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Linda Schuyler (LLD ’15) and Stephen Stohn

Courageous storytelling: Degrassi producers Linda Schuyler (LLD ’15) and Stephen Stohn on empowering youth through bold, authentic stories

The Degrassi franchise, first launched in 1979, has become a cornerstone of teen drama known for its authentic depiction of adolescent challenges. Spanning several series, including “Degrassi Junior High” and “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” it has tackled pressing issues faced by teens, from bullying and mental health to sexuality, substance abuse and social pressures. Celebrated for its educational impact and cultural relevance, the franchise has earned both critical acclaim and a loyal global following, thanks to its groundbreaking storytelling and youth empowerment.

You might say Linda Schuyler (LLD ’15) and Stephen Stohn, producers of the beloved Degrassi series and legends in the Canadian music and television community, are in the “entertainment business.” They’d use a different word.

“People say we’re in the ‘TV business,’” says Stohn, an entertainment lawyer and television producer. “But, really, we’re in the engagement business. TV just happens to be one of the ways we want to engage people.”

For this powerhouse Canadian couple, each of whom is a member of the Order of Canada, engagement means that audiences don’t only escape into a good story – they learn from it, they grow from it and they are changed by it. And the impact goes both ways; writers, directors and producers are inspired, energized and educated by genuine, authentic feedback from fans and actors.

“Ever since Degrassi first came out, we’ve had a strong feedback loop from our audiences,” says Schuyler, who was recognized by an honorary doctorate from Laurier in 2015. “First it was through mail – people sending letters, art and even gifts for characters on the show. This was coming from all over the world.”

As communications technology evolved over the decades, email and social media engagement followed.

Degrassi actors were also highly engaged in the production. Schuyler and Stohn were on the cutting-edge of “age-casting” – ensuring that actors were the same age as the characters they played.

“With a young cast – the same age as our audience – we were constantly in the loop on the latest issues and perspectives of teenagers,” says Schuyler, who worked as a public school teacher before producing Degrassi. “It was a very important part of how Degrassi could remain relevant for such a long time. It forced our characters to grow up, leave and make room for a new generation coming in. We could write new stories about the same issues, keeping things fresh.”

The goal of engaged television? “Empowerment,” says Schuyler. Particularly for young people, though fans of all ages have felt empowered by Degrassi.

“My entire career has been about empowering youth,” says Schuyler, who sees producing television that engages young people as an extension of her teaching career. “I want to give young people information to make their own informed decisions.”

In a time before the internet and progressive health education, Degrassi was one of the few mediums through which kids could access accurate, authentic information about important health and social issues while also enjoying entertaining, relatable stories. Parents appreciated the opening that Degrassi gave for family conversation – and the way it helped families deal with unresolved issues, too.

“I had a letter from a mother who told me she had spoken to her son for the first time in over a decade,” Schuyler recalls. “When he came out, it divided the family. When this mother saw the character Marco come out on Degrassi, it gave her the courage to reach out to her son.”

That’s just one story. Degrassi included five series between 1979 and 2017, meaning that multiple generations of youth in Canada and around the world grew up with the show and later watched their kids grow up with it, too.

Schuyler and Stohn’s impact extends beyond Degrassi. In both their independent and shared projects, they work to empower people, especially youth.

After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts, Schuyler taught for four years in Toronto’s east end. She began to make short films, one of which became the origin of the Degrassi series she would produce for the next four decades. Schuyler met Stohn when she was consulting with him during the making of her first short film and they continued to work together on the series, marrying in 1995. During her career, Schuyler has produced other shows, including Instant Star and the LA Complex, which she co-produced with Stohn.

In his work as an entertainment lawyer, Stohn is passionate about helping creative artists, many of whom are just starting out. Formerly a partner with Canada’s largest law firm, McCarthy Tétrault, Stohn is currently a founding partner of the Canadian entertainment law firm Stohn Hay Cafazzo Dembroski Heim Findlay LLP. From 1989 to 2009, Stohn was the executive producer of the Juno Awards. He sees this work as complementary to Schuyler’s, engaging and empowering young people while creating and supporting Canadian content.

The couple’s shared vision has also shaped their philanthropy and volunteerism. They look for opportunities to empower youth, giving to organizations such as MusiCounts, Kids Help Phone and postsecondary institutions including Laurier, to name only a few. The newly established Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn Bursary is open to students in the Bachelor of Education program at Laurier’s Brantford campus, with self-identified racialized students a priority for the award. The couple also supported Faculty of Education recruitment grants that strengthened the program.

Schuyler has a strong connection to Brantford from her youth growing up in nearby Paris. She wanted to make an investment in the community that benefited young people.

“I was so impressed when I came to Brantford and saw how Laurier had helped to revitalize the city,” she says. “Having spent a lot of time there when I was younger, I knew how much it was changing. It was very exciting to see how the downtown evolved.”

Supporting bursaries within the Faculty of Education aligned well with Schuyler and Stohn’s vision. It was yet another way to support young people’s education, both as teachers and as students.

“This new generation of educators has the responsibility to help young people find a road map in our polarized society,” says Schuyler. “It’s an important job to be an educator in times of political challenge and technological change. Both students and teachers need to have the ability and the education to think adaptively and compassionately – to think clearly as the world evolves.”

In March 2023, Schuyler had the opportunity to visit Laurier Brantford’s campus, reading from her memoir, The Mother of All Degrassi, and connecting with fans and well-wishers. It was one of many speaking engagements she’s doing to promote the book. Schuyler also keeps busy doing volunteer work for Kids Help Phone, to which she is donating the proceeds from her book. Stohn continues his legal work and is active in his role as chancellor of Trent University, where he received his undergraduate degree and continues to advocate for young people. He’s “enjoying retirement without retirement.”

Meanwhile, Degrassi continues in reruns and on streaming platforms, inspiring yet another generation to learn about themselves and the world around them, to celebrate difference and authenticity, and to feel empowered in the face of sometimes daunting challenges.

“What I loved best about my career, the best thing I’ve ever done, was to be bold in storytelling,” says Schuyler. “In 2010, Degrassi was the first primetime television show to tell an authentic story about a transgender character. Looking at the political situation now, we are proud that we had the courage to tell those stories when we did. They had and still have tremendous relevance to a lot of people.”

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