Almost three years ago, Nathalie Younglai called me out.
I had written a story in NOW about Telefilm’s progress with gender parity that also discussed the lack of diversity on screen. Younglai was the only one to point out a glaring omission: I only spoke to white women on the subject.
“When BIPOC talk about the dearth of BIPOC stories getting greenlit we are troublemakers, complainers, etc,” the writer of CBC drama Coroner said on Twitter. “But if a white person says it, then stop the presses! Quote them endlessly!”
I never made that mistake again.
Younglai was just honoured with a Humanitarian Award by the Canadian Academy for her uncompromising fight to change the local screenscape. She started the community organization BIPOC TV & Film in 2012, after she had experienced being a newbie writer in the scripted television world and having her show optioned.
“They needed to pair me up with a more senior writer,” she recounts. Younglai, who is Trini-Chinese, was hoping to find a showrunner who was if not Asian then at least a person of colour to be her mentor. “At the time, there weren’t any. I felt really isolated. I felt like I needed, just for my own sanity and soul survival, to reach out to other people of colour in the industry and feel connected to others.”
BIPOC TV & Film started off with speaker events and mixers with allies in the industry volunteering as mentors, and soon after introduced training workshops. They’re currently starting up a volunteer-run four-month Kids TV writing boot camp with 50 participants creating a script from inception to polished final draft. The first time they ran this workshop in 2018, a handful among the candidates got hired by TV shows immediately upon completion.
Younglai points out other initiatives and allies that help diverse creators – organizations like Reel Asian and Black Women Film! and How To Be Indie producer John May, who volunteers with BIPOC TV & Film. But she also remains skeptical about the efforts made by the industry’s major organizations, which take small steps with funding programs that can be restrictive or apprenticeship programs for candidates with plenty of apprenticeship experience.
“Sometimes people who are designing programs are not those who have experienced years of being excluded or how the system works against you,” says Younglai. “It’s hard to design a program that really addresses that on an equitable basis.”
The same year she called me out, Younglai built a database listing diverse writers and crew members working in the industry. It’s a hiring tool that the unions should themselves have made. It was also receipts for every time a producer excused their all-white teams by saying Canada lacks a diverse talent pool.
Today, Younglai is at work in the writers room at Coroner, which was picked up by the CW Network in the U.S. Younglai isn’t a token. The writer’s room has six POCs.
“The types of conversations you can have is so different,” she says, wishing it was a sign of progress but regretting that her situations proves to be an exception, not a rule. “I don’t understand why that’s not across the board.”