'Diggstown' gets honest about COVID-19, long-term care homes and inequities in Canada’s legal system

·6 min read
Jully Black and Vinessa Antoine in CBC's "Diggstown."

Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic is getting the televised treatment as Season 3 of the CBC show Diggstown (premiering on Oct. 6 at 9:00 p.m. ET and on CBC Gem), begins with putting a spotlight on the brutal, heartbreaking reality, and consequences, of the coronavirus hitting Canada’s long-term care homes.

“We're a legal show, so I think the idea was really thinking about what are going to be the issues that are going to come up in the courts, in real life,” creator Floyd Kane explained to Yahoo Canada. “One of the things that we've been talking about, in terms of the pandemic, across the country, has been the deplorable state of long-term care homes across the country, and the way in which we treat and care for our elderly.”

“I live in Toronto and I see people on the buses, and the only people who I see on the bus are people who are required to go to work, even in the midst of a pandemic… That just kind of became the focus of, OK, let's look at this from the viewpoint of a long-term care worker, and have that be the client that Marcie is representing in the first episode.”

Diggstown is largely focused on lead character, lawyer Marcie Diggs, played by Vinessa Antoine (General Hospital), and her clients, to put a spotlight on the real inequities that exist in Canada’s legal system.

Filmed entirely in Nova Scotia during the third wave of the pandemic, the first episode of Season 3 begins with famed Canadian singer and actor, Jully Black. She gives an incredibly emotional, compelling performance in the role of a long-term care worker who is being accused of infecting a resident in the facility with the fatal virus.

“[Jully Black] and I spent quite a lot of time together talking about...the emotional part of being a person in a Black or brown community who is an essential worker, who has been deemed a person that lives in an area that's considered to be a hotspot, to be targeted," Antoine shared. 

"We spent a lot of time working on those emotions and at the end of the day, what ended up happening was, the performance that people will end up seeing from Jully Black is coming from a very real and visceral place.”

Season 3 of the series continues to tackle important social justice issues, including birth alerts and police negligence in sexual assault cases, particularly among people of colour and queer individuals.

Brandon Oakes as Doug Paul on CBC's
Brandon Oakes as Doug Paul on CBC's "Diggstown."

The birth alert process, which is still used in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec, is when child welfare services flags an expectant parent to the hospital because they feel the newborn may be put at risk, which can result in child apprehension. It has been widely criticized for being a discriminatory practice that particularly targets Indigenous and racialized families.

For Brandon Oakes, who plays Doug Paul on Diggstown, a character who is a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nations from Eskasoni Reserve with his work specializing in family law, he says tackling the issue of birth alerts, in particular, is “long overdue.”

“I think people don't associate the Sixties Scoop with birth alerts, it's just the renaming of the same program that the government is using against native and people of colour,” Oakes said. “To tackle that, I felt, definitely, some personal feelings.”

“I had to shut out, sort of, what was happening in the outside world because it was a little too much to be carrying around,...all the news that had to do with residential schools.”

Crystle Lightning (Trickster) is joining the Diggstown cast this season as Doug’s ex-wife, Michelle Knockwood, but she was a fan of the show before she joined the project.

“I loved the progressiveness of each episode and the issues that were being brought up,” Lightning said. “Floyd is such a fearless writer and he used this platform to put these issues out there and teach these people what's going on.”

Vinessa Antoine as Marcie Diggs in CBC's
Vinessa Antoine as Marcie Diggs in CBC's "Diggstown."

Canadian television hasn't embraced 'different faces and cultures'

Particularly for Canadians who consume so much American content on a regular basis, Diggstown is an opportunity for us to see what’s really happening in our own backyard, our own communities, reflected on screen.

Kane shared that when he was growing up in Nova Scotia he would see tourism advertisements about coming to the province, showing people, all of them white, eating lobster, exploring Peggy’s Cove and sailing, and with Diggstown, he wanted to “recast” the narrative of this part of the world.

“There are lots of different cultures that exist within Nova Scotia and we never see that,” Kane said. “Remember famously Oprah said, ‘Oh, I didn't know that there were Black people in Nova Scotia.’”

“For me, what was important is to recast the narrative with Black and Indigenous people as the leads. You're seeing Doug and Michelle...out for dinner with their daughter at a fine dining restaurant. You're seeing Marcie on Martinique Beach surfing, all these spaces where we, historically, haven't been seen...and we get to be the protagonist in the story.”

The creator of Diggstown also pointed out that when we watch American television we like “getting to see all those different faces and cultures,” something that hasn’t been prevalent in Canadian entertainment.

“I think for a long time, Canada has not embraced that,” Kane said. “I wanted to make a show that was inclusive and it was important to show that kind of broad spectrum of what Canada looks like within the context of our ensemble.”

Antoine added that we get a lot of information through “imagery” and as information on issues comes though, for example, on social media, we’re quick to do things like put up an orange a black square, or post a carousel of pictures, but she believes people have become “numb” to some of these issues when we get the information through these channels.

“I think that it's highly important for artists, actors, directors, writers to be able to tell these stories in a way that people can feel connected to,” she said. “We are people who are intuitively connected to stories that we feel we relate to, in some way.”

“When you're seeing Indigenous people going through travesty through the news, that's one thing, but when you're able to sit in your bedroom and watch a full hour, and connect with a person going through it in that moment, I think it's far more impactful and I think it’s more lasting.”

Natasha Henstridge, who plays Colleen MacDonnell on Diggstown, added that while we often say that art imitates life, that isn’t always the case.

“We've had a long history of it not imitating life in that way, not representing people,” Henstridge said. “I grew up, until I was about 15 years old in Canada, absolutely not seeing anybody of colour on TV, which is just crazy.”

“I'm very proud to be on the show for that exact reason.”