By Joella Cabalu, Kris Anderson, and Meghna Haldar
Sometimes it is the many silences that speak volumes.
On February 8, there was an announcement that after a yearlong advocacy effort, the Racial Screen Equity Office (RESO), Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF) and Documentary Organization of Canada, B.C. (DOC B.C.) had secured the public release of a racial equity audit of B.C.’s public broadcaster, Knowledge Network.
This revealed startling inequities in the funding practices of our sole provincially funded broadcaster. Over seven years, the network had spent 98.3 percent of its film production resources on white-owned companies, leaving 1.7 percent for racially diverse companies, and 0% for Indigenous-owned companies.
In response, Knowledge made a flurry of commitments including an initiative over three years to support films from Indigenous, Black, and people of colour (IBPOC) and to hire an Indigenous producer. In addition, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture appointed three new diverse members to the board.
The report triggered a faultline that ran underneath the B.C. film community. For some creators of colour, it reminded us of the multiple times we had faced silence from Knowledge and equated the silence with not being good enough or talented enough. Suddenly the numbers were revealing an insidious pattern while also validating our own deeply felt sense of racial bias from the public broadcaster.
Rudy Buttignol, president and CEO of Knowledge, told the CBC that he had “major reservations” with the audit because it did not tell “the whole story”. In doing so, we maintain that he undermined the results of an independent audit by casting doubt on the report’s validity.
He also missed an opportunity to acknowledge and apologize for the institutional inequity that he had presided over for fifteen years. His response—or the lack of it—contributed to an increased distrust and lack of confidence from filmmakers of colour and other concerned British Columbians.
Some established white filmmakers picked up on Buttignol’s comments about the audit. “Perhaps not many IBPOC filmmakers applied?” “There must be another story.” “Maybe there are no IBPOC owned production companies in B.C.?” Silence or questioning the basis of the audit itself became a powerful tool to gaslight in defence of the status quo, minimizing the seriousness of the situation and the numbers, as if there were other reasons behind the facts.
Infinitely more confusing was the silence of many white peers in the film community. These were colleagues, people who found meaning in storytelling and social justice. Why were they not responding? Their silence made us question whether we were making a big deal out of something that was not significant. Were we just being difficult?
After many discussions amongst a diverse coalition, we created an online petition asking the Knowledge board of directors to replace the current president with new leadership. We want accountability and transparency in our leadership. We want a leader who values inclusiveness, equity and diversity as an integral part of their vision. We believe that systemic change needs to be taken in hand with intention and purpose, in order for it to be sustainable in the long term. We believe that all B.C. audiences are best served when diverse storytellers share their stories, championed by our public broadcaster.
Meaningful change cannot occur when the same gatekeepers who perpetuate racial, institutional inequity are tasked with achieving the exact opposite. To paraphrase Socrates, “We need to focus our energies not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”