Onstage diversity has a social impact

April 27, 2016

By Marc and Craig Kielburger, the Phoenix Star |

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 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 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 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 adds.

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

Read more