On Friday, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez appointed digital media executive Suzanne Guèvremont as the new commissioner and chairperson of the National Film Board.
Most recently the executive director of Montreal’s École des arts numériques, de l’animation et du design, Ms. Guèvremont will take charge of the publicly funded film producer and distributor for a five-year term. But she will enter an organization that is only just now making inroads into issues of racial inequities after first promising to tackle them almost two years ago.
In his departing letter released this week, outgoing commissioner and board chair Claude Joli-Coeur pledged that the NFB will implement a “respectful and confidential data-collection mechanism,” accompanied by specific racial equity targets and goals by the start of its next fiscal year, April, 2023.
The promise comes in the wake of a report last month from the Racial Equity Screen Office (RESO), titled National Film Board of Whose Canada?, which found that 72 per cent of the NFB’s productions from 2012 through 2021 were created by white filmmakers.
In the NFB’s strategic plan released in December, 2020, the organization pledged to make diversity one of its “top priorities” and set “some of the highest targets for diversity, racial equity and inclusion.”
In an interview this week, Mr. Joli-Coeur said that while the RESO audit doesn’t capture the full picture of the NFB production slate, he admits that the institution has been too slow to adopt its own priorities.
“We are at fault, I cannot deny it,” Mr. Joli-Coeur said.
Key to measuring racial diversity is the implementation of a digital auto-declaration form that creatives (directors, screenwriters, cinematographers) involved in NFB productions would fill out, a concept similar to the self-identification questionnaire that was launched by Telefilm last year.
“The system is a bit technically complicated, but it took way too long to establish,” Mr. Joli-Coeur said. “We do thousands of contracts for our productions, and we took too much time to do it.”
The NFB has been able to measure the gender breakdown of its filmmakers for the past six years as part of its successful bid to achieve, and sometimes exceed, its gender-parity goals. According to Mr. Joli-Coeur, though, the gender-parity initiative only launched when it did because he decided to skirt privacy laws.
“I took the position saying that it might be illegal the way we collect that data, and it is, but I don’t care,” Mr. Joli-Coeur said. “The margin of error between deciding who is a man and who is a woman remains limited compared to determining who is a racialized person. At the time, I said to my team, I’m ready to take that legal risk because of the impact of being able to commit to gender parity.”
Asked whether the NFB’s push toward gender parity may have overshadowed efforts to look into issues of racial inequality, Mr. Joli-Coeur dismissed the notion, saying that “six years ago, we were somewhere else. Things have evolved rapidly in the last three years on diversity and inclusion.”
The NFB has no specific targets in mind at the moment for inclusion of Black or racialized filmmakers, whereas it currently allocates 50 per cent of its production fund to women filmmakers and 15 per cent specifically to Indigenous filmmakers. But there will be a hard number available by this April.
“It will be a corporate commitment, and we have a committed team that will be passed onto the next commissioner,” Mr. Joli-Coeur said.
Ms. Guèvremont will encounter an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) team, though, that is operating without its leader. Last week, Rachel Décoste departed the NFB a year after joining as its first ever director of EDI.
“I put all of my experience and education and effort into moving the needle on the diversity, equity and inclusion plan that was co-written by the commissioner and released in 2021 before I joined the NFB,” Ms. Décoste, who is returning to core public service, said in an interview. “I’m very proud of what I was able to do in just 14 months, both internally and externally.” (According to Mr. Joli-Coeur, the NFB is looking for a new EDI leader with a focus on the “production and creation experience.”)
Meanwhile, Mr. Joli-Coeur leaves behind a nearly nine-year tenure atop the NFB marked by success stories (gender and Indigenous initiatives, a spike in digital screenings from 25.6 million in 2011-2012 to 73 million in 2020-2021), but also vocal debates within the filmmaking community about priorities and procedures.
The most recent controversy, which surfaced in August, revolved around the hiring process of Mr. Joli-Coeur’s successor. The advocacy group NFB/ONF Creation decried the fact that, in his dual role as board chair, the commissioner was tasked with interviewing candidates and selecting a shortlist to recommend to the government, which ultimately makes the appointment.
“We just don’t think it’s very likely that Mr. Joli-Coeur is going to be supportive of a candidate that is offering real change to the decisions he’s made over the years,” Munro Ferguson, a filmmaker and spokesperson with NFB/ONF Creation, told The Globe at the time.
Mr. Ferguson’s group called for a separation of the commissioner and chair roles, pointing out that other government-funded or -run arts organizations, including Telefilm, operate with the two roles separated.
“I’ve been personally pursuing that separation for the past couple of years,” Mr. Joli-Coeur said this week. “Unfortunately it’s complicated because we need to amend the act governing the NFB and with the disruption of COVID, it wasn’t something that went through. Our hope is that it’ll be in place for next fiscal.”