Canadian film, TV leaders to meet about industry's 'prevalent' sexual harassment

Hope to implement practical, concrete measures to tackle misconduct
By Victoria Ahearn
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 11/10/2017
Sarah Polley
Writer Sarah Polley attends the press conference for the miniseries "Alias Grace" at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), in Toronto, Sept. 12. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

TORONTO (CP) — Canadian film and TV leaders are acknowledging that sexual harassment has also been a “prevalent” part of the entertainment industry north of the border and have planned a meeting to discuss how to tackle it.

In the wake of the flood of allegations against fallen Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, writer-director James Toback and others, the union representing Canadian actors, ACTRA, has had preliminary meetings with industry groups and is preparing for a broader meeting of stakeholders on Nov. 23 in Toronto.

On the agenda: how they can work together to implement practical, concrete measures to tackle sexual misconduct in a way that also leads to cultural change.

“Yes, it's prevalent in our industry for both men and women, but it's cultural as well,” said Theresa Tova, ACTRA national treasurer and ACTRA Toronto president, in a recent interview.

“This is something that's been going on forever and we need to change the culture. And I'm 150 per cent in support of making sure that the responsibility, the pressure, the weight of this abuse doesn't land on the victims, (that) there are some processes industry-wide where we can all work together.”

Tova said ACTRA doesn't have numbers on how many cases of sexual harassment and assault have been reported in the Canadian film and TV industry. But in a statement on its website, the Directors Guild of Canada says: “the rot of harassment in film and television runs far deeper than one man and extends every bit as much into our country as any other.”

ACTRA says the industry as a whole needs to figure out how to prevent, report and track cases of sexual misconduct, from pre-production to post-production. It also needs to create a safe space for victims to speak out without fear of retribution or harassment.

Other groups that will be a part of the meeting include the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which has “a zero-tolerance policy against abuse and sexual harassment” — but currently that's only for its employees and board members.

“We don't have a code of conduct or similar for our membership and that is something that could be a part of how we respond to this,” said Beth Janson, the academy's CEO, who will be at the meeting.

Since the Weinstein scandal broke in early October, several stories of sexual harassment or assault have emerged from Canada's entertainment scene, including allegations against Just For Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon and Quebec media personality Eric Salvail.

Meanwhile, Canadian actresses including Erika Rosenbaum, Mia Kirshner and Sarah Polley have publicly shared stories about alleged encounters with Weinstein, while Rachel McAdams and Chantal Cousineau spoke out with allegations about Toback.

Montreal-based TV and film writer/producer Leila Basen says she has experienced sexual harassment on the job since the very start of her career in the late 1970s.

“When I began my career, it was just a pervasive, daily part of your work life,” said Basen, a co-writer of “Bon Cop Bad Cop,” a creative producer and writer for “Heartland,” and co-executive producer and writer for “Strange Empire.”

“Nobody called it sexual harassment. Nobody had a framework to put it in. If you were young, ambitious with big dreams, you wiggled out of difficult situations. Tried not to repeat them. Compartmentalized the bad stuff, put your head down and kept going.”

It was during her first job out of film school, as a production assistant in a newsroom, that “daily harassment had crossed the line into assault.”

“I was standing on a table fixing a monitor and a sportscaster sticks his hand under my skirt. I was so shocked, I fell off the table and hurt myself,” Basen recalled.

“I told my boss what happened. The sportscaster got a slap on the wrist. But for me, in the misogynistic culture of the newsroom, things got worse.”

Then there was the startling first day she had working for a film company in the '80s. She was sitting in a room with the executive producers when the secretary walked in.

“She's wearing a dress with the big zipper down the front and one of the producers takes his finger and pulled the zipper right down and the whole dress falls open,” said Basen.

“She quit right then and there. What could she have done? Reported her boss? Her boss was the dude with his finger in the zipper, the one who thought it was all just a big joke. “

Basen is encouraged by the #metoo movement, in which women are sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault on social media.

But Canadian actress Lucy DeCoutere feels the conversations that are happening now are the same ones that took place around the 2016 sexual assault trial of former CBC star Jian Ghomeshi.

“This isn't new. It's incredibly frustrating,” said DeCoutere, who was among the women who accused Ghomeshi of sexual assault. A judge acquitted him on all four charges of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking.

“The whole thing just is a reminder that women are assaulted by men and that men have nothing really tangible to say about how to fix it.

“They keep saying this is a watershed moment but they said that about the Ghomeshi situation, which unfolded in the exact same way.”

Polley, who detailed her experiences with sexual harassment in a widely read New York Times op-ed, is similarly fearful that the current wave of momentum may not lead to change.

She spoke last week at an event for her TV series “Alias Grace” at the University of Toronto's Innis College and said it's “an astonishing moment as a woman in this industry to realize that we're going to take women seriously about this.”

But she added: “Moving forward as we enter into different police forces looking at charges, that's when I start to wonder — are we all powerful enough to rally around these people, these people who have come forward, when we're faced with a judicial system that hasn't changed at all?”

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