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Christa Dickenson, Telefilm’s executive director and CEO, said the first year of the initiative 'is about an awareness and contextual understanding of what’s in the pipeline.'Handout

Five years after pledging that defining and measuring diversity was its top priority, Telefilm is launching a new initiative that it hopes will provide an unprecedented window into who exactly is afforded the opportunity to make Canadian films.

The federal agency’s new three-page Self-Identification Questionnaire, which will launch when Telefilm’s 2022 Production Program opens for applications Jan. 4, aims to capture data covering “Indigenous identity, racial and ethnic identity, gender identity and expression, belonging to an 2SLGBTQIA+ community, disability status, and belonging to an Official Language Minority Community.”

The information, which will be collected on a voluntary basis, is requested of all directors, writers, producers, co-producers and executive producers attached to a project in the production, development, theatrical documentary and microbudget Talent to Watch programs.

According to Telefilm, the replies will “assist in the evaluation, eligibility and decision-making processes for project applications, as well as enhancing Telefilm’s programs and industry initiatives.” The Crown corporation doesn’t expect to have enough information to paint a substantive picture of the country’s filmmaking community, though, until a year into the initiative.

“In the first year, it is about an awareness and contextual understanding of what’s in the pipeline, which will start informing our decisions,” Christa Dickenson, Telefilm’s executive director and chief executive, said in an interview.

Telefilm has requested diversity information in the past for its gender parity and Indigenous initiatives, and a less-detailed questionnaire was deployed in 2020 when the organization introduced what is now called its Development Stream for Black and People of Colour. But this new tool, in addition to including more specific language regarding diversity, expands the range of participants beyond key creative roles, and allows applicants to self-identify, instead of relying on a producer to submit data on others’ behalf.

“It’s going to be a much more robust collection of data that will allow us to have a better analysis of the industry,” said Cathy Wong, Telefilm’s newly appointed vice-president of equity, diversity and inclusion, and official languages.

“The whole idea now is way more than, ‘Is it a woman? Is it an Indigenous producer or creative?’ It’s about intersectionality,” Dickenson added. “We need to get as granular as we can. We’re going to be able to say, X amount of Black women producers are coming into the production stream this year, for instance.”

Asked whether, if all other aspects of a project are equal, Telefilm would prioritize a diverse team over another, Dickenson said that “the first metric is the quality of the creative, the trajectory of the creative team and the authentic story. We’re looking for authentic stories that will reach Canadian and international audiences.”

The goal of defining and measuring diversity has been long in the works for Telefilm, with former executive director Carolle Brabant saying in 2018 that the issue was the organization’s “top priority for 2018-19″ – itself a carried-over promise from 2016. In the summer of 2020, a heated debate surfaced regarding the agency’s commitment to supporting all of the country’s many different filmmaking communities – a sensitive area given that Telefilm lacked the language around what constituted diversity.

According to Telefilm, the organization expanded its data collection internally in 2018 after work on its gender parity and Indigenous initiatives, but required greater collaboration on “socializing definitions around diverse identities” from industry stakeholders. That idea initially went over “like a lead balloon,” Dickenson recalled. “That’s when we pressed reset and realized that we needed to have buy-in from our partners to pull this off. It’s personal. There’s the [information technology] angle. It’s complex.”

Telefilm is also subject to the Privacy Act, requiring the agency to make a special request to the Treasury Board Secretariat to demonstrate “the need for these questions and enhancements.” After forming a Diversity and Inclusion Working Group in March, 2020, which included a subcommittee focused on the data-collection issue, the final questionnaire language was approved this fall.

“The language has changed month over month, but we have to draw a line in the sand. Getting it out there is more important to me than it being absolutely perfect,” Dickenson said. “There is a comfort level here in which we’re going to pause, listen, consult and adapt as needed.”

The questionnaire is voluntary “at least for the first year,” but Dickenson hopes participation will be strong.

“The industry has asked for this data, but we need 100 per cent of people to participate or else it’s not going to be accurate,” she said.

The data-collection enhancements arrive after a wave of organizational and procedural changes within Telefilm over the past year, including relaunches of its development, theatrical exhibition and microbudget programs, as well as an expansion of its diverse languages policies. The agency also received a long-awaited budget increase this past April, with $105-million in new funds over the next three years, and plans to start building an action plan for “ecoresponsibility.”

Yet the agency still faces the oft-discussed question of merging with the television-focused Canadian Media Fund, as suggested in a report last year from the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel.

“We hear a lot of conversations around, ‘Could there be a new unique agency?’ A report came out last January, we’re certainly thinking about that,” Dickenson said. “But at the end of the day, our strategic plan is based on building a future-ready organization that can pivot in any direction that’s required.”

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