Indians in Cowtown – the movie – coming to Regina

My interview here with Agam Darshi and Anand Ramayya. (Photo by Bryn Hadubiak)

The bright lights of a movie set will shine again in Regina and just in time to help brighten up the upcoming long dark days of January.

Filming for the comedy/drama Indians in Cowtown begins in early 2021. The screenplay is by acclaimed writer and actor Agam Darshi. Agam will also act and direct the movie. She will work alongside co-producers Anand Ramayya and Kelly Balon from Saskatoon-based Karma Film.
Darshi and Ramayya were in Regina recently scouting locations for the upcoming shoot.

Darshi is making a name for herself onscreen. She is fresh off a prominent role in Funny Boy, directed by Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta. Funny Boy has been chosen as Canada’s Oscars submission for best international film. Darshi has come a long way since her screen debut in the 2004 TV show, which also happened to be shot in Regina. Since then, she has appeared in numerous programs, including The Good Doctor, The Gifted, Bates Motel, Played, Sanctuary. She will also appear in the TV movie DMZ for HBO MAX, soon to be released. She recently won her third Leo Award for Unkept.

Filming for Indians in Cowtown begins in Regina January 11.

Darshi, who grew up in Calgary, is making her directorial debut in the Regina production. I asked her to tell me a little more about Indians in Cowtown.

“It’s about a Sikh-Punjabi family in Calgary,” says Darshi, who describes the movie as a comedy/drama. “Indians is such a loaded word for Indigenous people and for south Asians. It is kind of cheeky like the movie is, and Cowtown is a term of endearment for Calgary, so it just seemed to fit.”

Darshi will play the Punjabi-Canadian character, Mona.

“Mona’s a bit of a failure at life as we all are sometimes. And she goes back home to live with her father, who is sick with cancer and ends up taking care of him for seven years. And when his health takes a turn for the worse, her three very successful siblings come home to take care of the situation. It’s about family. It’s about forgiving the past and moving on. It definitely has a lot of moments of levity and humour,” she says.

Agam Darshi in Funny Boy. The movie will be on CBC TV and available on demand on CBC Gem and Netflix.

The movie will also feature Saskatoon-born actor Kim Coates.

Darshi’s screenplay inspiration speaks to her Punjabi-Canadian roots. She says the Punjabi-Canadian experience is different from the Hindu or the Muslim-Canadian experience. I asked Darshi about that.

“I think sometimes we all get slotted in the same bucket because you are South Asian,” says Darshi, who co-founded the International South Asian Film Festival. “We don’t necessarily have a home to go back to, so we are here. We have kept some of the traditions incredibly strong as a result. Punjabis are known to be loud and wild and have a strong link and appreciation for their culture and religion. It’s important to me as a filmmaker to visually showcase the lives of second-generation immigrants who, unlike their parents, have a strong sense of belonging in their country. As diverse storytellers, we now have the luxury to tackle themes of personal identity, rather than just cultural identity.”

Ramayya can undoubtedly relate.

“So many things in that script are so relatable to me and my experience. I am lucky to be a part of it,” says Ramayya.

Shadow of Dumont is a road trip documentary following the life of Métis freedom fighter Gabriel Dumont. (Karma Film)

I have been a big fan of Ramayya’s work for several years since seeing Cosmic Current, a personal documentary of his family and their spiritual pilgrimage from their home in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, to India. His film production company Karma Film has produced an impressive body of work with more than 50 hours of film and television, including the popular Wapos Bay, the children’s stop motion animated series. Karma Film produces documentaries, movies, animation, and TV programs. I highly recommend you check out Karma Film’s page, where some of this work is on display.

Ramayya says he loved the Indians in Cowtown script and went to work to set things up in Saskatchewan. The production was made possible thanks in large part to support from Telefilm Canada, Creative Saskatchewan, Canada Media Fund and Superchannel.

“Karma Film’s vision is to support underrepresented stories and storytellers. We are thrilled to be involved in Agam’s directorial debut. We were able to get some good support from the government. We have a nice facility here, and the project was just the right size. And a part of me was sort of feeling that in this day and age of COVID, it’s really a good time for us to really regroup and try to stay local and do what we can,” says Ramayya.

