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NDP MPP's bill to protect child performers passes second reading

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An NDP private member's bill designed to protect child performers in the entertainment industry passed Second Reading in the Ontario Legislature on Thursday.

Bill 71, The Protecting Child Performers ACT, was introduced by NDP MPP Paul Miller, passed First Reading on May 15 and has now been referred to the Standing Committee on General Government.

"After ten long years of hard work by Equity and ACTRA, we have finally come this far," said Miller late Thursday afternoon.

"I look forward to the Standing Committee debates and, hopefully, to moving Bill 71 to Third Reading and Royal Assent this Fall."

So does Shirley Douglas, a Canadian television, film, and stage actress and activist who's worked in the entertainment industry for 60 years.

"I will never be happy until the children are treated with the respect and the care that we (adults) can demand," said Douglas at a press conference in the Queen's Park media studio earlier in the day.

"I can say to the director that something has got to stop and they stop it. But a child can't do that. And so we have to protect children from the very freewheeling behaviour that can take place in the theatre and in film."

When Douglas starred in Wind at My Back, the acclaimed television show set in the 1930's during the Depression in the fictional town of New Bedford, Ontario that ran from 1996 to 2001, she said it was the first time she worked with children in film.

"Who looks after the children?" asked Douglas.

She was appalled to find out they're left on their own.

"We have to see that all the children -- not just ACTRA and Equity children -- are in an environment that is safe and safeguarding their education. Because if they're not going to get an education, then they shouldn't be in the film."

Shannon Kook-Chun, ACTRA Member and 'Zane' from Degrassi: the Next Generation, was surprised to hear that the proposed legislation isn't already law.

"Without the requirement and an infrastructure of tutoring it's very easy for children to fall behind in their school," said Kook-Chun.

"Sets can be very exciting, but they can also be very confusing environments."

Bill 71 requires tutoring for the first two hours of every workday.

It also makes it mandatory for a portion of a child's earnings to be protected in a trust fund account until they’re 18-years-old, puts realistic limits on the number of hours a child may work with age-appropriate breaks, ensures that parents and children are aware of any potential health and safety issues and sets out parental guardianship guidelines.

When Kook-Chun was 7 years old, he shot his first commercial in South Africa.

"I was in a bus full of kids my age," he said. "I fell asleep on the way home to be woken up by the bus driver who told me that this was my stop."

He got off alone.

"I had no idea where I was," said Kook-Chun. "So I just wandered around the city and walked into a restaurant. They let me use their phone and I called my dad."

In Toronto, twelve-year-old Amariah Faulkner started singing when she was five-years-old in commercials and short films. At six, she was cast in the Mirvish production of The Sound of Music.

"This was a huge opportunity and a great experience," said Faulkner, a member of Equity and ACTRA. "So I have protections because of my membership."

But many children aren't protected by a union.

Prior to starting The Sound of Music, Faulkner had never been left without a parent.

"Then all of a sudden, I had to be left at rehearsals for long hours without my mother," she said.  "I found this very frightening and it made it hard to focus on what the production team was asking of me."

There were days when breaks and lunch breaks were too short. Days were long.

"And when you're a child trying to go to school in the morning and rehearsing from 1 pm to 9 pm, it makes it hard to concentrate," she said.

"If Bill 71 had existed then, I would have been treated like a professional and had a positive and safe experience," said Faulkner.

Because the children can't always advocate for themselves.

"That is the most important thing," said Elizabeth Van Wyck, a parent of a child performer who is a member of Equity and ACTRA. 

"As an adult performer, you can speak up for yourself and make sure that things are safe or reasonable. But the children can't."

Even those that are willing to speak up often remain quiet out of fear that it might jeopardize their career.

As a parent, Van Wyck has learned about the lack of consistent protections for young performers. "There are certain needs unique to young performers that must be mandated," she said.

And performers and their parents agree that Bill 71 would solve the problem.

"The legislation will ensure that situations such as rehearsal hours skyrocketing, a child's supervisor being undermined or lack of tutoring due to time constraints are prohibited or resolved," said Van Wyck.

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