Janessa St. Pierre: On being a Black student at Capilano University

One of the few Black students in the MOPA program talks about how she navigates life in university, the film industry and Canada

Carlo Javier // Editor-in-Chief

“Are things really that bad here?” That was often the response that Janessa St. Pierre would get when her peers read through the script of Think Again. The short film centres on the story of a girl who gets called the N-word at her school, but it isn’t solely about racism – there are levels. “It’s about her coming to terms with realities of her world and realizing that racism works on different levels, not just with her peers at her school, but also with the institution that she thinks is supposed to protect her,” St. Pierre explained.

Along with Mekelah Vasquez-Brown, St. Pierre is one of two Black students in the second-year batch of Capilano University’s Motion Picture Arts (MOPA) program. Like many stories of just how gripping and debilitating life can be, St. Pierre’s film is inspired by her own experience with racism and discrimination. “I was called the N-word at my school, at Magee, it was a moment that I often think about why I didn’t do more,” she said. “I wanted to write a story that was uncomfortable, was shocking. It was not something that you really wanted to watch, but it’s important. They’re ugly stories, they’re not about the happy ending, but they’re real. These are people’s lives. These are people who grow up here in Canada.”

Though Think Again has yet to have a set release date, as St. Pierre and her colleagues are preparing to submit it to festivals, the short film is already stirring conversation in CapU’s film community. As important as conversation is, St. Pierre admits that sometimes, it’s the hardest thing to have. Even at a university like CapU.

How has your Capilano experience been?

Being a Black film student is extremely frustrating and I feel like I’m constantly being left out of conversations in ways, because you don’t want to be that one person every time that’s like ‘hey did anybody ever think of this, did anybody ever think of that?’ Just going to class and you having a certain perspective of something, and everybody else not even having to think of that.

There’s always talk about how difficult it is to make it in the film industry, and then making it as a woman is even harder, but what about making it as a woman of colour?

I think that we have a lot more work to do, still. Just looking at film sets and the way the film industry operates, it’s a lot about who you know and a lot of people that are already in these positions of power and these positions where they can hire people are usually white males, and so I think that has a lot of to do with the fact that there’s not many openings and there’s not many Black women in the industry. I do feel like right now, Hollywood is trying to commission more people of colour, more women in the industry, which I think is a great thing to do, but I also feel like Hollywood’s kind of borderline using diversity as a tool to commodify their products.

How do you think we can reconcile that, where can we find a middle ground where we have the representation and at the same time it’s done respectfully and properly?  

I think it has to do with the people that you plan to bring onto projects. If you’re going to tell the story about something that you don’t have the experiences in, at least have somebody from that demographic, from that group, working with you. Not just someone who you go to for help, but actually working with you.

What are your thoughts on racism and discrimination in Canada?

I think in Canada it’s the microaggressions and the subtle racism. Everybody here thinks that they’re better. They already have a sense of entitlement, that they think that they don’t have to deal with those issues because they grew up in ‘multicultural Canada’.

And challenging that state of mind with a sense of discomfort and showing these ugly and brutally true stories is an element seen in your art.

It has a lot to do with being uncomfortable. That’s just something that needs to happen if we want to get into a real conversation about race issues in Canada. People need to be okay with being uncomfortable. It’s gonna happen. You can’t get through a conversation about race if a white person shudders every time you say, ‘white person’. You’re missing the whole point of what we’re trying to say if you’re picking out tiny little things that you feel uncomfortable by.

My film is all about the use of the N-word and how it shouldn’t be used by non-Black people and how it’s wrong in any sort of context to use it if you’re not a Black person and how violent the word actually is, if read out loud and how triggering that can be for a Black person. It’s happened multiple times where I’ve heard professors here use that word.

And they defend it by saying that it’s part of the lecture.

Yeah and they say it’s not in this context, not in that context, it’s okay if I’m saying it because I’m talking about the script. When you’re a person of colour, you think that, going to school, you’re going to get what you pay for, you’re going to get what you want to learn. But a lot of the things you’ll learn are so white-based, they’re so European-centric, they’re so the same and you don’t connect to it. I think that’s the hardest thing, being a person of colour in a very white University, you don’t get to connect to a lot of the things that you’re learning because that’s just not there.

It’s obviously very bleak, but where do you find the motivation and the inspiration to be positive?

I find it in a lot of Black artists and their brilliance and their excellence and perseverance. Seeing women like Ava DuVernay out there doing that, seeing women like Issa Rae out there. Seeing movies like Moonlight and Black Panther honestly gives me so much inspiration because I just know that if that’s out there, there’s a path for me. As hard as it is going to be for me to get there, I have hope.

The great progression that Black people are making in Hollywood, I think it’s going to open up doors for all people of colour to really make their way, to tell their story. I don’t know if you’ve heard this quote, but ‘when Black lives matter, all lives matter’, I believe that.

1 Comment
  1. I read the entire article and it was well written and had a lot of insight. I just feel like for you to be successful, you have to repeat what Blacks have done in the past, grind it out and be great at what you do…White people are obsess about being Superior to everyone on Earth. White Supremacy is not leaving the Earth. So get used to it understand it keep it real close to you and break it down with Black excellences…no other methods work against white racism white supremacy white imperialism nothing works but Black excellences…see there is no antidote for black Excellence nothing nothing destroys Black Excellence, one must only submit to it.. you must submit to B/E.. LeBron James, Michael Jordan Oprah Jay-Z Beyonce Kyrie Irving Denzel Washington Samuel Jackson the cast of Black Panther the producer of black panther Michael Jackson Stevie Wonder Mandela Magic Johnson Kevin Garnett Kevin Durant Martin Luther King Obama those are some people that exhibited black excellence and white supremacy had to submit to it that is your solution my sister.

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