Artis Gala So White: Zero diversity among nominees for Quebec TV viewers’ choice awards

Actress Sophie Pregent holds up her trophy for best actress in a Quebec television series at the Gala Artis awards ceremony in Montreal on April 26, 2009. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Viewers’ choice awards celebrating the most popular stars on Quebec television will be handed out next month, and all of the 70 stars nominated are white.

In a province where roughly 15 per cent of the population is from visible minorities — rising to about 25 per cent in the Montreal area — the Artis gala reflects the lack of diversity among the most prominent people on Quebec television.

Sophie Pregent, president of Quebec’s main artists union, said the homogeneity of the Artis nominees “makes my heart hurt. It’s not a pleasant thing to see.”

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It’s not as if there aren’t enough people of colour to choose from, she said, noting roughly 15 per cent of her 8,500 active members are second-generation immigrants. The number climbs to 25 per cent if third-generation immigrants are included, she added.

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There are many actors of colour on Quebec television, Pregent said, but there are very few in leading roles on the most popular shows. Therefore, she explained, those actors aren’t top of mind when Quebecers vote for their favourite stars.

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The Artis awards are based on the results of a multi-layered poll of 8,000 Quebecers, conducted twice a year by the Leger firm. At the end of November, about 2,000 Quebecers — half online and half by telephone — are asked to spontaneously list their favourite television star in 14 categories, including drama series, sports, news and variety shows.

The firm calculates the top five choices and polls another 2,000 Quebecers, asking them to pick their favourites among the names chosen by the first group. Leger repeats the process with another 4,000 people at the end of January.

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Christian Bourque, Leger’s executive vice-president, said the nominees “tend to be the main characters of the most popular shows because they get the most visibility …. It’s more of a popularity contest.”

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And that’s precisely the problem, said Jerome Pruneau, head of Diversité artistique Montréal, a group trying to promote cultural diversity in the arts and culture scene in Quebec’s largest city. Through the arts, Quebecers are presented with an identity that is a “white, francophone fantasy,” he said.

In the 1960s, when the Quebec nation was shedding its Catholic identity, the arts industry played a major role in the construction of its culture and in the protection of the French language, he said. Today, Pruneau added, the imagined Quebec culture hasn’t kept up with the times.

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“We have the impression that this is the only identity that represents us,” he said, “and it’s what we see unfortunately on our television shows, in the theatre, in our politics and in the public space — a little bit everywhere.”

Haitian-born Quebec actress Fabienne Colas called Monday’s announcement of the Artis nominations “a sad day” for Quebec.

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“And especially since the majority of the nominees are from Montreal — our city, which is one of the most multi-ethnic in North America.”

Her solution is for broadcasters to demand diversity quotas in shows broadcast on their networks. “When there are clear quotas, we have the urgency to find the talent,” she said. `”When there aren’t any, we find all the reasons in the world not to integrate diversity.”

The issue of race and representation in the arts gained wide attention in Quebec last year after the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled a show about black slavery from renowned director, Robert Lepage. Activists protested the performances and accused Lepage and the show’s main performer, Betty Bonifassi — both of whom are white — of appropriating black culture.

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Pregent said Quebecers are becoming increasingly aware of the lack of representation in the province’s arts industry. Having more people of colour in leading, well-paid roles on the most popular shows “is the last step we have to climb,” she said. Reaching that goal will take more of an effort from production companies and the big broadcasters, she said.

Quebecor Inc., a dominant player in the province’s cultural industry, is broadcasting this year’s Artis awards. The company did not return requests for comment.


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