Why Is Canadian Television So White?
Canadian TV is having a major moment. Too bad it also has a major diversity problem.
When I watched Pose star Billy Porter become the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy for lead actor in a drama series last fall, his speech felt like a knock in the gut. With his signature exuberance, Porter quoted great American novelist and activist James Baldwin: “It took many years of vomiting up the filth I was taught about myself and halfway believed before I could walk around this earth like I had a right to be here.” By the time Porter looked at the camera and said, “I have the right! You have the right! We all have the right!,” I was crying. As applause roared, my first thought was, This would never happen on Canadian TV.
The past few years have ushered in a “Black renaissance” on American television, with Black artists starring in and creating more shows than ever before. Series like Atlanta, Insecure, Black-ish, Queen Sugar, Scandal, Empire, Watchmen, and Pose offer complex and varied portrayals of the Black American experience. In Canada, though, it might as well still be 1998, when there were so few Black characters on TV that I, a Black girl growing up in a predominantly white suburb, would cling to any Black character — always in a supporting role, never the star — who wasn’t a one-note stereotype. I’d write down every word Denise on Breaker High (played by Persia White) would deliver to her white classmates. Any time Emily in Student Bodies (a nerdy girl-next-door played by curly-haired actress Nicole Lyn) spoke, it was like regurgitating little bits of filth I was taught about myself through TV: that I wasn’t pretty, that I was destined for a life of crime, that I didn’t belong, or, worse, that I shouldn’t exist.
Decades later, when it comes to who’s both behind and in front of the camera, Canadian television still has not made a significant space for Black artists, nor does it adequately reflect the 22% of Canadians who are people of colour. There’s been progress, but not enough — most shows paint a monolithic, white-washed picture of this country. And it isn’t just that Canadian TV is SO WHITE, it’s that the industry seems to be turning a blind eye to the issue. For as much as we love to smugly tout cultural inclusion and diversity in this country, Canadian TV has a very real racism problem.
Critically acclaimed and internationally lauded shows like Schitt’s Creek, Workin’ Moms, Letterkenny, and Baroness Von Sketch are supposed to be indicators of a golden age of Canadian television, but feature only one or two actors of colour in one-dimensional supporting roles (Kim’s Convenience is the exception). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy most of these shows. I like Schitt’s Creek so much I’m writing weekly recaps of its final season. I also applaud its trailblazing LGBTQ characters. But, let’s be real, it’s still about a rich white family.
When it comes to primetime dramas, Diggstown and Burden of Truth are the only two with solo non-white leads (Vinessa Antoine and Kristen Kreuk, respectively). Nurses has two leads of colour of its five main cast members. But in every other primetime drama series, characters of colour are in supporting roles that prop up the white leads. The recently cancelled Anne With An E, based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved Anne Of Green Gables, came up with refreshing ways to tackle race by representing Prince Edward Island’s historically Black community and introducing an important Indigenous character, but still, it was Anne’s story. Characters who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour tend to exist in the margins — they give the appearance of diversity but they exist in white worlds and their stories are told largely by white writers.
People of colour are also lacking behind the camera. Aside from Diggstown, all of the shows I listed above have white showrunners, including Kim’s Convenience. There are few stats on representation in Canadian TV, but the ones we have are embarrassing. A study of 24 major series from Women in View noted that in 2017 only 1.8% of the writing, directing, and cinematography contracts in television went to women of colour, and that zero Indigenous women worked on these productions. There are only three people of colour in the position to greenlight shows at Canada’s major networks — all of them at the CBC.
“Laughable” is the word Diggstown star Vinessa Antoine uses to describe the state of representation in Canadian TV. Antoine, who’s from Toronto, says the absence of leading roles for people of colour in Canada has been a constant factor in her decades-long career and a major topic of conversation among her peers. “Nobody's in the fetal position crying about it or having big boo-hoo,” she says. “We’re very used to it at this point.” It’s an all-too-familiar glimpse of being a Black woman in a white workplace: There’s no time for tears or self-pity. There’s only room to put your head down, go to work, and laugh at the inevitable setbacks. With her role on CBC’s legal drama Diggstown, Antoine became the first Black actress to star as a lead in a Canadian primetime drama. She took an optimistic view of that fact when asked about it in early interviews promoting the show, but says she wasn’t being entirely honest. “In my gut, I was embarrassed,” she says. “I am so proud to be Canadian, and so happy to talk about its multiculturalism, but also, I shouldn’t be the first.”
