The ACTRA Awards were first presented in 1972 to celebrate excellence in Canada's television, film and radio industry. Organized and presented by ACTRA, the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists, which represented performers, writers and broadcast journalists, the Nellie statuettes were presented annually until 1986. In 1987, responsibility for presenting the Canadian television and film awards was transferred to the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which continued to present the Nellie in several categories, but now focuses on its Prix Gémeaux, Genie and Gemini Awards.
On the 60th anniversary of the national union in 2003, now renamed the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists and representing only performers, the ACTRA Awards were resurrected in several of its branches across Canada as a local, rather than a national, film and television award.
Some awards are handed out for performances, while others are given for union-activism and contributions to the industry.