Speaking of local, Ramayya says people in Regina will recognize some of the movie locations, including a scene from the Albert Street Bridge. The team is also connecting with the local Sikh Society.

“That’s a big part of this project, and it’s the way we should be approaching projects that are set in a community. So we’ve connected with the Sikh Society of Regina. Our hope is that they will get excited about the project as much as we are, and we will be able to collaborate on a whole bunch of things,” says Ramayya.

That collaboration will be made easier thanks to Darshi’s mother, who will join the production team as its cultural consultant.

“She will bridge that gap between the Punjabi community and us. She can speak Punjabi, whereas mine is not so good,” she says.

As for the filming schedule, pre-production will be in December, and the movie shoot will begin on January 11th.

Fighting for accessible playgrounds

Sarah Turnbull with her 18-month old daughter Blake.

Sarah Turnbull and her daughter Blake, who uses a wheelchair, took but a few seconds to show me the problem with most of Regina’s city-run and school-run playgrounds.

“This is a playground you’re probably used to seeing,” said Turnbull as she entered the soft, pebble-covered school playground with her 18-month-old daughter. Turnbull struggled to push Blake’s stroller. “And this is an adult pushing so you can imagine a child.”

It is just as challenging elsewhere on the playground. The play area is bordered with an elevated wood border, making it extremely difficult for anyone in a wheelchair to enter the play area, let alone play in it. Once inside the playing area, there are no ground level play areas and no ramps. The soft, sandy grounds offer nothing accessible unless you are non-disabled. If 18-month-old Blake attended this school, it would mean little or no recess playtime.

This is a typical school playground that excludes most children with mobility challenges

Blake has spina bifida. Her legs are paralyzed and will be a wheelchair user and eventually a part-time walker using mobility devices and sticks. Soon after Blake was born, Turnbull started a crusade for more accessible playgrounds in schools and public parks in Saskatchewan. For example, in Regina, Turnbull says of the dozens of play areas; only two can be considered accessible.

“The thing that worries me the most is we can avoid the park but (Blake) can’t avoid recess. It is heartbreaking to think you can give your child everything. Still, when it comes to recess, Blake has to stay on the sideline and watch everyone else play simply because the surface isn’t accessible,” said Turnbull as her voice broke up. “Think about sending her to recess. There’s a whole park of kids playing, and she’s sitting on the side and getting other kids the choice to not play or play with my daughter.”

A mere five minute walk away from the inaccessible school playground is Regina’s Gocki Optimist Playground, a fully accessible park. The play area features a flat rubber base. There are ramps and other features that allow all children, including Blake, to play. Students from a nearby school use the playground. Local Optimists clubs and the city of Regina funded Gocki.

Turnbull says Regina’s Gocki Optimist Playground is one of only two playgrounds in the city that she considers fully accessible.

“We like it because there’s stuff for Blake to do. We can come here with our friends and play alongside other kids,” said Turnbull.

More than 540,000 youths in Canada aged 15 to 24 years had one or more disabilities, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability conducted for Statistics Canada.

Navigating through the system for change is a challenge for the disabled and their advocates. Unlike the National Building Code that requires access to buildings, such a code does not exist for playgrounds nationally.
“When it comes to accessibility, there are so many gaps and so many holes in the system that it’s very exhausting to try and fix them all,” says Turnbull.

On the Federal Level, Ottawa passed the Accessible Canada Act in 2019, intending to “ensure a barrier-free Canada” for areas under federal jurisdiction. However, school playgrounds generally operate under provincial jurisdictions, and city and town parks operate under municipal governments.

The Saskatchewan government announced new legislation in 2019 “aimed at removing and preventing accessibility barriers,” which will look at the “design of public spaces.”

Saskatchewan has an Office of Disability Issues under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Social Services. The office says it works with other levels of government to build “momentum for the changes needed to create greater opportunities for people with disabilities in their communities.”

The province tried moving forward with its Saskatchewan Disability Strategy in 2015. Among its stated principles are to promote and incorporate universal plans for “designing buildings, products and environments that are accessible to everyone enables participation in all aspects of society.”