Like Antoine, who starred in General Hospital and is currently filming a show in L.A., some of Canada’s brightest actors of colour are excelling in the U.S. Golden Globe nominee Stephan James, his brother Shamier Anderson (Endings Beginnings, Destroyer), American Gods’ star Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, and Waves breakout Taylor Russell are just a few of the names Canada has lost to its acting brain drain. There are also many examples of writers who hit their stride once they shed the constraints of Canadian TV. Trey Anthony, who became the first Black woman in Canada with her own sitcom, Da Kink In My Hair, is now living in Atlanta writing for shows on OWN. When I interviewed James in 2018 about starring in the Oscar-nominated film If Beale Street Could Talk, he told me he grew up in Scarborough, ON, believing he wouldn’t succeed if he stayed in Canada: “I looked to find examples of Black actors who had done what I wanted to do, and I could never find examples.”
Diggstown creator, writer, and showrunner Floyd Kane agrees that James is better off in Hollywood. He tells me a story about trying to pitch a project to Canadian executives with James as its lead in 2016 — after the actor had done big studio films like Selma and Race. “It was shocking to me the blank stares that I would get from distributors,” he says. “If this were a young white actor who had this level of experience at his age, people would be clamouring over themselves to put him in [a series].”
I looked to find examples of Black actors who had done what I wanted to do, and I could never find examples.
It’s no surprise that Kane, a Black man, was the one pushing a young Black actor as his star. We know that more diversity behind the scenes translates to more diverse stories onscreen. And we desperately need those stories, considering half of Gen Z Canadians say diversity onscreen doesn’t reflect modern audiences, according to a recent study from Refinery29’s parent company, Vice Media Group. While many networks now have “inclusion officers” and programs to promote diversity, these initiatives tend to benefit white women. After gender parity initiatives were implemented by the CBC and Telefilm in 2016, the number of women directors in Canadian film and TV increased by 11%, but the vast majority of those women — about 98% — are white, according to Women in View. The result has been a slew of successful shows that feature female narratives, such as Baroness Von Sketch and Workin’ Moms, but ones that centre around the stories and perspectives of white women. (To its credit, Baroness Von Sketch often pokes fun at the fact that its leads are four middle-aged white ladies.)
When white women are considered part of a company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, people of colour are often left behind. It sounds good when Corus says its “scripted content focuses heavily on women and diverse characters,” or Bell Media says its originals team includes “POC, women, and LGBTQ team members,” with “72% of the team identifying as one or more of these groups,” as they did in statements, but when you break it down, it means that white women are markers of these networks’ push towards inclusion.
“Gender parity isn’t diversity,” says screenwriter Gillian Müller, a senior committee member of BIPOC TV & Film, which recently launched Film in Colour, a database of Canadian filmmakers who identify as visible minorities, to combat the myth that there isn’t enough diverse talent here. Müller cites major barriers for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in the industry, including the culture of discrimination and exclusion that prevents progress. “There's a difference between performative diversity and actually allowing folks to have a real seat at the table to be included in the decision-making process,” she says.
Gender parity isn’t diversity.
gillian müller, screenwriter
That’s a culture I know well from working for a decade in the unscripted Canadian TV world. (Full disclosure: I worked for Bell Media for nine years and am still a freelance producer there.) Early in my career, I was almost always the only Black woman in the room and consistently had to fight for inclusive content and the same opportunities as my white counterparts. Being the exception is tough. I was so grateful to be working in my dream industry and in spaces that were typically reserved for people who didn’t look like me. I would think, Doesn’t my success prove things are changing? But change happens when there isn’t one, but many — and when being Black in Canadian TV isn’t exceptional, but ordinary.
The scripted world is no different, according to Diggstown’s Kane. “I can count the number of Black writers working in Canada on probably two hands,” Kane says. “I don’t think this is being driven by malice, I think it’s just driven by nepotism, patronage, cronyism, and economic protectionism, and that’s how it works. It’s not villainy — it’s systemic racism that people don't really acknowledge. It’s what we now call unconscious bias.”
“It’s very difficult for diverse filmmakers [and TV creators] to get a first chance, let alone a second chance in this country,” says Jennifer Holness, writer, producer, and president of Hungry Eyes Media, the Toronto production company behind BBC comedy She’s The Mayor and CBC drama Guns. Holness, who started Hungry Eyes because white executives wouldn’t hire her, recalls when Shoot The Messenger, a show she created with her husband, Sudz Sutherland (a Black writer, director, and producer), was cancelled in 2016 after one season while three other shows by white showrunners were given a second season despite having lower ratings. (CBC disputes this claim and says the renewed shows did have higher ratings.) Holness says that the industry is small and stacked with white executives who love to hire their (also white) friends. “Even if you have a bad show, the nepotism is so great that your shows get produced again and again and you’re given a much greater chance at success than people of colour,” she says of white creators/writers. “I’m surprised [Diggstown] got a second season.”
