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A way forward: building a diverse and inclusive Canadian creative sector

Updated: May 6

Despite various pledges, programs, and initiatives that have attempted to improve economic and labour opportunities for diverse creatives, progress has been disappointingly limited. While a variety of factors continue to exclude equity seeking communities from Canada’s creative sectors, the relative ineffectiveness of existing efforts presents a pressing need to better understand the systemic inequities that lead us here in the first place.

Racial and cultural diversity in media is important for political, civic, and economic reasons. Yet this is often not reflected for most communities across Canada. As the commitments to #BLM and #METOO begin to fade from the memories of many it is important to reflect why the “diversity issue” persists.

If society and the creative sector wants to act, it will take consistency, resources, and time.

Through recent sector research at POV, a charity I work for that is championing workforce diversity in the creative sector, the following emerged as considerations to where and how to begin to coordinate efforts that can lead to meaningful systemic change in a lasting way.

The sector is disconnected, complicated and hidden

Legacy sector practices, dating back to a time when family-run creative services dominated, have resulted in a complex, networked, often hidden and highly exclusive sector. BIPOC and diverse creatives experience and often emphasize the difficulty of accessing relationships, opportunities, and information, what we now know as social capital, as endemic to the sector’s structure and organization.

Although diversity and inclusion are often touted as a priority across the creative sector, equity-seeking professionals consistently face particularly rigid barriers to achieve sustained success, suggesting structural discrimination embedded in the systems and processes that drive it.

The seemingly straight-forward task of increasing diversity is further complicated by the creative sector’s insularity, which is managed through deep networks of personal and professional relationships. The result is a demographically homogenous sector that is sustained by talent and work force with a similar make up.

The disconnectedness of sector stakeholders seems to be a central factor in barriers to access (for both employers and professionals). Not only has this resulted in incompatible supports, but also in duplication of efforts and expense. Building relationships between traditionally separate stakeholders must be a priority, with emphasis on opportunities to use synergistic offerings to optimize sector support.

Lack of diversity is not a mystery

Canadian creative sectors represent a growing and powerful economic and cultural sector of the economy, but the lack of diversity and equity in this sector undermines its integrity. Poor representation among decision-makers results in sector efforts that do not reflect strategies that help equity-seeking creatives gain access and favour privileged creatives who are white, straight, and already working. To make it even more difficult, equity and inclusion are not defined or prioritized as part of any collective agreements or sector wide interventions.

Institutions and sector gatekeepers must take responsibility in supporting BIPOC and diverse creatives in reclaiming their narratives and creating content that is accurate, fair and authentic to their unique experiences. It’s not enough to simply to support a single creative or piece of content but to transform the way we grow the sector to include a variety of development, economic and employment pathways that connect BIPOC and diverse creatives into the sector

Social capital mediates access

The complexity in structure and functioning of Canada’s creative sector means that sector navigation is a continuously evolving process. Gaining initial entry through a first job (paid or unpaid) represents the first point of “breaking in”; however, continued career development requires progressing through a series of additional “gates” (e.g., building a network, gaining referrals, securing more continuous employment, progressing in roles, securing financing, etc.).

While an initial entry point to the sector is of course important, to gain meaningful success in the creative sector, does not come down to this singular event, but instead requires a continuous, discursive persistence of effort that draws on different types of access into the sector. This access seems to be mediated by a particular kind of social capital defined by the dominant sector culture. POV’s recent research shows that this lack of access is multiply experienced by creatives from equity-seeking groups, and further amplified for equity-seeking young people. With such limited pathways for equity-seeking creatives to gain sector access, they resort to building peripheral communities that provide creative, emotional and professional support. It is through these communities that equity-seeking professionals ultimately convert their social capital into the sector-specific capital needed to achieve economic success within the sector.

Having the right kind of social capital reliably facilitates access to a variety of resources, enabling movement through each successive professional milestone. Without a unifying mechanism to connect sector stakeholders and explicate the hidden job market, social capital remains the dominant currency. The historic cultural dominance of the sector seems to mean that a particular kind of social capital governs access; and this form of social capital is not uniformly available to all.

It is abundantly clear that generating relationships between ‘key players’ and equity-deserving creatives is the most successful approach to equity. This means not just ‘adding diverse folks to the mix’ (i.e., hiring more diverse creative without addressing structural barriers and providing appropriate supports), but developing strategies and activities that build connections between well-resourced creatives (the ‘ones who made it’) and members of adjacent creative communities at all career levels.

Problematizing diversity may be problematic

Diversifying the creative workforce is a requirement that demands immediate action. Lack of workforce diversity is not a new, nor a newly identified problem, evidenced by the diversity-focused initiatives that have emerged in recent years. The persistence of the sector’s homogeneity in the face of these efforts suggests that a reframing of the ‘problem’ might be worthwhile.

Current diversity initiatives ‘problematize’ diversity and focus on ‘increasing diversity’ by increasing the number of equity-seeking professionals in creative projects. While this framework might help some individuals access roles, it also encourages a “checklist” approach to addressing the problem, without addressing the systemic barriers that exclude them in the first place. In other words, this approach increases the number of diverse folks in the sector, but does not address nor change the practices that prevents diverse creatives from thriving in the sector.

POV’s research uncovered a potential alternative framing of the problem: access. Problematizing access would mean shifting efforts and outcomes from “increasing representation” to “breaking barriers” to access. Addressing barriers would necessitate system-wide changes in practices and policies, which, if adequately addressed, would have the consequence of increased diversity. In this framework, diversity is a measure of access; and a sector permeated with barriers to access would lack workforce diversity.

Measures lead to insight and accountability

Differences in language and terminology, combined with a lack of reliable measurement and demographic sector data complicates the assessment of sector diversity and the industry efforts to bolster equity. Without measurable indicators of progress, it is difficult to reinforce a shared sense of accountability for change among stakeholders.

There needs to be a focus on research that can map a clear view of the key stakeholders, pathways, access points, gates, and enablers that define the sector experience and identify the systemic barriers to access that regulate the sector’s economic engine for BIPOC and diverse creatives.

Awareness does not equal action

Now is the time for the creative sectors across Canada to become more inclusive and representative of its vast diversity. Beyond the ethical and moral implications, this presents a tangible business and economic advantage for Canada as the creative sector increasingly seeks partners who reflect this diversity in the communities in which they operate. Workforce diversity is a growing priority across sectors. As with other sectors, Canada’s creative sector has started to introduce some programs to support the creation of a more representative talent landscape. At present, these efforts seem to be organizational initiatives aim to shift hiring practices, but do not include system-level imperatives that would mandate wide-scale change.

Long-term change will require the coordinated efforts of multiple sector stakeholders and participants. An exclusively bottom-up or top-down approach while sector silos persist will be limited in both reach and influence. Systemic change takes time, which means that relying solely on top-down change is unlikely to keep pace with the sector’s employment needs. A variety of activities targeted at different levels of the creative sector are needed to invoke immediate change and long-term sustained changes to practice. To meet the complementary demands of market growth and workforce diversification, both system-wide and scaled interventions are needed.

Biju Pappachan is Executive Director of POV, an organization that champions for equity seeking creatives from underserved communities and helps them break into the creative production sector through training, mentorship, job placement, bursaries and professional development opportunities.

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