On the municipal level, Regina has an Accessibility Advisory Committee. Similar committees exist in Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Albert. According to the City of Regina’s accessibility web page, there are three fully accessible playgrounds (Rick Hansen Optimist Playground, Gocki Optimist Playground, and Sandra Schmirler), with 11 others offering accessible elements. In reality, Turnbull says there are only two in the city that she considers she considers fully accessible, but that does not include the Schmirler Park.

“By definition, an accessible park must have at least 50 percent of things accessible. It (Schmirler) doesn’t meet that, not even close,” says Turnbull.

All the efforts nationally, provincially, and locally don’t mean a lot to Blake, who is happiest when playing in an accessible playground.

Turnbull points to a different story in the United States. The Americans Disabilities Act passed in 1990 to ensure national standards exist that include playgrounds.

“There’s no legislation for playgrounds in Canada. It’s up to the community or the municipality or governing authority to make the rules. Because of that, you have to rely on whoever makes the rules to think about it. It’s a circular process. You don’t see us, you don’t think of us, you don’t design for us,” said Turnbull.

There are innovative and cost-effective plans out there that can accommodate children of all abilities. The Rick Hansen Foundation provides a detailed guide to creating accessible play spaces based on Universal Design principles offering “something for everyone to participate in.”

There are examples of such playgrounds in Saskatchewan. The Royal Heights Veterans’ Memorial Park in Estevan opened in 2019 with a design based on the Rick Hansen design for accessibility. Prince Albert’s Malcolm Jenkins Fieldhouse playground recently held its grand opening as a fully accessible playground with funding assistance from the city, the province, and Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program. Realistically, most playgrounds can’t count on such generous funding.

As an example, Regina’s new École Harbour Landing School did not come with a new playground. A Playground Fundraising Committee is working on raising funds.

“Parks are very much community-based projects. There’s usually a team of parents, a team of communities who run fundraisers who work hard to make these parks happen,” says Turnbull. “If I can reach out to the community and make them aware of the issue, maybe they will stick up their hand when they see a park and say wait a minute, not everyone can play here. What can we do to make it better?

Regina Legion seeks community help

When I think of legions, I think of the bar. I recall many misspent hours at a couple of local legions in BC years ago, drinking beer and hanging out with the locals. There was nothing fancy about the bars. Once in a while, I’d even take the time to listen to an army veteran share a battlefield story.

Those were the days when many army veterans and their families and friends would still frequent the Legion. But times have changed. That was evident to me during my recent visit to the Regina’s Legion downtown. The Legion is facing challenging times financially. Revenues are down, but the demand for services that assist veterans in need is up.

The bar is closed due to COVID-19 and will now remain closed. The Legion’s little-visited museum will close, and the office space will relocate to another part of the building. Now services that assist homeless veterans are in danger of being cut.

I had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Jody Salway, Executive Director of the Regina Legion, and Ron Hitchcock, President of the Regina Legion. Also joining us was Clover, Jody’s service dog. The Regina Legion 001 (known as branch number one) was formed in 1926.

“We are in serious trouble. We have exhausted all possible grants and loans,” says Hitchcock, who served in the militia.

This year’s poppy sales, a significant revenue source for the Legion, are significantly down as people stay home due to COVID concerns.

Yet the Legion is still active in the community. It is hosting the annual Remembrance Day event. But with limits on public gatherings, the Legion will not realize the extra donations from that event as in previous years. The budget shortfall is sure to affect other services the Legion offers, such as:

Assisting veterans to receive benefits on what it calls ‘sometimes-complicated processes.’
Financial assistance for veterans in financial distress, which includes food, heating, clothing, and prescription medication, among other services.
Support for veterans in long-term care facilities through its Outreach and Visitation Initiative.
Helping homeless veterans. The Poppy Fund helps these veterans in housing support and deal with drug abuse.

“We helped two veterans during covid get off of the streets. It’s very expensive. We have to put them up in hotel rooms we have to pay for meals,” says Salway, who served in Afghanistan with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. “The other challenge is the substance abuse issues—the alcoholism and all the stuff that happens after they hit the streets. Veterans stay on the street longer than their civilian equivalents, sometimes upwards of four years longer. The average age is about 43 for veterans on the street, with ten percent of that being pensioners over 65.”

Salway can relate to veterans in need. He joined the military after 9/11. The army deployed him to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2006.

