Archive for October, 2014|Monthly archive page

How McDonalds Broke the Canadian Film Industry

Canada’s film industry is going through a tough time, and it’s all thanks to a bank and two fast food joints.

When people hear the words “film industry”, they normally think of Hollywood, of movie stars, and studios cranking out movie after movie on the back lot.  Except, that’s not all that accurate any more. Sure, the big studios are still based there, but now, due to the ease of international travel, films are shot in whichever location makes the most sense.*

Need a giant pool for Pirates of the Caribbean 5? Australia has one of the largest in the world. Looking for sweeping sand dunes an hours drive away from a town? Ouarzazate in Morocco has been the backdrop for everything from Prince of Persia to Game of Thrones. Want spooky forests and untouched nature? Welcome to Vancouver.

Over the years, the city has become one of the top locations for films and TV series. In fact, we have so much filming going on here that horror films have all the bite taken out of them – it’s no use trying to be scared by the cabin in the woods when you’ve been to the Starbucks around the corner.

All big film locations have a stable bedrock of local talent, however as films bounce from location to location, many of us follow.  Of course, to do this, we need work visas, but that isn’t normally too difficult to arrange; we’re skilled labour in an area where there’s always a shortage. Plus governments are often a little bit dazzled by Hollywood – if not by the stars, then by the money.

Up until recently, Canada was the one of those countries. The visa process was quick and painless; the film production would put in an application for a “Labour Market Opinion”, a statement swearing they couldn’t find anyone local to fill this job, the government would approve it, and we would trot ourselves off to the border get a new visa. It was about a week from the LMO application to the border visit, and while technically the visa wasn’t issued until you arrived at the border, unless you’d accidentally killed someone drink driving, there was little chance you would be denied a visa.

Then that changed.

The first ripple was a year ago. The Royal Bank of Canada had applied for visa permits for a number of Indian nationals to come to Canada to work at the RBC. The local workers trained up their foreign counterparts on how to use the systems, only to then find themselves laid off shortly afterwards. Following that, the bank sent the newly trained Indian workers back home, before declaring that they would now be outsourcing the work to a brand-new branch of RBC. In India.

This did not go down well.

Then, in June this year, McDonalds and Tim Hortons were in the firing line, accused of hiring foreign workers over locals. Now, I have no idea how these franchises managed to claim with a straight face that no locals had the necessary skills to sell french fries and doughnuts, but apparently they did, and it was discovered that they’d been paying the foreign labour less than minimum wage and violating about a dozen labour laws.

As a Canadian work permit is tied to the company that sponsored you, the workers couldn’t just quit and look for another job. They had to either suck it up or leave Canada.

This was a field day for labour unions and journalists, while the right-wing political parties called for an end to foreign workers all together.

The government – apparently deciding that the best way to fix a broken fingernail is to cut off your arm – tried to resolve the issue by shutting down work visa processing entirely while they decided on a new approach.

That was it. No more work visas. For anyone.

It hit VFX at the worse possible time. Most of us work project to project and summer tends to be a quiet time; we’ve finished all the big blockbuster films, but the Christmas releases are still being shot. VFX facilities ramp down during that time, before crewing up again when the next slate of films land.

Unfortunately, the timing of the freeze came when many people in town were between jobs, and, as such, between visas. Suddenly, many of my colleagues found themselves unable to work in Canada until the government sorted itself out. Everyone expected it would only be a week or two. It turned into three months.

Finally, in August the government came up with a new process for work permits. As far as I can tell, apart from banning the fast food industry and hiking up fees, not much has actually changed. Except for the turn around time. That’s now two months.

Two months is an impossibly long time in the film industry. It’s a very fast sprint from greenlight to the first take, and the mad dash in post is even quicker. Sometimes, we don’t even know what film we’ll be working on in two months time, let alone how many people we’ll need on it. To ask us to crew up that far in advance is… optimistic.

Of course, VFX isn’t the only industry hit; approximately 300,000 foreign workers apply for a visa every year in Canada, in fields as diverse as the oil industry and cruise ships, all of which are going through staffing shortages right now.

What RBC, McDonalds and Tim Hortons did was clearly wrong – indentured servitude is Bad – but the government’s reaction wasn’t the most well-thought out plan. Sure, it addressed the short-term scandal, but it’s hurt Canada, in ways that probably won’t be seen for a while.

I know the film industry is trying to get the government to revise the immigration policy before films stop coming here, hopefully they’re successful, and things can go back to how they were before. Except, you know, without the fast food industry.

* Cheapest. Where ever is cheapest.


A Driving Subject

People in Vancouver are terrible drivers.

I know, I know, every city likes to claim that their motorists are the worst. Sydney drivers are rude and aggressive,* Wellington drivers don’t know how to indicate,** and London drivers are just sociopaths.*** It’s like a badge of honour amongst metropoles to have poor drivers. Given how nice and polite everyone is here, how bad could they really be behind the wheel?

