Compared to Hollywood, Canada’s screen industry is tiny. And by all accounts, there are fewer egos, bullies and power-trippers on the scale of Harvey Weinstein within it.
“But of course there’s been sexual harassment here. Absolutely. No question,” Emmy-nominated Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema said in a recent interview.
“There are definitely, definitely cases of people who have been systematically sexually harassing young actors, female actors, and getting away with it, and people looking the other way.”
Canada’s performers’ union, ACTRA, has invited industry stakeholders to a closed-door meeting on Thursday to discuss how to implement practical, concrete measures to tackle the issue here in a way that also leads to cultural change.
“Is there a specific thing I would like to see come out of that meeting? Action,” said actor Lyriq Bent.
“This isn’t something that is new, this is something that’s been going on for a long time, which is why a lot of what we’re hearing about has been 20, 30 years ago…. Now, an opportunity came along where people have to listen. So let’s purge. Let’s purge ourselves of all of this sickness and move forward. It’s about time.”
While sexual misconduct has long been a part of the Canadian industry, it’s a problem that seems to be growing, said actress-writer Susan Coyne, co-creator of ”Slings and Arrows and screenwriter of the new film “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”
For the past year, she’s been holding ad-hoc meetings in Toronto living rooms and coffee shops about sexual misconduct in the industry. The latest meeting had about 25 women in attendance.
“What I was hearing from younger actresses is things have gotten worse than when I and my friends, like Martha Burns, were younger and were their age and starting out,” said Coyne.
“And I don’t understand how that could be. It was so disturbing.”
The smallness of Canada’s screen industry makes it “almost harder to speak up, because there’s just so much less work and we don’t have the stars who can lead the charge either,” she added.
“We work a lot, not just on Canadian sets, but we have a lot of American shows that come up here, too. And Canadians have even less power there, working on an American show; it’s so easy to replace you.”
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Atom Egoyan said ACTRA needs to take “a much firmer stand” going forward.
“There are situations clearly in history where ACTRA was told of abuses and didn’t react properly and I think that can never, ever happen again,” said Egoyan.
“I think obviously — and ACTRA is quite aware of the fact that — they bowed to pressure.”
Actress Mia Kirshner is also critical of the way ACTRA has handled the topic of sexual harassment and abuse.
“Too little, too late. I don’t believe that ACTRA is actually interested listening to union members,” Kirshner tweeted recently.
“I believe that this committee is being created for the purpose of public relations.”
She wrote that she declined to be a part of a new committee created by ACTRA to deal with the issue and instead has co-created a group called #AfterMeToo to push for change.
Jennifer Jonas, producer and owner of New Real Films, said Thursday’s industry meeting should address the need for parity and equality on TV and film sets.
“Sexual harassment, I guess you could boil down to being a kind of bullying where the power dynamic is in someone else’s favour,” said Jonas.
“What I’m happy to be seeing with the #metoo (hashtag) and all the different industry people — both in Canada and the United States — coming out with their statements and everything right now is that people are recognizing that if you make sure there’s more gender parity, more diversity, take the power away from the bullies, that things will necessarily and structurally improve.”
Rozema suggested industry workers also need a better method to report information about offenders.
“Right now we have a system where people can do whatever they want, but only if you have enough information to convict someone can you do anything about it,” she said.
“There needs to be a system in place where there can be anonymous reports. So if you get 60 reports on some dude, you can start to say, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’”
Writer-director Michael Dowse added that a responsibility also lies with agents in ensuring they don’t put their clients “in harm’s way.”
“Obviously nobody should be doing that thing, but there should be an awareness of reading those situations and avoiding private meetings with directors,” said Dowse.
Actor Shawn Doyle, who is a councillor for ACTRA Toronto, insisted the union is taking the situation and this moment in time “very, very seriously.”
“I think it’s really important that at the end of that meeting there comes out a firm set of guidelines, that we can move forward as an industry together,” he said. ”Something that can be enforced across the board. Something that doesn’t allow wiggle room.
“There are going to have to be consequences for people committing any kind of harassment or bullying or abuse of any sort. And my hope is that we can find a speedy way to get to some resolve and protect our members.”
— With files from Maija Kappler
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press