Reelworld’s Tonya Williams honoured with Changemaker Award

by Ron Fanfair
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Tonya Williams

As a child who enjoyed watching ‘Bonanza’, ‘Lost in Space’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ in the early 1960s, Tonya Williams did not see anyone looking like her on screen.
“At the time, I did not realize the damage it was causing,” she said. “It is when you get older and you start to feel invisible. It is like you are not a valued person on this planet.”
Williams quickly noticed actors’ impact on society after appearing in the ‘Wear-A-Moustache’ Milk campaign commercial and ‘Polka Dot Door’, a Canadian children’s TV series.
“All of a sudden, kids seeing someone of colour on television for the first time are coming up to me,” she said. “Those things motivated me to want to do more. It also gave me a sense of responsibility. I knew that when someone takes a photo of you or you are on screen, that image is forever.”
Best known for her role as Dr. Olivia Hastings on the daytime drama, ‘The Young and the Restless’, with which she was associated for 23 years, Williams founded the Reelworld Film Festival in 2000 to showcase Canada’s diversity and provide a platform for visible minorities to display their artistic talent and, in the process, motivate audiences through film.
For the groundbreaking initiative, she was recognized with a Changemaker Award on May 31 for promoting and amplifying people of colour in the media.
Marsha Greene, the showrunner of the Emmy-nominated, Black-led TV series, ‘The Porter’, made the presentation at the Canadian Screen Awards.
The daughter of immigrants who did not understand the business of film and television often found it challenging to explain to them what success would look like.
Invited by Williams for lunch about a decade ago, Greene seized the opportunity to take a photo with the accomplished Canadian actress.
“That was my opportunity to let my parents know that I made it,” she said. “Growing up, Black representation on television was still rare and just seeing Tonya on our screen gave us hope. But she knew she could use her platform to do more.”
In 2016, Reelworld entered an agreement with Telefilm Canada that paved the way for emerging filmmakers selected for its Emerging 20 (E20) program to qualify for Telefilm’s micro-budget program that offers up to $125,000 in funding.
E20 connects some of Canada’s most talented diverse talent with industry executives and professionals in the Canadian entertainment industry.
Canadian storytellers Supinder Wraich, Adrian Wallace and V.T. Nayani completed the program.
“Tonya deserves this award because she has made a significant change,” said Wraich, whose drama web series, ‘The 410’, was accepted into Telefilm’s Micro-budget program. “I am so grateful that a woman like Tonya exists to give so many of us the path that we have. She is a visionary.”
Adrian Wallace was a program participant in 2020.
“I was very fortunate to have been put in a program so very early in my career that helped set me up and catapult me to where I am now,” the filmmaker said.
Nayani received funding for her first feature drama, ‘This Place’, which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
“Reelworld was the first festival that prioritized Black, Indigenous and People of Colour storytellers and filmmakers,” she said. “Thank you so much for championing us. So many of us would not be here without your support and belief in us.”
By filling a void, maxine bailey said Williams has impacted thousands of people.
“She is passionate, she is strong, she is focused and she doesn’t take no for an answer,” the Canadian Film Centre’s executive director said.
While with a group of students a few years ago, television personality and film director Sharon Lewis was shocked when Williams gave her phone number to the young people.
“She told them they could call her anytime and she would give them advice,” the Canadian Screen Award winner recalled. “Who does that?”
Williams, said publicist Kevin Pennant, has had a profound impact on Canada’s cinematic landscape by providing opportunities to individuals who may not have had access to the industry.
“Through Reelworld, Tonya has helped change the lives of many by offering platforms for underrepresented voices to be heard and stories to be shared,” said the founder & Chief Executive Officer of Pennant Media Group Ltd. which was launched in 2002. “Her dedication to promoting diversity and inclusion in the film industry has not only created opportunities for emerging talent but has also enriched the cultural fabric of Canadian cinema.”
There are growing pains associated with doing anything for the first time. It did not take Williams long to find that out.
“Putting together the inaugural event was a nightmare,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing. I relied on others I thought knew more than I did only to find out they didn’t. What I however knew from the start was that I wanted a racially diverse Board of Directors. Everywhere I had gone and everything I had seen, there were always White people doing things for people of colour. I wanted us to do something for ourselves. I pulled together people who had never sat on Boards. None of us knew what we were doing.”
For the first festival at Kennedy Commons AMC Theatre that closed in 2012, Williams put up $100,000 of her own money.
At the end of the event in April 2001, Reelworld was $100,000 in debt.
“People spent money thinking money was coming,” said Williams who, in 2017, was the recipient of the Special Jury Award of Distinction presented to a woman who is a ground breaker and has demonstrated a commitment to the screen-based industry. “I paid off that debt and took full ownership of the Festival. I cut down on spending and people thought I was mean. Things were hard, but I had already imagined even harder things. Things got better as we went on even though I completely exhausted myself and was burnt out.”
For the third festival, she put in another $100,000.
In the first two decades, the budget did not exceed $400,000.
It is only in the last four years since the George Floyd murder that Reelworld has benefited from government funding.
Two years ago, the organization received $1.4 million from the federal government to run a training program for Black casting directors, agents, managers and producers in Canada.
