Background and Structure
The origins of ACTRA were in the 1940s when radio artists in Toronto organized a union — the Radio Artists of Toronto Society (RATS) — to improve their financial compensation and working conditions. Radio artists in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Montréal formed similar organizations, which merged with RATS in 1943 to form the Association of Canadian Radio Artists. This evolved into the Canadian Council of Authors and Artists (CCAA) in 1952, and the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) in 1963.
In 1984, ACTRA adopted its present name and was restructured into three guilds: writers; performers; and broadcast journalists and researchers. In 1989, a Price-Waterhouse study found ACTRA’s structure to be “convoluted and unwieldy.” In 1991 the writers’ guild voted to separate and form the Writers’ Guild of Canada (not to be confused with its prose-medium counterpart, the Writers’ Union of Canada).
In 1993, a controversial and narrowly approved referendum resulted in the decentralization of the national organization into regional branches: Newfoundland; Maritimes; Montréal; Ottawa; Toronto; Manitoba; Saskatchewan; Edmonton; Calgary; and the Union of BC Performers (UBCP). In 1995, following the reorganization of bargaining units at the CBC, the broadcast journalists guild voted to join the Canadian Wire Services Guild (now the Canadian Media Guild), leaving ACTRA as a union comprised solely of performers. ACTRA defines 24 different industry roles as “performer,” including actor, voice actor, choreographer, cartoonist, narrator, panellist, puppeteer and sportscaster.
The autonomous regional branches, each with their own elected leadership councils, are overseen by ACTRA National in Toronto (separate from the ACTRA Toronto branch). It consists of executive officers and a national council of regional representatives (all elected biannually), and an administrative staff. There are also a number of committees tasked with overseeing member concerns, such as diversity, discipline and the interests of stunt performers. ACTRA is a member of the International Federation of Actors and the Canadian Labour Congress and is allied with the United Steelworkers.
Performers with three separate credits within ACTRA jurisdiction, other than as a background performer, are permitted to become apprentice members. They can apply for full membership once they have six months of full-time on-air employment.
Over the years, ACTRA has disseminated information among its membership through such publications as ACTRAscope, Face-to-Face with Talent, the ACTRA Writers Guild Directory, InterACTRA and ACTRA Magazine.
The ACTRA Awards, or “Nellies,” were founded by ACTRA members Lorraine Thomson and Bruno Gerussi to honour and promote Canadian writers, broadcast journalists and performers. Designed by sculptor Bill McElcheran, the original statuette was nicknamed “Nellie” by ACTRA staff member Elizabeth Malone because “she is not Barbara Hamilton or
Juliette!” A new, classically inspired bronze trophy of a lightly draped woman extending her arm was designed by sculptor Adrienne Alison and introduced in 2003.
The awards were first presented in 1972 at the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto and consisted of three awards: Pierre Berton won the Gordon Sinclair Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism; Geneviève Bujold took home the Earle Grey Award for Best Television Acting; and Graham Spry received the John Drainie Award (first presented in 1968) for Distinguished Contribution to Canadian Broadcasting. Over the years other awards were added, including the Andrew Allan Award for Best Radio Actor, the Jane Mallett Award for Best Radio Actress and the Foster Hewitt Award for Excellence in Sports Broadcasting.
In 1986, the ACTRA Awards were transferred to the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television’s Gemini Awards (now the Canadian Screen Awards), which continued to present the Gordon Sinclair and John Drainie Awards for a number of years. The Earle Grey Award was rebranded as a lifetime achievement honour. In celebration of ACTRA’s 60th anniversary in 2003, various regional branches began presenting their own awards, which honour performances as well as union activism and industry contributions.