Senate of Canada

Witness Testimony by Tonya Williams

Canadian arts and culture are foreign policy assets. Cultural diplomacy “includes the exchange of ideas, information, art, language and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding.” Showcasing Canadian art and culture helps foreign nations to see the heart of Canada, our values, ideals and institutions, and in turn this supports the furthering of Canadian political and economic goals. 


The current state of Canada’s Cultural Diplomacy efforts are corroborated by the results of a quick Google search for “Famous Canadians”. Out of 60 results, 3 diverse faces populate: Drake (11th), Sandra Oh (27th), and Fefe Dobson (60th). Needless to say, what’s currently seen on the public stage does not reflect the multiculturalism that is the foundation and driving force of this country; and perhaps also speaks on a deeper level to the availability of opportunity for diverse, indigenous, and racialized artists.


Contrasting this gloomy state of affairs is the fact that this is a recognized problem. In an effort to improve Canadian Cultural Diplomacy, the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade conducted an in-depth study, holding 27 hearings, and over 60 witness interviews, of which Reelworld Film Festival Founder Tonya Williams participated. It’s the first comprehensive study of the role of arts and culture in Canadian foreign policy since the 1994 report by the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on Reviewing Canadian Foreign Policy.


The full report includes 6 recommendations, principally stating that “cultural diplomacy should be a pillar of Canada’s foreign policy”. Implementation into governance should be done through a comprehensive strategy.

The following is an excerpt from Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Issue No. 39 - Evidence - Meeting of February 14, 2018.

The Chair: In our second panel, we have before us, by video conference, from Los Angeles — and I’m sure the weather is better there at the moment than here, although we’re doing better — Ms. Tonya Williams, Executive Director, President and Founder of Reelworld Film Festival; and here with us in Ottawa is Ms. Louise Imbeault, President, Société nationale de l’Acadie. Welcome to both of our presenters.

I’m going to turn to our video conference guest, just to be sure the equipment is working. We continue to have some small technical problems, but hopefully they’re solved.


The biographies have been circulated. We do not anticipate reading them out so you have more time in your presentation and for the questions.


Welcome to both of our witnesses. I’m going to now turn to Ms. Williams for a short presentation.

Tonya Williams, Executive Director, President and Founder, Reelworld Film Festival: Thank you so much, Madam Chair and the rest of the committee. I feel honoured being asked to come and contribute my thoughts to this debate.


I arrived in Canada in 1970 at the age of 12 years old. One of the first things most immigrants do is turn on the television. For many, it is a way to learn English, but they are also learning about the culture and values of that country. What I saw as a young child was that no one on TV looked like me or my parents. It can be a humbling experience to feel invisible in a community.


It was a few years later, in 1977, when I landed a national campaign for milk that encompassed TV commercials, billboards and magazines, that I really became a household face. People stopped me everywhere, and I saw the pride in the faces of other Black Canadians who finally felt welcomed into a country many of them had lived in for decades. 


If Canada wishes to be a country that is more welcoming to immigrants and international businesses, then it is imperative that it shows the world the diverse communities that make up this country, and there’s no better way to show that than through our television shows and films. But we must also be sensitive that these TV shows and films not fall into the danger of presenting negative stereotypes of their diverse citizens. That can have a negative backlash.


In June of last year, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland rolled out a new foreign policy. It was broken down into five points. I was encouraged to see that number one on that list was that:

Canada will make its diversity an example to the world and that it will stand up for the persecuted and the downtrodden. 

She says Canada will “set a standard” for how women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities and Indigenous people are treated in the world. That is a very clear statement. 


Number four on her list was that Canada’s new feminist international development strategy will reorient plans so Canada can fight poverty in the world by focusing on women and girls.

It seems we have some clear directives we could be using in the shaping of our cultural diplomacy. These two factors are things that Canada and Canada alone could do really well. Let us bring together those organizations and initiatives in Canada that have a focus on these particular issues and let’s come up with a strategy that gets the word out that Canada is a key world player in promoting these platforms.


We have a rich history in Canada, and we should be encouraging our film-makers to mine that history and the many cultures, religions and races that make Canada what it is today. This is something I believe would be helpful in the quest for better foreign diplomacy.


