06/19/2013 05:47 EDT | Updated 08/19/2013 05:12 EDT

The (White) Face of Canadian TV and Film

Look at the faces around you in any big city in Canada. Now turn on a TV series or movie. Is that world appearing on screen? It's not whether non-white actors appear or even star in Canadian movies -- they do! -- it's how often they get roles that don't require a non-white actor.

Justin Louis during NBC Summer 2002 Press Tour - Day 1 at Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, California, United States. (Photo by Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage)

I tend to write about Canadian film and TV. I champion it. I defend it. And part of that is tough love -- hauling back your boot and giving it a kick in the pants.

In an industry that is desperate just to achieve any sort of commercial success, social issues often get shoved onto the back burner. But a healthy entertainment industry should be brave enough to engage in difficult conversations.

For a while I've been hesitatingly circling around the topic of race.

When trying to delve into such a loaded issue -- whether non-white actors are denied equal opportunities -- part of the problem is framing the discussion. Counter-arguments range from: "it's not happening -- everything's fine," to "it is happening, and I'm glad 'cause I'm sick of political correctness."

However grudgingly, most people suspect it occurs. Louis Ferreira, one of the leads in TV's Motive, spent part of his career under the name Justin Louis, worried about typecasting. And he's white!

Thoughout Canadian film and TV, pluralism has often been embraced. From non-W.A.S.P. TV heroes like Steve Wojeck to Nick Adonidas, Larry King to Louie Ciccone, to First Nation actors simply getting work (while Hollywood is still painting white guys). The U.S. series Scandal is seen as a trailblazer for its black woman lead...while the CBC already had Intelligence. And let's not forget Little Mosque on the Prairie.

I'm talking English-Canada. French-Canada has its own issues with pluralism and multiculturalism.

In the recent movie Inescapable, the hero is a Syrian-Canadian -- one might cynically think, if made in Hollywood, he'd be white all-American.

So there's a history of diversity.

Yet consider the current crop of Canadian-made TV series. Excepting those made for APTN (which, after all, has a mandate) there's only one series with a non-white male lead -- Arctic Air. On the female front, there's Rogue, and perhaps Being Human and Beauty & The Beast (depending on how you define "non-white"). Those three are primarily American series, with Canadians co-producers.

That's not terrible -- except compared to the number of Canadian series in production.

Even in series with a racial mix sometimes there can seem to be a conspicuous hierarchy to the roles, as if the producers said: "Let's include a non-white, what's the least important role we've got?" Even with diverse casts like Cracked and Saving Hope, line up the characters from most to least important (in terms of lines/scenes, driving a plot line, character exploration, etc.) and see what emerges.

Jump over to the supposedly "high brow" world of cinema and it's even more monochromatic, which is curious. Hollywood filmmakers often plead pragmatism -- the "I'm not racist but my audience is" disclaimer. Yet Canadian filmmakers usually insist they aren't pandering to an audience.

It's not whether non-white actors appear or even star in Canadian movies -- they do! -- it's how often they get roles that don't require a non-white actor. (In much the same way that African-American actors receive Oscar nods but almost invariably for stereotypical "black" roles or biographies).

Most roles in most productions -- comedies, dramas, thrillers, sci-fi -- could be played by anyone. But that "anyone" usually ends up being white.

Look at the faces around you in any big city in Canada. Now turn on a TV series or movie. Is that world appearing on screen? Cop dramas where the white heroes come to the white neighbourhood to interview the white characters, while a few non-white extras unroll yellow "caution" tape in the background. The exceptions is when stereotypes are invoked -- like in an episode about South Asian honour killings or black athletes.

And what's the issue about important roles vs. unimportant roles? If actors are constantly shunted off into the supporting and uninteresting roles, how do they prove they are capable of the better roles?

Consider Roger Cross in the thankless role of the captain in Motive. Honestly? Nothing to write home about. Now channel surf over to Continuum, and the Roger Cross in that is an interesting, charismatic actor (and I don't even especially like Continuum). That's a Roger Cross that proves, if asked to do more than stick his head out of his office and bark at the white stars to get back to work, he can rise to it. (Of course in Continuum most of the good guys are white and most of the non-white actors are bad guys...but maybe there's a subtlety I'm missing).

I suspect most non-white actors would say the issue isn't that most roles go to white actors (which is proportionate to the population) but they just want the opportunity to try for them, too. Is it a level playing field -- a meritocracy -- or do filmmakers decide they are only going to consider white actors?

Only they (or a fly on a producer's wall) know for sure.

I hesitated to even write this post -- because I suspect all it will do is unleash a torrent of racist responses (for which I apologize ahead of time to the moderators of the comments section). Some people seem to feel strangely threatened by suggesting that a white audience can empathize with non-white characters (growing up, I never felt threatened reading Black Panther comics or watching The Jeffersons).

And it can also lead to reverse racism, posters making derogatory claims about white audiences. But that's not helpful, either.

If I really thought the majority of Canadian filmmakers were deliberately racist, I probably wouldn't have bothered writing this. I actually considered doing this as two posts, one acknowledging all the examples of inclusiveness both in front of, and behind, the camera. And casting is more colour-blind than it was 20 years ago. But that's why you keep pushing.

I often lament how so many Canadian movies and TV shows pretend they are American. I get a lot of flak from people who insist the status quo is fine. But there's a comparable analogy:

Anytime a Canadian production bombs, it's cited as "proof" that a Canadian setting is commercially toxic. Likewise, anytime a movie or TV show featuring a non-white lead tanks, it's cited as "proof" the public isn't ready. Successes are dismissed as "exceptions", and other factors relating to failure (poor scripts, bad time slots or promotion, or the fact that programs about white American heroes bomb, too) is seen as irrelevant.

Canadianism. Pluralism.

Honestly? It ain't that frightening.

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