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Canada needs more diverse storytellers, media education conference told

The Next Gen conference brought together industry and postsecondary institutions to discuss the future of storytelling in Canadian media.

By MICHAEL RANCIC | NOV 14 2018

Representation matters in film and television, and Canada hasn’t done such a great job at it. That’s one conclusion that came out of Next Gen: Catalyst for Change in Canadian Storytelling, a two-day conference hosted by Sheridan College in partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) from November 2 to 3.

The conference aimed to provide a space for discussing how media scholars and instructors, as well as the film and television industry, can better foster and support diverse Canadian storytelling. The first day at TIFF’s Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto focused on emerging young creators, while the second day at Sheridan’s Oakville campus involved workshops, panels and roundtables centred on media education.

“Colleges are typically not a part of the community of scholarship and research that universities are, and so we were really thrilled to see that other universities wanted to come and be a part of it,” says Kathleen Cummins, a professor in the faculty of animation, arts and design at Sheridan who co-organized the event with Sheridan’s Ronni Rosenberg and Maija Saari.

Sheridan has a long history in preparing graduates for the film and television industry – first as a vocational school and now with its specialized four-year bachelor’s program. Its faculty is a mix of industry professionals with decades of experience and seasoned, PhD-holding scholars – a mix that extended to conference presenters and registrants.

“Each [side] has different goals and agendas,” Dr. Cummins says. “But what we came together on was reaching out to young people, young creators and students in a way that makes them feel they have a voice and they also have a future.” Dr. Cummins herself presented a paper on “Destabilizing the Film Canons of “Old Dinosaurs,” which focused on her research with Sheridan colleague Maureen McKeon on the experiences of women in the college’s film program.

“We were floored by the fact that the findings in STEM around gender representation are very similar to our findings from the film and television industry,” Dr. Cummins says about the ongoing project. The realization made her start building a course syllabus in her history of cinema class that was more representative of the student body.

The theme of representation continued throughout the conference. For example, journalist Jody Anderson presented “Diversity vs Inclusivity in J-School and Beyond,” a talk that detailed her and her colleagues’ experiences with racism as students in the journalism program jointly offered by Centennial College and the University of Toronto. She also gave a list of ways postsecondary institutions and the industry can do more to be inclusive.

“People of colour are told to accommodate or change themselves in order to share the same space,” Ms. Anderson explains. Instead, those who control these spaces must make more of an effort to embrace the increasingly diverse group of people entering the field – and in more than a superficial way. “We’re supposed to be here for our unique ideas. It’s not just about us being Black, Indigenous, queer or whatever; it’s about having more ideas and perspectives represented.”

Dr. Cummins adds that “it’s really important for young people to learners to feel that they belong in the classroom and that they belong in the field. When they don’t see themselves [in media] they actually experience feelings of exclusion.” Feeling unwelcome or excluded, she notes, then impacts “how well someone does in a program, how well they perform in a field and if they even stay in that field.”

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