A black immigrant who came to Canada from Houston, Texas in 1967 with a passion for theater received the highest honor of her extraordinary career last week when Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada, placed a shiny gold medallion around his neck at a ceremony honoring his lifetime artistic achievement in broadcasting and film.
“I feel affirmed and embraced by the country,” Rita Shelton Deverell told the distinguished gathering of art lovers and supporters who gathered at Rideau Hall, for the black-tie event celebrating the 30e award anniversary.
“Getting this from the current Governor General (the first Indigenous woman to hold this position) is very special and positive.
This latest award capped an impressive list of accolades in a multi-pronged career that includes theatre, broadcasting, writing and teaching – where the road to success is rocky and rocky for everyone, even those who do not have to fight against racial barriers. .
A member of the Order of Canada, Deverell has also won two Gemini, membership in the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Black Women’s Civic Engagement Network Leadership Award.
For Deverell, the path to these and other “red carpet” moments was by no means easy, but was strewn with obstacles and challenges, including openly racist attitudes that insisted that black people are not had no place in broadcasting and theater, which for decades had been seen as the exclusive domain of white people.
If white women had to break glass ceilings to advance past a certain point in their careers, women of color like Deverell had to break concrete ceilings.
In an extensive interview with Canadian New Media In the aftermath of the Governors General’s Performing Arts Awards ceremony, Deverell revealed how she overcame this impenetrable barrier with confidence, grace, courage in the face of setbacks, an innate sense of optimism and a willingness to change direction every time she hit a dead end.
“Acting is a very difficult profession for anyone, but being black in the 1970s didn’t help either,” she said.
A bumpy road to success
Pioneering in many ways, it succeeded without the support of the advocacy groups and institutions promoting diversity that we have today. Describing an openly racist encounter with a CBC executive producer who denied him a job after Adrienne Clarkson left the show Take 30. She said the producer told her she couldn’t be hired because Canadians weren’t ready for a black TV presenter yet.
“Of course it was a terrible blow,” Deverell continued. “But the lesson I learned was that it was all about the judgment of the boss (the person with the power to hire). When you find a good boss, stick with them and do your best.”
Ironically, she is now on the board of directors of Radio Canada.
Recalling her early life in Texas, she said she grew up in an all-black neighborhood and a segregated school system, but was lucky in some ways.
“Both of my parents had decent paying jobs, and they gave me the firm belief that I had the right to live and work in whatever field my talents and hard work took me,” he said. she declared.
She then pursued graduate studies in the history of religion at Columbia University, New York, where she met Canadian Rex Deverell, a graduate student in theology. Their common passions for theater and the history of religions quickly led to a romantic relationship. Shortly after their marriage in 1967, they moved to St. Thomas, Ontario, where Rex was appointed pastor of a Baptist church.
Deverell has now found herself in a small, rural town with her master’s thesis on the history of religion to finish and some theater experience through volunteering at a separate theater in her hometown. The prospects of landing a job, let alone one that matched his passions and interests, seemed non-existent.
“In desperation, I wrote everyone I could in the yellow pages and eventually put together a three-gig package for myself,” Deverell said. “I created an art therapy program for a children’s village in London, Ontario. I taught a course at Fanshawe College on the history of religion and I also worked in an arts center founded by a professor from the University of Western Ontario.
She says she ‘stumbled’ into broadcasting when she asked a United Church contact if he knew of any opportunities, and he directed her to a research position for a TV show for children produced at Berkeley Studio in Toronto. She applied, got the job, eventually became co-founder and vice president of production for Vision TV, and hosted several CBC shows, including Take 30.
She is one of the first black women in Canada to be a television host and network executive. With her deep commitment to social justice, she gave a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard in the media.
The full list of her accomplishments is impressive, but when asked what her favorites were, she said, “Being co-founder of Vision TV and News Director of APTN (Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network) where I mentored my successor. ”
In addition to being a member of the CBC Board of Trustees, Deverell is a Trustee of the Royal Ontario Museum and Chancellor of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
When asked what advice she had for new Canadians and other groups facing career obstacles, she replied, “It’s important to cultivate multiple networks and form alliances with people who support you. . Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. When one door closes, look for the others.
She said optimism and unwillingness to be discouraged are also important, “but that’s temperament driven and easier for some people than others,” she added.