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Initially, when I set out to write this month’s Soapbox I wanted to write about how there aren’t enough Canadian women in film, but after doing some research, I discovered there are lots of amazing women in Canadian film. It is not that there are none; it is that these badass women lack celebrity.
In a previous column, I touched upon the fact that women in film were once more prominent and popular and, for some reason, no longer are — and the ones who were famous in the Golden Age of cinema aren’t remembered in the same light as their male counterparts. Turns out, it’s very much the same for Canadian cinema. This isn’t really all that surprising, although it is disheartening, but I decided to focus on five women from the last five decades worth highlighting. These women, save one, aren’t major stars and some of their names may be totally unfamiliar, but they’re some of the many females from the last 50 years worth noting as much as, if not more than, their male counterparts.

1. Johanne Harelle

We’ll start in the ’60s, with Quebecois actress Johanne Harrelle. Though best known for her role in Claude Jutra’s 1964 debut feature, À tout prendre, Harrelle went on to make a name for herself as a model and writer, but most impressive is the fact she was the first Black Canadian woman to become famous in film and fashion.

Johanne Harrelle
Micheline Lanctôt

2. Micheline Lanctôt

Moving on to the ’70s, we catch up with Micheline Lanctôt. Lanctôt is an actress, director and animator, having worked for the National Film Board of Canada and Potterton Productions early in her career. She began appearing in front of the camera in 1972, when she starred in Gilles Carle’s La vraie nature de Bernadette, a performance for which she won a Genie award (then known as an Etrog). Lanctôt continued acting well into the ’80s, with roles in national and international hits, including the award-winning adaptation of the Mordecai Richler classic, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

Lanctôt also took to directing stage plays, before trying her hand at film, with 1980 debut L’Homme à tout faire, which earned her nominations for best direction and best film at the Canadian Film Awards. Her next success was 1984’s Sonatine, which went on to win a Genie, as well as a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for best direction.

Still active today, Lanctôt has a resume of dozens of films she directed, wrote or acted in. She even has a pretty hefty screenwriting resume, having penned features like her award-winning Sonatine.

3. Patricia Rozema

Keeping with the badass women behind the scenes, we come to Patricia Rozema, whose name may ring a bell if you’ve watched the critically acclaimed Into the Forest, which Rozema directed. The Sarnia, ON-raised Rozema actually didn’t grow up watching movies, as TV was prohibited in her Calvinist household. She didn’t watch a movie in a theatre until she was 16, yet still managed to shed her initial career as a journalist in favour of being a film director and writer.

Her feature film debut, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, is now considered one of the best Canadian films of all time and she’s gained critical acclaim overseas as well, with hits like Mansfield Park and the HBO miniseries In Treatment. Keeping up with her accolades earned by HBO productions, Rozema garnered an Emmy nomination, as well as a Writers Guild of America award for her screenplay for Grey Gardens, starring Drew Barrymore. Film buffs will know Rozema by name already, but the common moviegoer is unlikely to recognize her, despite being familiar with her work.

Patricia Rozema
Sandra Oh in a scene from Sideways
Sandra Oh in a scene from Double Happiness

4. Sandra Oh

Sandra Oh, however, is well known pretty much worldwide, but few people know that the actress is an Ottawa native. Oh caught people’s attention in her leading role in Double Happiness, for which she also earned a Genie award. She went on to star in many Canadian-made films and received the opportunity to branch out into America cinema when she became a lead character on long-running, and much-loved, medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. Exposure to American audiences allowed Oh to land roles like Thomas Hayden Church’s love interest in Alexander Payne’s Sideways.

Despite becoming a bigger name south of the border, Oh remains true to her Canadian roots and continues to star in national films as well. The fact that she’s a woman of colour and has found immense fame and earned the respect of her industry are also worth mentioning, as it’s rare to see non-white actors playing roles that aren’t racially ambiguous, but Oh has managed to do just that, and very successfully. She’s almost a beacon for the idea that people of colour are not limited to playing only characters of their race.

5. Emily Hampshire

Finally, we have Emily Hampshire, who’s best known for her role as Jay Baruchel’s love interest in quirky, grossly underrated comedy The Trotsky. She initially got her break alongside Sean Astin, in much-loved 1998 rom-com Boy Meets Girl. Hampshire is one of the Canadian actresses to look out for, as her star is set to ascend.

Emily Hampshire

This is only scratching the tip of the iceberg, really. I picked five of the women who spoke to me in some way and/or left a mark on me as a female filmgoer. Canadian history is actually filled with badass women in pretty much every industry, and the film industry is no different.

Why is it that the men end up getting all the attention and accolades while the women, who are often just as talented, if not more so, end up being conveniently forgotten? It happened in classic Hollywood, with cinematic forerunners like Alice Guy and Anita Loos more or less losing all the fame and status they earned in the early days, and it’s happened in Canadian film as well. It seems people just don’t want to remember the accomplishments of women, which says a great deal about the world we live in.