No one can deny the value of Canadian dance, music, novels, paintings, sculptures, poetry or theatre companies touring the world and how that has impacted the world’s perceptions of Canada in such positive ways. There’s also no denying that a film, a TV show or video from Canada reaches the masses in greater numbers in the fastest way. Those milk commercials I mentioned catapulted me into the national arena, but it was the show “The Young and the Restless” that I starred in for 20 years that catapulted me into the international arena. Within weeks of my first airing on the show, I was receiving thousands of letters from around the world and many of those people were also people of colour, like myself, who lived in countries that were not as welcoming to their communities. So let us remember to use our screen-based programs to enhance our arts and culture diplomacy around the world.


Here is something that happens to me all the time. Someone asks me where I’m from, and I tell them “Canada,” and they pause for a moment, confused, and ask me if there are many Black people in Canada. I explain to them we have a large and robust population of not only Black people but all racialized communities and that in fact Canada is considered one of the most diverse countries in the world. This seems to be something that the world is not aware of, and you only have to look at the arts, culture and programming that we send abroad to understand why people think this. There is very little diversity in the things we send abroad that reflect who and what Canada is.


The stories we create are not just seen by audiences in Canada; they go all around the world and are seen in even some of the most remote places. Those people are getting a glimpse of who we are as Canadians, what our values and belief systems are. Our stories can do much to change the values in other countries too. The American Association of Black Women Physicians honoured me one year and told me that specifically because of a character I played, which was a doctor, there was an increase in registration of Black women to study medicine. That is a powerful impact to have on an audience. 


I also played a character whose husband, unbeknownst to her, had HIV. This was eye-opening to many people in the early 1990s when the assumption was that only homosexuals could contract the disease. We won a Red Ribbon of Hope presented through the academy in Los Angeles for informing and educating our audience on this important issue. We can save lives through the messages we send out through our stories. What better use of our arts and culture can there be?


A film can expose someone to a culture, a country that they may never see, and that connects them to the whole world and makes others seem less like strangers and more like family.


In 2000, having worked in Canada and the U.S. for over 20 years in the entertainment industry, I came up with an initiative to fill a hole I felt was sadly missing in Canada. Many of our diverse artists were leaving in droves for the U.S. due to lack of opportunity in Canada. I came up with Reelworld Film Festival. Its sole purpose was to give exposure, promote and create development opportunities for film, TV and media emerging artists for the Indigenous and racialized communities. Although we had a lot of talent, very few people in Canada knew about them and certainly even fewer people worldwide knew of them. 


Over the past 18 years we have struggled to survive, but what keeps us going is the desperation these artists have for us to continue. So many of them have directly mentioned that Reelworld was instrumental to their successes and now many of them travel internationally to present their work. They are Canadian arts ambassadors. This has elevated the perception of Canada in so many positive ways.


In Toronto alone, there are 120 film festivals. We have thousands of film festivals across Canada, and this is something that’s not promoted internationally. There should be more exchange between film festivals, exchange of staff, filmmakers, actors and producers between the provinces of Canada and also around the world.


You speak of wanting more international cultural diplomacy, but that diplomacy should start at home in Canada. We need more resources to grow our industry here so that you can benefit from it out there in the rest of the world. So many initiatives that individuals have started with their own funds have benefited the Government of Canada, but these small initiatives need your help.


Without receiving any government funding, Reelworld has had the opportunity to take its programming to other countries, such as Uganda, Zanzibar and some of the Caribbean islands. I have seen firsthand the impact our Canadian stories have had on an audience’s awareness to human rights and how interested and well received our Canadian values are embraced. This all adds to the value of our foreign diplomacy. Our film festivals in Canada should be helped to send more of their programming to other countries.


We cannot view our foreign diplomacy through the lens of trade and finance. One of the things I heard one of your witnesses and senators mention are there are primary countries that Canada focuses on, countries like U.K., Australia, France, Germany, China, India and the U.S. It’s important that we focus some of our energies there, but no one mentioned any African countries or Caribbean countries, and these are areas where we have tremendous populations in Canada.


Here is what I’d love to see: a Canadian delegation goes to China and presents arts and culture from our Canadian, African, Caribbean, Latino, Middle Eastern communities. That would be exceptional foreign diplomacy. With China’s terrible human rights records, what better way to show a positive impact than to celebrate the differences and diversity of Canada? Let’s also be the big, big fish in a small country, where they might be thirsting for arts and culture.


But if you want to speak about increasing revenue for Canada, I have many times had to convince racially diverse directors and producers from Hollywood that they would be able to cast and shoot their films in Canada because there are so many racially diverse actors and crews that exist there. This is not something that is known to many, and I believe we lose jobs because of this.