Things are also challenging for Indigenous actors, writers, and producers, with APTN being the only network in this country where you find a plethora of nuanced Indigenous stories. In 2017, a report from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission found that on Canadian networks, “There was a widespread impression that depictions of Indigenous peoples tend to be stereotypical (e.g. depicted as poor, alcoholic, sniffing glue or gas).”
Outside of APTN, Rogers’ specialty channel, OMNI, is where you’ll find original multicultural programming (though none starring or created by Black Canadians), including Blood and Water, in Cantonese and English; Mangoes: A Slice of Life, in Punjabi and Hindi; and Second Jen, about two Asian second-generation millennials. It says something that this diversity is found not on mainstream networks but on lesser-rated specialty channels that don’t get as much of a national promotional push. The shows that you do see on billboards and at bus stops offer up a singular view of Canadian taste. No wonder so many of us turn to American content.
Change happens when there isn’t one, but many — and when being Black in Canadian TV isn’t exceptional, but ordinary.
I know the U.S. industry is bigger and has more money, and that our talent is always going to find more opportunities there. And maybe we are years — heck, at this rate, decades — away from our own Black TV renaissance or from mainstream shows being as multicultural as this country is, but Canadian broadcasters need to be held accountable. In the U.S., when the Emmys or Golden Globes refuse to acknowledge artists of colour in television, outrage is expressed in hashtags and viral campaigns. Here, the Canadian Screen Awards consistently ignore talent of colour (last year, all the major TV acting category winners were white), and there’s no uproar. But that seems to be the Canadian way: We pretend racism doesn’t exist here. It’s ignorance masquerading as decorum. Part of the problem is that Canadian mainstream media has its own glaring diversity problem. There are a few writers of colour putting in the work, such as CBC’s Amanda Parris, who just launched a column about Black art, which also includes American work (because, if I had to guess, the Canadian pickings are so slim).
There are glimmers of hope, like Diggstown. “I think the fact that Black people are seeing themselves on CBC in this way is sending a message that the door has opened for us,” says Kane. “It’s about the person who is sitting at home with their Black female cop show or Black male firefighter drama who will go, ‘Oh, I’ll go pitch it to CBC because they did that show and there’s a likelihood they’ll do mine.’”
When reached for comment, Bell, CBC, and Corus all proclaimed a commitment to diversity (the phrase “commitment to diversity” was echoed almost verbatim in their statements) and listed current and upcoming shows as examples. Bell Media cited the forthcoming original drama Transplant, about an ER doctor who is a Syrian refugee (played by Pakistani-Canadian actor Hamza Haq). It also called-out the “female-driven” show New Eden, which is directed by a woman of colour, Aleysa Young, but stars two white actresses. Corus plugged Departure, starring Archie Punjabi (best known as Kalinda on The Good Wife) and newly greenlit drama Family Law, whose cast is not yet announced. Bell Media and CBC both acknowledged that there was more “work to be done,” while Rogers did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year CBC/Radio-Canada announced at least one of the key creative positions (producer, director, writer, showrunner, or lead performer) in all English and French-language programs will be held by “someone with a diverse background.” One. CBC is the network with the most scripted shows featuring leads of colour, like new sketch comedy series called Tall Boyz and sitcom Bit Playas, about two actors of colour (played by Kris Siddiqi and Nigel Downer) struggling to deal with the “soft racism” in the entertainment world. Ironic. CBC’s streaming service, Gem, just announced that Utopia Falls, a sci-fi hip-hop YA series, will debut in February. It stars Robyn Alomar and Akiel Julien and is created by R.T. Thorne, a prolific Toronto-based music video director. “You don’t really get to see your people in the future, and when you do, they’re somebody’s sidekick,” Thorne told NOW Toronto of the series. “I really wanted to see what my culture could be in the future.”
Of course, I have yet to see the upcoming shows that allegedly will change the face of scripted television in Canada, but I hope they are nuanced, authentic portrayals of Canadians who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. I hope they are everything we’ve been waiting for. I grew up without seeing my culture on Canadian TV. And unless the industry takes real steps to make room for more diverse stories, the future will be just as bleak.