“I was wounded during an intensive operation in a small town call Pangea. We had an airstrike called in,” Salway recalls. “I was wounded quite badly in the neck and lower back and the brain and the lungs. Subsequently, I came back, and over the decade, I started showing a lot of the symptoms in my brain, and one of them was PTSD. I was having severe nightmares over several years.”

That’s when Clover, a four-year-old English Mastiff, came into Jody’s life. Jody received Clover from the Legion.

“She was trained to recognize those nightmares as they were happening, and she would do nighttime terror interruptions from there. I would get a little bit more sleep, breaking me from the cycle,” says Salway.

Service dogs with such specialized training don’t come cheap. Yet, it is one of the additional services the Legion provides to veterans.

The Legion’s bar, once the centre of activity, is permanently closed.

“For ethical reasons and integrity. It’s bad optics helping veterans with substance abuse issues, and yet we were selling beer. We are not in the business of slinging beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with beer. We are in the business of helping veterans,” says Salway.

The immediate concern is merely keeping a stable revenue flow to keep the Legion alive. Hitchock, a longtime member of the Legion, says he appreciates the public’s support. Now the Legion must get with the modern times, he says, and that includes offering more donor options.

“We have a web page and a Facebook page, and we’d like people to donate online and get a tax receipt. Instead of putting $20 in the poppy box, send it our way online and get a receipt,” says Hitchock.

Says Salway: “It is a hyper-competitive market with other charities and non-profits. The younger generation has different criteria on how to volunteer. The legion tech-wise is a little behind the eight ball. Donor burnout is also a real thing,”

Once Remembrance Day is over, it is hoped the community will step up and help.

“Come down and talk to us about what we’re doing,” says Salway. “It’s about partnering with other organizations like government organizations, small business owners, and see how you can help out. We don’t have all the answers. I’m sure there are a lot of smart people out there that could help us further along with our mission. Come down and talk to us. We’re pretty approachable.”

That idea will also get a paw up from Clover.

Dreaming of travel

How much do you miss air travel? We’re now into our first major snowstorm of the season in Saskatchewan. My thoughts turn to warm-weather destinations.

It’s pretty well just a dream now. Canada continues to urge Canadians to “avoid non-essential travel outside Canada and avoid all travel on cruise ships outside Canada until further notice.”

Remember the golden age of travel? It was early March 2020. There were long lineups at airport security. There were flight delays and crowded planes. There were no temperature checks, no physical distancing, and no masks. Ah, those were the days.

My interview with Christine Niemczyk of CAA Saskatchewan.

So if we can’t travel, we can always make plans. The people at CAA’s travel department encourage us to dream a little and begin making plans now for that next bucket list trip.

I connected with Christine Niemczyk, Director of Communications for CAA Saskatchewan.

“It has been a little bit quiet,” says Niemchyk. “But there’s no harm in making preparations now for the day when travel opens up again. We know some of the countries where the members have expressed interest are what we call a bit safer than other countries. It might not be destination A on your bucket list, but maybe it’s destination B. Iceland is seen as popular. There are some islands in the Caribbean where they have low pandemic numbers. So what we say is dream along with us. When you are ready to travel, hop on, and we will help make that dream come true.”

Here are some things to consider when looking at possible travel down the road.

“You have to be flexible. You have to be sure you are knowledgeable. Be prepared. Familiar places like Disney, Palm Springs, and Europe; Those experiences are not the same today and won’t be the same as tomorrow,” says Niemchyk. “Even if you are going into the amusement parks, those lineups are going to be different, and there are going to be different rules and regulations in place. You may have to arrive early. You may have to arrive a day or two before, but we have to expect delays. We have to be flexible. We also have to be patient.”

Dreaming of travel? This is CAA’s video that might serve as some inspiration.

Flexibility is the key. The situation is fluid. Countries that are open to visitors one day can shut down their borders the next day.

For example, on July 1, the Bahamas reopened to international tourism.
A few weeks later, COVID-19 cases shot up. The country added a list of restrictions. By July 27, all visitors were required to complete a 14-day quarantine at a state-run facility. A few days later, the country shut down beaches and reinstated curfews. Authorities have since eased those restrictions. Visitors must now comply with a list of other conditions, including submitting Bahamas’ approved health visa. Visitors that stay longer than five days must take a rapid COVID-19 test. At one point, visitors were required to take their temperature twice a day and enter the result online. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends against travel to that country.

