04/29/2016 09:08 EDT | Updated 04/30/2017 05:12 EDT

The Canadian Entertainment Industry Needs To Address Diversity

Andrew Chin via Getty Images
VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 04: Actor Lorne Cardinal attends the screening of 'If I Had Wings' at Reel 2 Real Film Festival at Vancity Theatre on April 4, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Andrew Chin/Getty Images)

As a young theatre student, Lorne Cardinal dreamed of performing Shakespearean plays at Ontario's internationally-renowned Stratford Festival. An older actor chuckled at his ambition. Didn't Cardinal know indigenous actors like himself never got roles for non-aboriginal characters?

"He was right. For years I was only ever asked to do parts for Native people. I didn't get to be King Lear," says Cardinal.

Canadians know Cardinal as the amiable Sergeant Davis Quinton from the wildly popular TV comedy Corner Gas. The first aboriginal graduate of the University of Alberta's theatre arts program, Cardinal has spent 25 years struggling with the lack of diversity in Canada's entertainment industry. Working as both actor and director, he has strived to show indigenous faces on Canadian stages and screens.

Debate about diversity in the arts ignited again in February, when the Academy Awards faced a massive backlash for its lack of non-white nominees. Yet the #OscarsSoWhite controversy faded almost as fast as it arose. And few in Canada noticed when, shortly thereafter, two Canadian entertainment institutions -- the National Film Board and National Arts Centre -- announced their intention to address diversity.

Tackling diversity in entertainment is vital because it has serious implications for the self-confidence of young people -- and for the entertainment industry that needs to be relevant for today's youth in order to thrive.

A fascinating survey shows just how much of an impact diversity on our screens has on young people. In 2012, researchers at Indiana University surveyed 400 pre-teens, asking them how much TV they watched and about their self-esteem. The findings are startling. Among girls and non-white children of both genders, there is a distinct correlation between increased TV viewing and a decline in feelings of self-worth because the pre-teens saw few positive role models in leading roles. In contrast, because there are many positive white male leads, Caucasian boys' self-confidence increased along with amount of TV they watched.

That's why it's important the National Film Board has recently decided over the next three years it will give at least half of its financing to movies and documentaries directed by women. It is leading the way in creating greater representation for women in the film industry.

The National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa just announced a similar measure. Over the next three years it will establish an indigenous theatre department and give it the same funding as its English and French groups.

While Cardinal applauds the NAC initiative, he wants to see less "ghettoization" -- segregating non-white actors into specialty theatre troupes and broadcasters, such as the APTN. Cardinal believes seeing different faces in ordinary roles, in both mainstream stage and screen productions, will have a powerful impact on young people.

To have confidence in themselves, all youth -- girls and boys, of all ethnicities -- need to see themselves as equal members of our society, to feel valued.

"It's important for native kids to see native people in the mainstream. It gives them hope and shows them there are opportunities for them," he adds.

Today, young people are a multicultural, gender-equal generation. They want to see themselves reflected in the entertainment media.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens gained massive fan acclaim for featuring characters Rey and Finn -- a young woman and an African-American -- as its heroes. Friends told us they took their daughters to see the film specifically so they could watch a strong female lead. And at our recent WE Day event in Los Angeles, it was great to see Indo-Canadian YouTube sensation Lilly Singh wow the stadium full of youth as much as Hollywood stars.

To have confidence in themselves, all youth -- girls and boys, of all ethnicities -- need to see themselves as equal members of our society, to feel valued.

Whether it's King Lear, a police officer in Dog River, or the heroes of a galaxy far, far away -- let's fill our stages and screens with all the wonderful diversity of our society.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


Canadian Arts And Fashion Awards 2016