Canadian news headlines are in an uproar over the lack of diversity in Canada's entertainment industry – but where is the action? Our homegrown stars continue to flock south of the border to feel ‘seen’, and to make money.
Canada’s global brand is changing, with Toronto’s increasing ‘cool factor’ driving a huge slice of global pop culture through stars like Drake, Daniel Caesar and Alessia Cara. The documentary This is for Toronto highlights Canada’s seeming refusal to embrace diversity, as a core driver for why we’re losing so much Black talent to the U.S.
With Shannon Boodram, TV personality and certified sexologist as the narrator, the documentary delves into the genres of music, comedy, and sports.
The founders of Potential Films Inc, Sheldon Shaw, Johnwoo Richardson and Shawn Harris are behind the film. After years of being hired as videographers for comedy festivals, concerts and music videos all over Toronto, they felt inspired to create something about the city they know and love. The result is an urban documentary about the Greater Toronto Area from the perspective of three Black men following the style of Ice-T's 'The Art of Rap’ doc.
"Canadians are talented, but unfortunately, a lot of Canadian talent do not receive support until the U.S. co-signs them," says Sheldon Shaw, Film Producer at Potential Films Inc.
Ironically, when their film was ready for distribution, the team found more support and success south of the border than here in their home town of Toronto. They initially approached Canadian distributors, without luck. But by 2017, Potential Films Inc signed a distribution deal with Bob Johnson’s (founder of BET) company RLJ Entertainment. Only residents in the U.S were able to view the documentary on the streaming service, Urban Movie Channel. One year later, AMC bought the Urban Movie Channel and Potential Films Inc, completed the remainder of their two-year contract in 2019. The group is still seeking a Canadian distribution deal and is experiencing the same lack of support many Canadian creatives feel.
Many Canadian artists have the same sentiment, feeling as though they are unable to garner the same success as U.S artists. The recurring theme is "lack of infrastructure and platforms to support Canadian talent." Sharine Taylor, freelance writer, and winner of the ByBlacks Online Journalist award says, "The people responsible for establishing structures that support Canadian talent are not doing a good job. Urban culture, as a whole in Canada, receives the most cuts."
Canadian born actress, Chantel Riley left Canada for opportunities abroad and made her first stage debut in 2011 playing Nala in a German production of the Lion King in Hamburg. The following year she played the same character on Broadway in New York City. When explaining why she chose to seek opportunities abroad, Chantel said, "There is a ton of work at home, and the pool is smaller, but your career has a greater chance of going further in the U.S although the pool is bigger. Keep in mind, a lot of the work coming into Canada is from foreign productions."
Chantel thinks Canada as a whole has difficulties supporting their artists because a majority of Canadians, are unaware of what is happening in the Canadian entertainment industry until it blows up in the U.S. "The lack of a celebrity/star system in Canada contributes to the lack of awareness about Canadian talent. The plethora of outlets in the U.S. covering celebrities allows the stars to be seen and provides relevance for them in the media, for impending projects etc." Chantel says she’s had many conversations with fellow actors about the lack of diversity in Canadian media and noticed a gap that may be contributing to the issue. "So many Canadian magazines and print publications do not feature Canadians on their covers or in their cover stories."
This past Labour day weekend, I had the opportunity to work as a publicity associate and onsite media manager for the One Love Festival at Downsview Park. While working, I connected with Canadian singer Shalli who performed as an opening act on Dancehall night; and five-time Juno award winner Exco Levi, who headlined the Canadian night. Before the festival, I was unaware of either artist by name or face. After the festival, I remained in contact with both artists and caught up.
Shalli said, "There aren't many mainstream urban radio stations I can think of off the top of my head in Toronto, other than G98.7FM. In the U.S there are several urban radio stations in every state and in some cities, there is more than one urban radio station. A majority of the radio stations in Toronto are top 40, where music is sent to the stations directly from record labels. The radio station market in Canada is mainly dictated by what happens in America. Because of that, we haven't seen a lot of success stories come out of Canada, and that's discouraging to an artist like me."
Five-time Juno Award winner Exco Levi takes a different stance. "I think Canadian artists only finding success in the U.S is a myth. In the last ten years, there hasn't been any big reggae artist blow-up out of the U.S. Yes, I agree there is a lack of platforms and outlets for Canadian urban artists. When I release a single the only major radio station that plays my songs in Toronto is G98.7FM. More Canadian artists would be bigger if Canada focused less on copying the U.S and more on building its own infrastructures."
But do we actually even need ‘U.S. approval’ to gain success? The global village that is the Internet is opening doors to many Canadians. Sharine is hopeful for the future saying, "I suspect that within the next decade, Canadian music artists, filmmakers, actors and athletes will have more local support and gain success in Canada before the U.S. has the opportunity to give its approval.”
Perhaps it’s also time for a mindset shift. We’re in a digital world, where borders don’t limit audiences. So instead of Canadian artists feeling the “need” for approval in the U.S., artists can instead see it as a natural expansion of their audience, and a loss to those who couldn't recognize the talent in their own backyard.