The rules for some countries seem to change by the day.

What about Mexico? You can still fly into Mexico, and no testing requirements are required. Terminal imaging cameras monitor the temperatures of all incoming passengers. Overall, Mexico has among the highest COVID-19 cases globally, and its medical system is overwhelmed. It’s a different story in some tourist areas such as Cancun that boasts low COVID-19 numbers. But would you want to take a chance of getting sick in Mexico?

Travel insurance has become more critical now, whether it is for health or cancellations.

“Talk with the travel consultant and ask what do I need for my travel insurance? We’ve all filled out that form for travel insurance. Be honest. We want to make sure that when it comes time to give you that insurance coverage that you are getting the coverage that you deserve,” says Niemczyk.

Given the fast-changing landscape, it appears non-essential travel outside of Canada will remain but a dream for a while yet. If you must travel, a good start is to check the International Air Transport Association’s page. A global map shows travel restrictions for each country. You will quickly find the extent to which the world has all but shut down to international travel.

However, there is one spot in the world that offers some respite from the cold Saskatchewan weather. It’s a country with no visa restrictions, no COVID-19 testing, and no quarantines. Are you interested? That country is war-torn Afghanistan. I think I’ll take a pass on that for now.

From rider nation to republican land

Former Saskatchewan Roughrider Matt Dominguez will always bleed Rider green but the talk around him these days is about Republican red and Democrat blue.  The tumultuous US election campaign is about to wind down with the vote on November 3.

“Everybody is pretty much entrenched in their sides,” says Dominguez, who moved with his family back to his home state of Texas after living 15 years in Saskatchewan.

Dominguez lives in Frisco, located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Texas has been a Republican stronghold for decades. A Democratic presidential candidate winning in Texas is about as rare as a Roughrider Grey Cup win.  The last Democrat president to receive a majority in Texas was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Johnson was a Texan.

It was a thrill chatting with Matt on In Real Time. Dominguez is an astute observer of US and Canadian politics. He was surely influenced by his mother Mary Calixtro, who is an elected member of the city council in Georgetown, Texas.

The focus of our conversation turned to the 2020 campaign of Biden versus Trump.

“Very few people want to meet in the middle. Very few people want to hear anything negative about their candidates. It’s unfortunate but that’s where we are. It’s very polarized here right now,” says Dominguez. “All my friends are respectful even of those that they don’t agree with.”

Dominguez was an all-star receiver for the Roughriders for six seasons. He remained in the community following his retirement in 2008, working in real estate in Moose Jaw and Regina. He was inducted into the Riders Plaza of Honour in 2016.

Matt Dominguez made his mark in the CFL as a Roughrider receiver. He was also a member of the NFL’s Denver Broncos and New York Jets. (Photo: EMJ Marketing).

Dominguez and his wife Jennifer moved to Texas in the spring to explore more opportunities for their three children.

Since returning to Texas, Dominguez sees a shift to greater support for Democrats, particularly in urban areas.

“For me, I just want a policy debate. Let’s talk about policies. I don’t need bluster and I don’t need hyperbole,” says Dominguez. “Unfortunately, a lot of people just want to hear all the loud talk and the insults and they never really get to the meat of the issues.”

As you might expect, mask-use during this pandemic is a political ‘hot button’ in much of the US including Texas.

“There are those that are going to downplay masks. There are those here that are for masks and those against. My personal opinion is you need to wear a mask. People think that is infringing on their rights. But for me and my family, we wear masks,” says Dominguez.

Dominguez believes the pandemic has prompted some of his fellow Americans to rethink their country’s role in the world, as well as give them the urge to vote.

“We have been joking that there is a higher turnout because people are tired of staying at home. It’s something to do,” says Dominguez. “It (pandemic) has made people focus on issues and on the candidates and what they will do. We can’t be nationalist anymore. We are global. The pandemic did not care where it started and you now need to have a world view in my opinion. This is how interconnected we are and we need leaders that are also thinking that way.”