Does British Columbia only want White tourists?

Talk About Race — By Mike Barber on February 15, 2010 at 05:02

In the weeks leading up to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Tourism British Columbia released a new commercial it spent millions of dollars on in order to promote tourism in the province. The fact that most of the world already knew the 2010 winter Olympics were being held there apparently was not enough. The commercial features notable Canadians Michael J. Fox, Sarah McLachlan, Ryan Reynolds, Kim Cattrall, Steve Nash, and Erick McCormack; what it doesn’t feature is much ethnic diversity.

There are two versions: the 90-second and the 30-second version. The version most are likely familiar with is the 30-second version. I say that because it is the only version I have personally seen aired on Canadian TV; I wasn’t aware the 90-second version even existed until I came across it while searching for the commercial on YouTube. In either case, it is clear the intended target amongst potential tourists are only those as white as the snow featured in the many expensive aerial shots.

You Gotta Be Here (30-second version)

Never mind the fact that all the celebrities featured are White, in this version of the commercial there is not a single tourist with a discernible race other than White to be found. There is a token nod to Aboriginal culture for literally a second towards the end, but that’s about the only thing “ethnic” you’re going to see in this version of the promo.

You Gotta Be Here (90-second version)

I think I spot a people of color (PoC) tourist at 00:01:07 (not the Asian chef, but the “tourist”) but I have to admit, it could just be the lighting that makes his skintone appear darker. Oh, look…  there’s an Asian child at 00:01:22. So other than a few flashes of Pacific Asian and Aboriginal culture, we have what could be two PoC amongst a sea of White faces.

What is Tourism British Columbia thinking? Is it that there are aren’t PoC out there with money that are worth marketing to as well? Surely, they’re not thinking that the only good tourist dollar is a White tourist’s dollar, are they? We can’t really know what their intention—conscious or subconscious—was in making obviously Caucasian-centric tourism ads, but the result is promo that exclusively targets Whites. Perhaps they didn’t feel the need to tout BC’s multiculturalism because they didn’t feel it was in their interest to do so.

Canada is fairly well known for its multiculturalism; in fact, multiculturalism is protected in section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” And while Canada does often do well by this declaration, it often has moments where it fails to truly live up to its reputation.

Despite the cultural diversity in urban centers such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver,  it is still a country where White is considered the norm and this attitude is systematically reflected in our institutions, our culture, our history, and our national self-image. In other words, we like to think of ourselves as a country that is very divers and multicultural, but the truth is we are more ethnocentric than we want to admit. Canada usually jumps at the chance to put our multiculturalism on parade when the world is looking, but the rest of the time—as this Tourism British Columbia ad exemplifies—it’s “White as usual.”

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Author: Mike Barber (9 Articles)

Mike Barber

Mike Barber is an independent filmmaker with a particular interest in issues surrounding social justice. He is currently directing “A Past, Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada,” a feature documentary exploring how a false sense of history—both taught in the classroom and repeated throughout the national historical narrative—impinges on the present. It examines how 200 years of institutional slavery during Canada’s formation has been kept out of Canadian classrooms, textbooks and social consciousness. He is currently based in Toronto, Ontario. You can follow him on Twitter at (@mike_barber) and his film at (@apastdenied)


  • Jamaal Bell Jamaal Bell says:

    Before I read the post, I purposely watched the ads first. My first impression was, “Wow BC is nice… I think I want to visit.” Then I read your post. At first I thought it was overly politically correct and I said this is to extreme. I don’t see it that way.

    Then my wife and I had a conversation about your article; and race and advertising. My wife is a doctoral student at The Ohio State University studying Multicultural Education and Equity, she studies race and multiculturalism. Coincidentally, we’re watching the Winter Olympics during our discussion.

    I was holding strong to my convictions about that there was nothing explicitly racist about these Ads. Implicitly, I thought one could make a good argument. Then she made the point that BC is using the Winter Olympics as a back drop to attract tourism to BC, why wouldn’t they want expose their multiculturalism to a multicultural audience that is watching a multicultural event?

    Then it hit me like, BAM! BC had the opportunity to expose there growing multicultural community, especially their growing Asian community; which is 19% of their population (minorities total is 25% and aboriginals are 5%). After realizing that, I said, who are they advertising too? They couldn’t be advertising to the world. Because the world isn’t white, the world multicultural, multiracial and even whites are divided into different ethnicities.

    The Winter Olympics is a multicultural event where people from ALL over the world compete in games. They used only whites to advertise BC to a multicultural audience.

    They had a perfect opportunity to advertise their multicultural province to a multicultural audience. They could have even gloated or showed it off. But they didn’t, why?

    They must have thought about it because they hired advertising professionals. So I have to imagine that it was done on purpose. I believe it was done on purpose because I am educated in PR, advertising and marketing. Examining your target audience is a primary function. It is obvious who their target audience is and their assumptions of who would be receptive to coming to BC.

    In these advertisers’ research, they must have thought that white people; who make a certain income; who like the outdoors; and like winter sports would be the only people interested and most likely come to visit BC. The advertisers also assumed that “their” version of stereotypical white people didn’t want to see people of color represent BC.

    If advertisers never considered the multiculturalism while researching and developing their advertisements, shame on them.

    If the advertisers assumed that the white people they were advertising too, generally don’t appreciate the cultural diversity of foreign places, again, shame on those advertisers.

    The ultimate shame goes to BC tourism commission for letting these ads go out.

    Being PC is one thing… Have a black person for the sake of a have a black can sometimes be dishonest. However, in BC’s case they have strong aboriginal background and a growing Asian immigrant audience who has brought their culture to BC which I would believe enhanced the quality of life in BC. That is a selling point if you want to strictly about the cash. What tourist ad doesn’t heavily expose its multiculturalism? Ohh… BC.

    To BC’s credit if you go to their tourism web site they do highlight their cultural activities.

    Good post brother.

  • Minty Fresh says:

    I came across this on Huffington Post and, after trying several times to register on that site to comment, came here.

    I just wanted to provide a little context by pointing out that the BC ads are based on California’s “Find Yourself Here” tourism ads:

    If you’re going to commit yourself to using BC celebs to promote the province, you’re drawing from a pretty small pool (unlike California, which has a bigger population than all of Canada).

    I can pretty much hear the conversation at the ad agency: “So, who’s from BC and famous enough that the Yanks will recognize ‘em?”

    I racked my brain for high-profile non-white BC celebrities, but came up with nothing. (Not saying there aren’t any, I just can’t think of any off the top of my head – Sook Yin Lee, Daniel Igali and Chief Dan George crossed my mind, but are they well known outside of BC?).

    Even having said all that, I still believe they should have tried harder to find some non-white celebrities, and there’s no excuse for not using more non-white tourists in the ads.

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