One of the questions Senator Bovey asked in a previous session that was wonderful was “How does one choose from all this art, between the ballet, the polka or modern dance?” Here’s my simple answer. It doesn’t matter what the dance is. It matters that there is racial diversity in it. Let the dancers who are dancing the polka be from every race under the sun. Let the ballet reflect the true diversity that is unique to Canada. That would be extraordinary and would leave lasting impressions in those countries that have such intolerance to their own diversity.


Resource allocation. I want you to recognize that whenever the government starts talking about arts and culture, you bring fear to the hearts of everyone who works in arts and culture, because many times the talks can be used as a tool to further decrease spending in our sectors. It is hard to build a strong industry when, each year, the policies of a government hold us in precarious financial positions. We never know if we’re going to get our funding for that year, so it’s hard to plan for the long term when the funding is doled out sparingly, year by year. In some years, those same arts groups don’t get any funding at all.


Here is another concern: The word “diversity” pretty much encompasses everything that is not White and English. If you were to tell me that the fund was going to delegate 10 per cent to diversity, that would be a nightmare number for those in that category. Basically, you would be saying that 10 per cent who are not diverse will be receiving 90 per cent of the funding and all other diversities, ranging from race, ethnicity, language, disabilities, gender, religion — all of us — will be fighting for the 10 per cent left for us. Of course, my numbers are not exact, but you get my meaning. We have to look carefully at our allocation, and make sure it’s split up evenly in all sectors.

There is not time here, but we have a problem with the requirements of these grants we write. They are time-consuming, and the measurements are so very hard and daunting for small emerging organizations to handle.


On another note, I’m not sure if you know this, but one of our Black directors, Clement Virgo, who hailed originally from Jamaica, is the creator of the Oprah Winfrey Network show “Greenleaf” that was just nominated for three NAACP Image Awards in Hollywood, which I won in 2000 and 2002. He also directed and produced the “Book of Negroes” that was such a national and international success. We need to celebrate that in Canada.


Are you aware that our actors union, ACTRA, holds an event in L.A. each year and presents an award of excellence? I won it in 2005, Sandra Oh won it in 2008 and Molly Parker won it this year. We have so much talent in and from Canada, and we do so little to promote it. Thank goodness for Canada’s Walk of Fame, something else that should be heavily promoted internationally.


There is just not enough time in my six minutes — which I have gone over — to share with you all my thoughts and ideas on what I believe could be done to enhance our foreign diplomacy. It would entail collaborations with certain entities, and it would involve our Canadian celebrities who live all around the world. It would entail a marketing strategy that would be released in phases, online and through contests. We would need to make it fun and engaging, and we would need to be bold, out-of-the-box thinkers, with no holds barred. It would be a nice blend of political left-brain strategists and free-thinking right-brain artists.


There was a time in the entertainment industry when you could develop a project just for TV, film, theatre or radio, but the world multi-platform is now the goal, and so it should be for us. I love Senator Andreychuk’s idea of arts and culture including so much more: food, sports. Let’s not limit ourselves. Let’s make one delicious pie and not a bunch of cupcakes.


One of the reasons that U.S. foreign diplomacy works so well is that they integrate themselves in other people’s countries. Look at our Canadian broadcasts. The United States has ABC, CBS, NBC and so many American networks that our citizens have become reliant on. It’s hard to compete with those shows and those budgets. Where are our networks in foreign countries? Nowhere. America makes these long-term investments to reap political and diplomatic advantages over other countries.


Have you ever been watching a film and it’s set in New York, and you see the streets and buildings of New York, or it’s in Paris and you see the landmarks that clearly let you know you’re in Paris, or in the U.K.? You mentioned you wanted to create a better branding campaign. The first step is to have films and TV shows set in Canadian cities that spotlight those cities as another character in the story. There’s no better branding than that. You don’t need to stick a maple leaf on it to be Canadian. You show our CN Tower, our streets with its nightlife, the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Niagara Falls, and the wonderful buildings and vistas that exist across Canada. When you show it enough times, people start to recognize it as Canadian in the way we recognize Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.


International productions that come to Canada do everything in their power to snuff out that they are in Canada. Canada is the sound stage to look like New York or Chicago. Why can’t Canada be the country the story is taking place in?

Thank you so much.


The Chair: Thank you. That was a long six minutes, I must say, but you covered so much and so many of the areas that I thought it would be disconnecting your message if we only heard a portion of it.

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