Well, yesterday I watched a car drive the wrong way up a one way street. During peak hour. On a four-lane thoroughfare.

A few days earlier, I saw a car try to drive up a bike lane. And just now, I saw an article about someone who tried to drive down a flight of stairs.

I think it’s safe to say that Vancouver drivers are not the greatest.

When I arrived here, I had a hard time buying the idea that Vancouver drivers are about as coordinated as a drunk goat on a unicycle. At that point, I was getting around on my bike or by foot, and I couldn’t understand what people were complaining about. No one had tried to smash in another person’s car window, I hadn’t been run off the road on my bicycle, and drivers here didn’t actively aim for pedestrians, so… Vancouver was on a win as far as I was concerned. One day on my way to work, I saw four cars all approach a four-way stop sign at the same time. When I left work that evening, the same four cars were still sitting there, politely indicating that the other drivers should go first. How could these nice, polite drivers be the terrors that everyone kept telling me about?

And so, when I next heard someone complain about the local drivers, I jumped in to loudly defend Vancouver motorists to all within earshot.

Of course, the next day I was hit by a car while cycling to work.

It was entirely the driver’s fault. I was in the bike lane going straight ahead, while the driver was turning across the cycle lane. For reasons known only to the driver, he decided to look in the opposite direction to the one he was going, and ploughed straight into me.

That was when I realised, yep, Vancouver drivers are terrible.

So, I started to wonder why? What makes them so careless in cars? Statistically, they’re not the worst in Canada; for fatal crashes, British Columbia ranks eighth, whilst in non-fatal crashes, BC scrapes in at a lowly ninth – out of only ten provinces. But still, Vancouverites seem uncommonly good at low-speed, “gosh, I probably should have been paying attention to that car stopping ahead of me” fender benders.

I think it might be because no one here is actually from here.

52% of Vancouver’s population states a language other than English as their first language, and no, it’s not because they’re all speaking Québécois at home. I hear a dozen different languages every day on my ten minute walk to work, everything from Farsi to Polish to Australian. Vancouver is a mosaic of foreign cultures and customs – and driving styles.

It took me about a year to get my BC Driver’s Licence. Three hundred and sixty-four days of that were navigating the BC Driver’s licensing agency’s byzantine bureaucracy. On the three hundred and sixty-fifth day, I headed down to the only office open on a weekend, stood in line for almost two hours, answered three questions, then left, the owner of a shiny new BC driver’s license.

I have no clue what the road rules of BC are.

Okay, some of them are pretty universal – stop at stop signs, don’t run over people and footpaths are Not For Driving On. Those ones are fine. But… I didn’t what to do at a four-way stop sign; I’d never seen one in my life before coming to Canada. Turning right on red is something you can do here. So, that’s exciting. What’s even more exciting is that sometimes you can also turn left on a red light. I’m pretty sure I know the rules around that, but you’d think the BC government would check that before issuing a permit to operate a two-tonne hunk of metal.

Admittedly, I was lucky. New Zealand has an agreement with Canada to recognise each other’s licences. But – and here’s the thing – BC has this agreement with twelve different countries ranging from Japan to the Isle of Man, and five out of those twelve countries drive on the left hand side of the road.

I’m thinking this is probably a tad optimistic on the part of the BC government.

Fortunately, like most people in Vancouver, I don’t drive very often. I live and work in downtown, which is a warren of one-way streets, sudden pedestrian-only zones, and roads that vanish depending on the traffic requirements, making it incredibly confusing to navigate around if you weren’t born here. And, of course, trying to find a park in the city during the week requires bending time and space into the fifth dimension.

Instead, I take advantage of the city’s substantial network of bike lanes to get around the city. After all, why deal with the hassle of driving and parking, if I can cycle and get some exercise at the same time? I only really drive my car – a giant SUV with more blind spots than a tank – on the weekends when I’m heading out of town. I know the three roads that will get me onto the Sea To Sky highway, and then it’s just straight until we reach the mountains.

In fact, the city centre is so easy to live in without a car, and the cost of car ownership here so very, very high (mandatory third-party insurance alone can set you back close to $2,000 for a year, if you’re unlucky) that many people here don’t even own cars, instead using car-sharing co-ops for their weekend jaunts.

So, take a group of people from another country, put them in a city with a confusing road network where almost everything is back to front, and make it worth their while to not drive very often, and what do you get? Vancouver drivers. Lovely folk with the driving skills of a Labrador puppy.

Fortunately, they’re also exceptionally nice lousy drivers. They’ll let you cut into the lane you’ve just realised you need to be in, give way when you discover you have to turn from a non-turning lane, and just politely toot their horns to let you know you’re driving the wrong way up a one way street. No one considers it the end of the world if you make a mistake on the road.

After all, we’ve all probably done the same thing.


**Also true


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