Calgary Herald

Diversity on stage and screen has strong impact

Canada moves to address disparity, write Marc and Craig Kielburger.

- 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.

As a young theatre student, Lorne Cardinal dreamt 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 Sgt. 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 an entertainm­ent industry that needs to be relevant to 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 preteens, 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 preteens 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 the 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.

“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 added.

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.

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