Montreal production company, Health Canada to retire industry term after First Nations man flags its racist connotation

A Montreal production company says it will stop using a French-language casting phrase after a Cree man turned down a gig because of a word deemed offensive used in the file name of his contract.

Daybi, a Cree actor and artist who also works as the project co-ordinator of Native Harm Reduction Montreal, had been cast to portray a First Nations man in a Health Canada ad promoting safe mask usage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A staff member from the company that hoped to hire Daybi, Productions l’Éloi, sent him a contract as an attachment in an email.

The contract was titled “casting sauvage” — an industry term used to describe what is commonly known in English as an “open call,” or a “cattle call.”

In French, the term sauvage is a slur when used to describe an Indigenous person. It translates to “savage.”

In both English and French, the word has a colonial history as it was used by European settlers to refer to Indigenous people.

Daybi said he was offended to be asked to sign a contract labeled “casting sauvage” to nail down a job where he was being asked to play a First Nations man.

“It’s too much. Especially in this climate. They should have just known better. It’s not my job to educate people. It’s offensive,” he said.

In emails shared with CBC News, he politely turned down the job, citing the name of the contract as the reason why.

“As harmless as it may seem, it really put me off, and I cannot act as if it didn’t bother me,” he wrote in the email.

“In the future, I hope more thought, or any thought, is given to the people you are shooting with.”

Dual meanings

This is not the first time the usage of the word has drawn criticism from Indigenous people living in Quebec.

The company Dior pulled an advertisement that featured Indigenous imagery promoting its perfume called “Sauvage” following criticism.

To French-speaking Quebecers, the word sauvage has a dual meaning.

In some contexts, it’s a slur against Indigenous people. But it can also be used as an adjective to describe something wild.

For example, one might see a sign advertising les bleuets sauvages — wild blueberries — in grocery stores.

The controversy comes amid a heightened awareness about racism in Canada and the United States. Daybi said the spotlight on racial tensions prompted his decision to speak out.

‘It means something different to us’

The owner of the company that tried to hire Daybi says the term “casting sauvage” is common in French-language production lingo.

Despite that, he says he’ll be retiring the term immediately.

“For as long as I’ve known in the photo and film casting, we’ve called this a street casting, translated into a casting sauvage,” said Éloi Beauchamps, the owner of Productions l’Éloi.

“We were very sad that it could impact someone’s life. It was so far from our objective,” he said, adding that he was sorry to offend Daybi.

Health Canada ‘regrets’ the situation

Health Canada, the agency for which the ad was being shot, said in a statement that it apologizes to Daybi for what happened.

“We sincerely apologize to the actor who received this contract and to anyone else who may have received this as part of the call out for casting,” the department said in a statement.

“The term used in the contract’s filename is offensive and inappropriate. We were not aware of this situation and are grateful that this has been brought to our attention.”

A spokesperson for Health Canada said companies contracted out to make advertisements will be told not to use that term again.

“We sincerely regret that such a situation occurred,” the statement said.

Daybi said he’s yet to hear an apology directly from Beauchamp, and he’d like to see the word retired in all contexts, immediately.

He said he understands it can mean something different in French, but to him, it’s akin to using the N-word.

“It means something different to us,” he said. “Please stop using it.”

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