CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: New hiring database aims to stamp out systemic racism in Canadian film and TV

Photo source: HireBIPOC.ca

By Fiona Campbell/Quinte Arts Council

Filmmaker Chanda Chevannes is used to being the only woman of colour in a room of predominantly white men when pitching a documentary. She’s not alone.

While change is slowly being made towards increased diversity, Black, Indigenous and creative People of Colour (BIPOC) have for years faced barriers of racism and exclusion. The new HireBIPOC.ca website, an industry-wide roster of Canadian BIPOC creatives and crew working in screen-based industries, including film, television and digital, is out to challenge that.

The mandate of HireBIPOC is simple: to eradicate systemic racism in the Canadian media landscape by shifting thinking and practices around hiring, investing in the BIPOC community, and getting more BIPOC hired across all roles and education/experience levels, including production, communications, marketing, as well as media companies and art organizations.

“We’ve often heard from people in positions of power, ‘We’d love to hire more People of Colour (POC), more black filmmakers, more indigenous filmmakers or crew members – there just aren’t very many around.’ That’s been said over and over and the truth is, there are a lot of us around,” says Chevannes, a Toronto-based queer woman of colour who’s worked in documentary film for over 20 years. “Maybe part of the issue is they don’t know where to look. This database and others like it say, ‘Here, this is where you look. Come and find us, we’ve been here all along.’”

The online database launched October 5 and membership surpassed over 2,300 BIPOC creatives in the first week. But a list is just a list unless it’s used and that is why this initiative was launched by BIPOC TV & FILM, a grassroots organization and collective dedicated to increasing representation of BIPOC in front and and behind the camera, in partnership with over 20 Canadian media organizations, including Bell Media, CBC/Radio Canada, Corus Entertainment and Rogers Sports & Media, who are making the commitment toward change and action.

Addressing the issue of diversity through increased hiring is just one step. While metrics are hard to come by (though the Racial Equity Media Collective (REMC) is working to collect race-based data) it is clear that Canadian media is still predominantly white. This homogeneity means that the same stories keep being told from the same perspectives: increased diversity and representation is necessary to capture the full breadth of Canadian experience. Insuring a more inclusive and diverse workforce is critically important: what happens behind the screen informs what, and who, is seen on screen.

“Take a quick look at the past 25 years in Canadian broadcasting history and ask yourselves: how many shows were created by white people and have white leads, had all-white writing rooms, were directed exclusively by white directors? How many long-running shows have BIPOC leads? BIPOC showrunners? BIPOC writing rooms? BIPOC directors?,” writes Nathalie Younglai, founder of BIPOC

TV & FILM in a July 22, 2020 CBC column. “I can’t do the math, but I know the numbers are dismal.”

But hiring someone simply to tick the diversification box isn’t enough. There needs to be a reckoning of the realities and pervasiveness of systemic racism in Canadian TV and film.

“[Recruiters] have to know why it’s important to diversify their crew. That’s an education piece, a conversation piece, a self-reflection piece that needs to happen,” says Chevannes. “If people don’t do the deep thinking that is required around racism and white supremacy in the industry, then that tokenism can happen… I feel producers often approach this as another box to check and I don’t feel as though we are boxes to check. There needs to be a deeper conversation and reflection on what’s going on in the ways we’ve been marginalized for so long and how that’s made right, and it can’t just be by hiring two people who look like me because that’s what a funder is asking.”

She adds: “We weren’t seen as full people before. And now again we’re being seen as someone who fulfills something that needs to be fulfilled, rather than a person who has abilities and skills and is valuable for reasons other than the diversity quota they can bring.”

Even during the era of Black Lives Matter and increased awareness around racism, many white people still do not appreciate the privilege that comes with their skin colour. American psychologist Taylor Phillips has written extensively about the problems of “privilege blindness.”

“There are a lot of people who still don’t understand what the problem is in having an all white or a mostly white crew. Or telling stories of POC and not having a POC in a significant storytelling capacity,” says Chevannes. “What we’re seeing a lot of right now is white producers and directors will get an idea, they’ll want to tell a story about a community that is not theirs. And they’ll develop it, get it to the point where they’re almost ready to produce it, and someone at some point will say to them, ‘You can’t do this by yourself. You need to have buy-in from the community. You need to have someone on staff who can speak for this community.’ They look for a consultant who represents that community, but those folks are brought in way too late to make any actual change. Working with people early on is better, and hopefully resources like this database will allow people to do that.”

She adds: “Definitely our industry is less white than it’s ever been and there is more diversity happening… I think we’re moving in the right direction, but it can’t move fast enough.”

For more information, visit HireBIPOC.ca (available in English and French).