“For years, I have been trying to get funding to create a program like this,” said Williams who spent four weeks every summer in Jamaica from age 12 to 18. “In the first year of the festival, I reached out to the various levels of government, begging to start collecting data and was told we could not do that because it is against the law. Now we do that all the time.”
Not seeing Black, Indigenous and other people of colour in Canadian film festivals drove her crazy because she knew that was a barrier to securing funding.
That is why Williams started Reelworld.
After the first year, she realized people needed training.
“I went to Toronto Metropolitan University for Drama,” she said. “What you learn there is not what helps you to navigate the real world, business-wise. This is not like getting a job and staying in it for years. You have to plan your whole life of work that will happen over a long period. I wanted to create programs that could facilitate that.”
The Reelworld Screen Institute is a training platform for curators/programmers, arts administrators, grants writers, theatre managers and publicists.
“People were constantly emailing me, asking if I knew someone for this job and that job,” said Williams who did comedy for 15 years before switching to drama. “That was not easy as I had to go to the Rolodex in my mind trying to think.”
To address that issue, Access Reelworld was launched in July 2020.
It is a transparent and searchable recruiting platform for Canadian BIPOC creatives in the screen industry.
“Even though there is this database, I still receive emails, asking if I can recommend someone,” she said. “It is just so much stuff.
“A broadcaster recently reached out to me, asking for a huge diversity thing they wanted. When I told them it was possible and inquired how much they would pay, they told me it would be good exposure for us.
“I can’t pay my staff in exposure. There are hard costs and I told them I was not going to eat that for their diversity program. There is still that frustration for me that people in the industry who are primarily White think people of colour are doing this as a hobby.”
Approaching the 25th anniversary next year, Williams plans to step back from Reelworld’s day-to-day activities by the end of December 2025.
“I will be 67 then and do not think I can be fully involved as I am now,” she said. “I am working on a succession plan, but that is hard. You can try and build one, but people are not always on your agenda. Those that I am investing in could leave for another job. I am worried because I see people in the community who have created things that die when they are gone. I don’t want that to happen with Reelworld.”
The Miss Junior Personality contest winner at age 14 did commercials in high school, was crowned Miss Black Ontario four years later in 1977 and spent a year in the Ryerson University drama program two years later after landing the lead role in ‘Love & Politics’ which was authored and composed by Mavor Moore who died in 2006.
She also co-hosted the Miss Teen Canada pageant, landed small television roles and worked in Canadian theatre for a few years before heading to Los Angeles in 1987 in search of a major acting role.
Unlike most Canadian actors who found the transition difficult, it wasn’t for Williams who modelled in Paris and Chicago before going to Los Angeles.
“It was challenging for those people who had lived their entire lives in Canada in one city and one town,” she said. “I travelled for the first time when I was two years old by ship. My parents were always in New York and we went to different places. I had moved around. For me, Los Angeles was just another city that I was going to try out. Trying new things is effortless for me because of the exposure I had when I was younger.”
Williams’ upbringing also prepared her for the sexual abuse and harassment prevalent in Hollywood.
“Of course, I encountered powerful people in the industry who asked me to meet them at their hotels and come up to their rooms,” she said. “My reply was always, ‘How about us having breakfast at a restaurant in the morning because I will be there?’ Yes, I went to LA and yes, there were a lot of people hitting on me. My way of navigating that was to pretend people were not hitting on me because I still had to work with these people. I always made sure I was in situations where I did not have to fight off anyone.”
Most actors have role models in the industry they look up to.
For Williams, her idol was Diahann Carroll who surged to prominence in some of the earliest major studio films to feature Black casts.
She starred in ‘Julia’ which was the first series on American television to highlight a Black woman in a non-stereotypical role.
“I had never seen a Black woman on-screen until she came along,” said Williams who was named one of Canada’s Top 25 immigrants in 2012. “She was beautiful and eloquent. Years later when I was nominated for a NACCP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) Award, she was there and I got the opportunity to meet her. I just wanted her to know that what she represented in that show meant a lot to me.”
Williams landed guest appearances in ‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘Matlock’, ‘Falcon Crest’, ‘What’s Happening Now’, ‘Generations’ and ‘A Very Brady Christmas’ before getting her big break in 1990 in ‘Young & the Restless’
The recipient of two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a daytime drama series, she hosted ‘Tonya Williams: Gospel Jubilee’ on CBC Television in 2004, led a diverse cast in Vision TV’s original comedy series, ‘She’s The Mayor’ and was cast in Clement Virgo’s ‘Poor Boy’s Game’. She also directed Trey Anthony’s ‘Da Kink in My Hair’ for Vision TV in 2004.
Born in England to Jamaican parents who were divorced, Williams spent seven years in the Caribbean island with her mother who was employed at the Jubilee Maternity Hospital. In 1966, Williams and her mother went back to England for four years before migrating to Canada.
Now 93, Korah Harrison is in a long-term care home in Toronto.
Williams’ father, Lloyd Williams, was a Supreme Court Judge in the British Virgin Islands and St. Kitts & Nevis before passing away in 2008.

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