Canadian TV has ‘a lot of work to do’ on diversity, say ACTRA co-chairs


TORONTO — Looking out at the Canadian television landscape, Toronto-based actresses Lisa Michelle Cornelius and Samora Smallwood see a void.

“I cannot think of a Canadian show that has shown a black family,” Cornelius said in a recent interview.

“Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, and even if you can recall one, when was that? And yet I know plenty of black families outside of my own who live in this city and around the city, all over Canada.”

Family is a big part of the lives of the two performers, yet that dynamic is often depicted onscreen as a fractured unit — if at all — said Smallwood.

“When you come into a black community or you come from a black family, that’s all it is. It’s just all about family,” she said.

“So removing the family unit or removing the black man from the family unit, I don’t know if people know how damaging that is.”

As protests against anti-black racism and police brutality emphasize the importance of amplifying BIPOC (black, Indigenous, people of colour) voices, Canada’s TV industry has “a lot of work to do,” said Cornelius, whose acting credits include “Band Ladies,” “Black Mirror” and “Star Trek: Short Treks.”

And so she and Smallwood — co-chairs of the ACTRA Toronto Diversity and Inclusion Committee — plan to moderate a meeting with up to 100 union members this Friday via video conference to help inspire change.

They want to hear particularly from BIPOC performers about their experiences, concerns, barriers to access, and ideas on what the union can do to better. ACTRA Toronto leaders will be in on the conversation.

The co-chairs stress they want participants to feel safe to speak without fear of reprisal, so they’ll only record the meeting if everyone wants that done.

They hope the rest of the industry, especially organizations that have made statements standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, will also take action to help eradicate anti-black racism in film and TV.

The situation is doubly critical amid the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, they say, noting U.S. productions that many actors heavily rely on for work here won’t return as quickly as domestic ones. So the domestic industry needs to pledge to include more performers and writers of colour.

“When the domestic production gets back on its feet, we who make a lot of our money in U.S. service production, U.S. TV shows that come shoot in Ontario, need to feel there is a place for us,” said Smallwood, founder of The Actors Work Studio whose screen credits include “Star Trek: Discovery,” “American Gods” and “The Expanse.”

The ACTRA Toronto Diversity and Inclusion Committee was founded in 1984 and helps various performers, including those who are differently abled and from the LGBTQ community.

Last week, ACTRA Toronto put out a statement saying it “strongly condemns anti-Black racism, police violence and all forms of discrimination.” It also stands “in solidarity with all those who seek to create a free, fair and truly inclusive society, here in Canada and around the world.”

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee wants to be held accountable to that statement and “do a lot of listening” to build upon the work it’s already doing, Cornelius said.

But it takes the entire industry to make a change, especially on the creators’ side, where the types of stories that are told can help shape popular culture, said the co-chairs.

“In this specific instance, it shapes how people think about black people,” said Cornelius.

“So are we only telling stories that show black people in a certain way? Are we only greenlighting the stories that show black people as victims or as aggressors? Or are we showing them as full-bodied human beings?”

Added Smallwood: “I watch TV and I’m constantly keenly aware of how many women of colour are in subservient positions, if the people of colour in the show are the butt of the joke, or are they in on it, or are they teller of the joke?”

The two stressed they love their industry, are devoted to it and feel it is doing a good job of “understanding and listening.”

“I do feel safe in a lot of spaces in this industry,” Cornelius said. “But now we need to see action.”

It’s important to have BIPOC representation from the ground-up, they said — from those greenlighting projects to the creators who can add authenticity to the project.

“How can we expect to have stories, movies, shows, skits, news that feels inclusive and uplifting if it’s from the outside in?” Smallwood said.

“If those white executives who are green-lighting projects — and those mostly white, cis(gender), male creatives, writers — are peering into the houses of people of colour, how can they hear what we say and what we feel? How do they know how my mother puts me to bed? How do they know how the food we make smells and tastes? How do we know what it feels like when a group of us are singing along in church and your heart is just about to burst?

“You can’t bring in a consultant for that and you can’t try and sprinkle colour on a script. You have to have the representation. And you see big successes in the U.S. market. I feel like Canada is just a little bit behind.”

Cornelius said she doesn’t want to continue to watch shows that don’t reflect the world we live in “and just keep playing the same narratives over and over.”

And Smallwood doesn’t want to see people of colour relegated to the margins.

“Invite us to the front of the show,” she said. “Don’t just proliferate tokenism. Don’t check a box and say, ‘We need a black show. Anybody got a black show nearby?’ Find and cultivate and develop good programming and people will watch it.”

Cornelius pointed to CBC’s “Kim’s Convenience” as a great example of representation and diversity both onscreen and off, with its look at a Korean-Canadian family in Toronto.

“Going forward, how about a show with predominantly black cast? Because we don’t have any of that,” Cornelius said.

“Or if the show is predominantly white, how many of those shows do we have that are predominantly white? Why aren’t they more reflective of the cities we live in?”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press