverse voices at the highest level,” and that data collection is vital “so that decisions could be made from real numbers and not just what we ‘think’ we should be doing,” she adds.

“The main reason we were there and the main takeaway was Bill C-11 and the importance of us to support this and get it right,” says Williams.

Wente says the event highlighted that “we need to see some sort of guaranteed basic income for people in order to allow them to pursue a career in the cultural sector.”

“This would allow people to dream bigger and create even more and it would allow grants to be used less as part of the social safety net and more to expand cultural production and sustainability,” says Wente. “Another key takeaway was that we need to reimagine the frameworks that govern cultural creation, whether that be the Massey Commission or the regulatory environment around multinational media conglomerates.”

Creighton says Rodriguez’s comments at the summit confirmed he “has the drive and understands the urgency to act.”

“Participants were grateful to be given the opportunity to take part in these discussions and, while there is always an industrial and business component to what we do, there was a focus on the importance of supporting artists and creators,” says Creighton. “Discussions were positive, constructive, and thought-provoking. It was clear we have our work cut out for us: from the Minister to agencies, funders, distributors, producers, creators and artists, we all have a key role to play and we must act in unison to succeed, and ensure our arts and cultural sector not only survives but thrives.”