EXCLUSIVE: WGC Executive Director Victoria Shen on the fight in Canada to "preserve the craft of screenwriting"

WGC Executive Director Victoria Shen
WGC Executive Director Victoria Shen /

Summer is swiftly approaching and another strike in the entertainment industry is threatening to take hold but not stateside. It seems the powers that be in Canada, represented by the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), didn't learn anything from the WGA strike that took over Summer and Fall 2023 and shifted into a dual strike once SAG-AFTRA joined the fray to fight for a fair agreement of their own with the AMPTP.

For the first time in the Writers Guild of Canada's 33 year history, a strike authorization vote was cast. Overwhelmingly, the union's members voted in favor of authorizing a strike if an agreement can't be reached between the organization and the CMPA. According to WGC's Executive Director Victoria Shen--who is also a labor and human rights lawyer--the union is working to ensure the future of screenwriting.

I had the opportunity to speak to Shen about what led to the decision to cast the vote, the three key issues at the heart of the disagreement, and how a strike in Canada could impact the U.S. television industry since there are American productions that film in the country and hire WGC writers for their writers rooms. Shen explains what's at stake in the following interview.

I'm sorry that the union is going through this right now. The WGA strike was last year, is this the same existential crisis about the future, in terms of where the industry goes from here?

Wow, that's a great question. There was a huge strike last year with the WGA. We are under a different union, our jurisdiction's up here in Canada, and I think a lot of the reasons why they went on strike, and those issues, are the very ones that we're dealing with as well. The key issues have to do with fair compensation, minimum staffing, and AI protection.

With that in mind, this is a conversation about the future of screenwriting. When you say fair compensation, and you're talking about AI, could you expand. What is it about the writers and AI that is causing an issue? Is it about the work being protected?

I think a lot of times when we talk about the coverage on AI, they're totally bogged down in technological jargon. I think if I were to boil it down to a couple basic ideas, like all of our proposals around compensation and whatever else, all we are really trying to do is to protect the livelihood of our members and preserve a future for screenwriters in Canada, with respect to AI protection. What we're concerned about is protecting our jobs and preserving the craft of screenwriting.

Practically, this means we want to ensure that productions are continuing to employ writers and not robots. We want to ensure that our human writers continue to get the credit and the compensation that they've earned and deserve. And we want to ensure that our work is not being stolen to train AI.

When this comes to American shows that film in Canada, would they be impacted by a potential strike?

A couple of things. Obviously, with the strike authorization vote, that doesn't automatically mean we will go on strike. It is having the strike mandate actually assist us in trying to go back to the bargaining table and reach a resolution. We are continuing to try to reach a deal and that is our ultimate goal. A strike obviously would be the last resort.

But in the event of a strike, the WGC--as with writers guilds around the world--we are all members of the International Association of Writers Guilds (IAWG). We all have an agreement that we will respect each other's jurisdiction. In the event of a strike, we would not cross each other's picket lines.

So, as you saw, when the WGA went on strike, we didn't take their jobs. With the WGA, they had a number of "call to work" engagers at the productions and studios they were having a strike against. Nobody, no other writers, either in Canada or around the world, would work for the people that the WGA was on strike against. That's a fundamental part.

With respect to the kind of shows that shoot in Canada, it will depend on a case-by-case basis. Some shows do all the writing in the U.S. and they just shoot here, so there's no writers room. It just really depends on what it looks like. Then different shows might have a Canadian writer or there may be an American writer in a mix with Canadian writers.

It will depend on what the writers rooms look like, how people were contracted, what phase of production they happen to be in, you know, maybe there's a show but they're in post and all the writing is done. Practically, it will depend on what kind of labor action we are taking but ultimately all writers guilds around the world will be respecting our strike.

And this would be the same for any co-productions as well between Canadian studios and American studios?

Yeah, I mean, again it just depends on how that production is structured.

This is the first strike authorization in the 33 years that the union has been established. What led to this decision in the industry? What is the change you want to see besides the [fair] compensation and the protection from AI? How did we get to this point in the Canadian industry?

We've been in negotiations since October with the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) to renew our collective agreement which is called the Independent Production Agreement, or the IPA. We've always been able to reach a deal before the expiration of our agreement so the fact that our agreement expired at the end of December, and we were unable to reach a deal, is also an exceptionally unusual situation for us to be in.

We also engaged a conciliation officer in December, again, we never had to do that before. But also because we just haven't been able to reach a deal. At this current moment, our agreement expired at the end of December, we've now been in negotiations with the CMPA for over six months. It was the lack of progress, the length of time we've been in negotiations and the fact that in our negotiations we were really feeling that we were not seeing the kind of movement and the kind of compromises that we really need to see. That was why we called the strike authorization vote.

So, yeah, this is the first time in 33 years we've ever had to do this. So the fact that we had a 96.5% yes is incredible. The voter turnout that we had is also unprecedented in our history. It is just an incredible time for us. One of our hashtags right now is #WGCStrong. Just in this moment, the strength of the solidarity with our membership is just phenomenal and stirring and inspiring.

It is obviously a scary time for us to have to use our strike authorization vote but at the same time it's incredibly inspiring. I'm just so proud of our members for standing up for what they believe in.

Yes, that is quite the turnout for a vote of this nature particularly, as you said, because it never had to happen before. Are you able to speak on what the crux of the issue is in terms of progress that the producers are unwilling to meet you at the table about? Is it specifically about AI?

Yeah, I would say those three things. Fair compensation, particularly our animation writers make less than our writers in live-action and so we've been trying to bring them up and there's be a lot of resistance to that.

In terms of minimum staffing, you might have heard during the WGA strike there was all this discussion about minirooms, they're hiring fewer and fewer writers and they're basically closing the writers room before we get into production. It's really important for writers to actually be on set when things are shooting. One, because it's better for the show because things are always changing with the script depending on what's happening on set. Additionally, it's really important for the development of writers to have that production experience. So we're asking for one writer, other than the showrunner, on set throughout production on greenlit shows. You'll see in the WGA agreement that they got a ton of minimum staffing provisions in their agreement last year as well.

Then, with respect to the AI protections, like I said earlier we want to protect our jobs. We want to preserve the craft of screenwriting. We want to ensure there's writers and not robots writing shows. We want to make sure writers are getting their credit and fair compensation. We want to make sure their work is not being stolen to train AI.

For more on the WGC's efforts to reach a fair agreement with the CMPA, visit the union's website. You can also read the press release for their strike authorization vote, here.


Stay tuned to Hidden Remote for more TV news and coverage!