Over the past 3 weeks a wave of sexual assault and harassment accusations have rocked the film and TV industry.
The reaction has been swift. Producers, actors, agents and more have been terminated from their jobs, and men and women are rising up to support the #metoo movement of victims who finally feel safe enough to tell their stories.
So far these stories have come out of the US industry. But what about here in Canada? Our industry is much smaller and our stars don’t carry the clout of big Hollywood celebrities so it would be a rare occurrence in Hollywood North, right?
Sadly no. The same systemic problem is alive and well here.
I have worked in various facets of the Canadian entertainment industry for the past 20 years, and while I haven’t seen anything as despicable as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby’s behaviour, I have seen the system of silence that turns a blind eye and subtly discourages any victim complaints. The Jian Ghomeshi case was a shock to most Canadians. How could something so awful happen in such a nice place? And how did it go on for so long before the story came out (after a long investigation by the Toronto Star)?
The answer: the system is designed to protect the talent at all costs. At least until it becomes too big to hide. It is something I have both witnessed and been told about by friends in the industry.The systemic problem of industry enablers is why harassment and abuse persists. These incidents show the reason people feel powerless to speak up:
1. A number of years ago I was working on the broadcast for a live event. During the host’s rehearsal our (female) executive producer, who had just changed into a formal dress for the show, walked across the floor to give the host notes. As she did he said into the mic for the entire crew to hear, “wow, you’re looking good. I should rape you”. Humiliated she had to pretend to laugh, give him his notes and go back to the control room. I wanted to say something to the host and she said, “No, just leave it. We have to get through this show.”. She didn’t say that because she’s a meek woman, but because she knew the stakeholders cared far more about the show going off without a hitch than her dignity and security. She knew she couldn’t risk pissing off the host by complaining or calling him out and having him walk an hour before broadcast.
2. Another producer friend of mine who worked on a well-known show was in an elevator with a famous American actor as well as the show’s host. The elevator was empty except the three of them and the American celeb pushed his groin into her “as a joke”. The host pretended it wasn’t happening. Nobody said a word. Because, again, you don’t want to upset the talent and ruin the show.
3. I was in a meeting once with the host of a show and an openly gay PA walked in. The host said, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never suck a dick. Not even for a million dollars”. I felt so uncomfortable at that moment. There was a group of us in the office when it happened. I knew it was wrong. The poor PA just laughed and left. He never complained. The host probably would say he never meant to offend or belittle – he was “making a joke”. But he did it at the expense of a young man who couldn’t fight back. And it was a deeply homophobic “joke”. To this day I still feel dirty when I think about that incident and the fact that I never said anything. Never called out the homophobia or the way it probably made the guy feel. I want to say sorry to that man. If I ever run into him in person, I will offer my most sincere apology for not standing up for him.
4. Another female friend, who worked in a newsroom, said she loved her job but always felt uncomfortable around one of the on-air journalists because anytime he spoke to her he would stare at her breasts.
5. I’ve witnessed a TV host throw horrific tantrums, scream, berate, insult and curse at the staff when something didn’t go their way. The staff would walk on egg shells around the host. And all the execs were aware of the behaviour and had witnessed it. But again, the show is more important than the people who make it happen, so the on-air talent’s awful behaviour was ignored.
I have seen and heard more stories like these. The common thread in Canada is that the people in charge – network executives, department heads, production execs, etc. – will pay lip service to creating a safe work environment, to having zero tolerance of sexual harassment, but in practice, nobody is enforcing it. Everyone is afraid if they say something and derail the show, their jobs will be at stake. It’s the same reason staff on productions where there is abuse and harassment don’t say anything; they’re afraid to complain, to say this isn’t right because it could mean their job. And they know they don’t have the support from their bosses to complain.
Despite what’s happening in the US right now, nobody here wants to risk their livelihood by getting fired or gaining a reputation as a troublemaker if they complain. So put your eyes down, do your job, and pretend everything is fine.
With the #metoo movement people are finally saying “The emperor has no clothes”. It’s not fine. And if what we’ve seen in the last 3 weeks has shown us anything it’s that no one is too big to not face the consequences of their actions. But the real test is this: Is this movement strong enough to shake up the power structure and system of cover ups, denials and ignored wrong doings here in Canada? I truly hope it is, but I am not that hopeful that it will go deep enough to affect a lasting change. Because unless the enablers are taken down the change will only be skin deep. They are the people on top who helped make the monsters by appeasing them at every turn, allowing bad behaviour, ignoring deeply inappropriate and harassing actions and discouraging anyone from rocking the boat by complaining.
As a final note I should say that I am writing this under a pen name because I am not just telling my story, but experiences friends have shared with me. I wish I wasn’t. But with such a small entertainment industry in Canada, it would be easy to IMDB me and see the shows I’ve worked on.
Suggestions for what to do if you are being harassed in your workplace.