Kim's Convenience and Canadian television’s diversity problem

The CBC’s new sitcom is the first mainstream Canadian show with an Asian lead cast — which, Lucas Costello argues, says a lot about how far behind the network and Canadian television at large are in reflecting the population
By Lucas Costello - Published on October 18, 2016
four actors from the tv show Kim's Convenience
Kim's Convenience centres on a corner store run by a Korean-Canadian family in Toronto's Regent Park. (CBC)

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In the multiverse of the CBC’s fictional TV offerings, there are two worlds that Canadian viewers are presented with. Let’s call them Worlds A and B.

World A is the dominant one, set in a mostly white Canada where racialized characters have frequent cameos or play supporting roles. Like Schitt’s Creek, Heartland or King of Kensington, shows in World A tend to last several seasons. The one exception to the rule in this scenario was Little Mosque on the Prairie. Little Mosque was a rare combination of feel-good Canadiana, diverse casting and long-term investment from our national broadcaster, but at its core “a very old-school Canadian show.”

For the most part, World A is at odds with a nation with a large and growing racialized population.

World B is the one you catch rare glimpses of, and its shows — including The Rez, Strange Empire and North of 60 — tend to have shorter lifespans than those in World A. They often have a diverse cast, receive critical acclaim and develop challenging, original story lines. These stories reflect the voices and faces that often go unrepresented, unheard or unnoticed in the far more common World A shows.

In 2014 the CBC launched Strategy 2020: A Space For Us All, with the stated aim of being “the public space at the heart of our conversations and experiences as Canadians” and recognizing that “[t]he changing composition of Canadian audiences must be taken into account to ensure that the services and content meet their needs and expectations.” With the network debut of Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience last week, there is hope that World B will expand a little more, and its characters might stick around a little longer.

As some of the best shows often are, Kim’s Convenience is, ultimately, about a family and its complicated relationships. The familiar tropes are all there: the errant son; the fumbling-but-well-meaning father; the younger sibling pursuing an impractical creative career; the proud, betrothal-minded mother.

What makes Kim's Convenience unprecedented is largely who is telling these stories. The show centres on a convenience store run by a Korean-Canadian family in Toronto’s Regent Park — a neighbourhood that, due to its many intersections of race, class and faith, gives Kim's Convenience opportunities to engage in broad conversations about identity, place and belonging.

The show's premiere, “Gay Discount,” aired last week, and was a promising start. Regent Park falls just outside the borders of the Village, Toronto’s historical home for LGBTQ communities. In the episode the family’s father/Appa, Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), expresses an oft-heard AM talk radio refrain when a minority group advocates for its rights: “If you is the gay, why can’t you be quiet, respectful gay?” he asks two queer customers.

To make up for what one of the customers perceives to be the homophobia in that statement, Mr. Kim offers a 15 per cent “gay discount” during Pride Week. This sets up a genuine inquiry by a seemingly traditional middle-aged Korean man trying to better understand the shifting social landscape of his neighbourhood, and ultimately our society.

It's a great thing to have on our screens, but it has taken far too long to get here.That this is the first series in mainstream Canadian television history with an Asian lead cast shows how far behind our television is in reflecting this country's diversity.

This is a problem that goes beyond the numerous talented artists whose work and abilities go unrecognized or undeveloped; it also shapes our social fabric. Whether by misrepresentation or omission, our television fictions have played a role in denying too many communities visibility. When we are unable or unwilling to depict and engage with the realities of the many faces that make up our society, the nation’s imagination sets its sights on the faces and words of that previously mentioned World A. In doing so, we run the risk of pushing the inhabitants of World B further away.

In its 2015-2018 Inclusion and Diversity Plan the CBC committed to diversifying its organizational staffing; it has since made good on its plans to hold development workshops for what it calls “diverse content creators” to provide resources and teach the skills necessary to successfully pitch their own ideas for CBC programming. The CBC also hosts networking events that “facilitate connections between emerging diverse talent, experienced creators, decision makers and production partners.”

Oddly, however, this three-year plan has set targets for managerial, administrative, marketing and trades segments of its workforce — not the “content creators” with whom the corporation develops programming. According to Alexandra Fortier, a communications manager for the CBC, the corporation has just begun tracking its onscreen diversity. Hopefully, this information will be available to inform the CBC’s next inclusion and diversity plan and help set concrete goals for what our TV dreams can look like.

The CBC recognizes that audiences want to see and hear better representation in our stories, and that offering that representation is arguably essential to its mandate, but has only begun making this shift; World B still has a lot of catching up to do. Kim’s Convenience is a fantastic demonstration of what is possible. Of course, that is a lot of responsibility to put on a single show about a family with a convenience store in Regent Park — but here's hoping it's the first step of many, and not an outlier like its predecessors.

Lucas Costello is an arts worker and campaign organizer based in Toronto.

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