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Canadian broadcasters grapple with how to address inappropriate content in classic TV

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MONTREAL — As more Canadian broadcasters and streaming platforms make their legacy content available online, some are being forced to grapple with how to address content that contains racial stereotypes or other material that is out of step with modern values.

Disney drew headlines this year by adding disclaimers to classic films such as "Dumbo" and "Peter Pan," which include caricatured depictions of Black and Native American characters. Canadian broadcasters have followed suit, adding descriptions to shows such as "Police Woman" that warn of racial prejudice and outdated cultural depictions that may cause offence. 

But in Quebec, Radio-Canada's decision to pull an episode of "La petite vie" from its online platform following a complaint about a depiction of an African character caused a backlash last month that highlights the challenges broadcasters face in making these decisions.

The episode of the award-winning show, which enjoyed an average weekly viewership of more than 3 million during its heyday in the 1990s, was eventually returned with a disclaimer, but only after accusations of censorship and a spirited political debate — including a call from the Parti Quebecois for a law to protect free expression and the "free circulation of works."

Robert Hackett, an emeritus professor in Simon Fraser University's communications department, suggested broadcasters are "caught between a rock and a hard place" when it comes to addressing the problems with beloved content, where they risk facing accusations of cultural insensitivity on one hand or censorship on the other. 

In an email, he compared the debate to the one playing out over whether to remove statues of historical figures who espoused racist views, versus contextualizing them through plaques and other messages highlighting their flaws "with a view to stimulating conversation about reckoning with past wrongs."

Thus far, the approach taken by Canadian broadcasters and creators appears to favour putting past material into context instead of removing it. 

National Film Board spokeswoman Lily Robert wrote in an email that the agency chooses an approach of "contextualization, based on explanation and education" rather than withdrawing movies with objectionable content from its catalogue of over 13,000 titles.

She said that in some cases, the NFB chooses to rewrite the descriptions of films, based on the advice of a panel of experts convened to evaluate the content.

As an example, the introductory page to the 1954 film "One Little Indian," includes a warning that the film reflects "the attitudes and thinking of its era."

"To modern audiences, parts of the film may be perceived as offensive, but it must be seen as a cultural product of the era in which it was produced," it reads.

"The perspectives of Canadians (and the NFB) have evolved and become more conscious of Indigenous rights, realities and points of view since the making of the film."

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's head of public affairs said the CBC has also formed a working group to help log and flag inappropriate content in its legacy collections. 

"This is becoming increasingly relevant as we digitize those collections and they become more easily accessible to content creators within CBC," Chuck Thompson said in an email. He said decisions about what to do are made on a case-by-case basis and can include requesting a contract exclusion to prevent broadcasters from inadvertently airing the program.

Drew Hayden Taylor, a playwright and author who hails from the Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario, believes the disclaimers are the right approach.

"I think there's more education, and more influence to be had when you address the issues directly rather than eliminating them," he said in a phone interview.

His play "Dead White Writer on the Floor" explores the many ways Indigenous characters have been portrayed in literature through such stereotypes as the Indian princess, bloodthirsty warrior, wise elder and faithful sidekick.

While he laughs about the depictions, he says they can also be damaging.

"These inaccurate perceptions continue to be perpetrated all through generations and decades," he said.

He believes that while contextualizing helps, the best approach is to move forward by watching, reading and supporting work by Indigenous artists.

He believes representation has improved in current productions but says it's also possible for sensitivity to go too far — to the point where some decision-makers won't allow Indigenous characters to be villains or be depicted in a negative light.

"In many ways it has gone to the other side where we will not allow native people to be to be bad on camera, to be evil on camera, and I think that that limits the opportunities for Indigenous artists," he said in a phone interview.

Matthew Johnson, the director of education for a group that advocates for media literacy, said that while some older material is "irredeemable," much of it provides an opportunity for conversations.

His group, MediaSmarts, provides advice to parents on addressing racial and cultural stereotypes in classic works with their children, with an emphasis on discussing both the good and bad.

"It's a place where you can say, 'This is something that I like and this is something with a lot of good things to it, but it's also something that we can critique aspects of, and we can also look at the degree to which they were normal in the time and place where they were created,' " he said.

Choosing to remove works, on the other hand, can lead to defensiveness, he believes.

"Where people feel that they're being silenced or people feel that they're being told that they're wrong to have fond memories of this show that they watched when they were children, then they're not going to be open to conversations about why we don't have these depictions any more" he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2020.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press