All posts by Costa Maragos

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.”

Saskatchewan ghost stories  

Watch my interview here with Saskatchewan ghost stories author Jo-Anne Christensen.

Some ghosts have a knack for perfect timing.

It was a rainy and foggy night back in the early 1920s when the local doctor in Broadview, Saskatchewan was driving to an urgent house call. These were busy times for the doctor as he helplessly watched many of his patients die from the outbreak of the Spanish Flu.

He would not have made it to his next patient that evening if it weren’t for the sudden flash of a ghostly figure on the hood of his car.

That sudden sighting prompted the doctor to slam on his breaks just as he was about to drive across a train crossing. It was good timing as just at that moment a train came speeding across the intersection.
The ghost that saved the doctor’s life also happened to be his late wife.  

There’s something timeless about a good ghost story. That doctor’s story and so many more short and scintillating ghost stories are courtesy of Jo-Anne Christensen. She has produced three books about Saskatchewan ghost stories.

Christensen is the author of Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan, More Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan, and Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan 3. Each book features a series of well-written short stories that continue to be popular, years after they were published. Jo-Anne chatted with me on In Real-Time and I asked her what accounts for her books’ continued popularity.

“When I first started writing these books they were hugely popular, then they seemed to die down a little bit,” says Christensen. “And now it looks like it’s coming back and I would attribute that to the growing popularity of podcasts. Through technology, we are rediscovering how much we enjoy having stories told to us and how much we enjoy sharing stories with one another and a lot of podcasts are paying a lot of attention to this sort of subject matter.”

A simple search confirms Christensen’s observations. There are a wide-variety of ghost-story podcasts out there with thousands of loyal followers.
If Christensen wished she could no doubt fill dozens of podcast episodes with her Saskatchewan ghost stories alone.

“I just love ghost stories in general, my whole life. One of my best friends grew up in Regina and when I met her she started telling me some ghost stories she had experienced growing up and that kind of got me hooked on Saskatchewan ghost stories. Nobody had really paid attention to them and I thought there are great ghost stories in Saskatchewan and somebody has to start collecting these so I started doing them, “says Christensen.

We’re thankful she did. Her books feature a wide array of ghost stories.

They include:

-The Tabor cemetery (near Esterhazy) – “home to one of Saskatchewan’s most famous phantom lights.”

-Mystery at the Moose Head Inn where ‘doors crashed open, lights flashed on and off, and incredible “booming” noises originated.”

-The gruesome secret is hidden beneath the shimmering water of a lake near Fort Qu’Appelle.

-The mysterious man in black in Kindersley and the Hopkins House in Moose Jaw.  

“Hopkins House is probably one of the most famous haunted places in Canada because it was featured on a show called Creepy Canada,” says Christensen who now lives in   Edmonton. “It’s a very very haunted place and a cool place as well because it’s a public restaurant. So many people that don’t know each other and have never met have experienced the same things at Hopkins so I think that makes it very credible. There are just so many ghosts in that house. It’s like a haunted Victorian mansion and it’s accessible to everybody because it’s a restaurant.”

The Hopkins story includes an unsettling sighting in the woman’s washroom on the restaurant’s main floor.

 “A woman who worked there as a hostess for years and years and years would avoid that washroom at all costs. There was one time she went in there and she could feel a presence in the washroom, and there was no-one else in the washroom. She looked up in the mirror and there was the ghost of a woman standing behind her looking at her in the mirror.”

That’s just one of numerous ghost sightings in that house according to Christensen.

The Hopkins House ranks as among Christensen’s favourite ghost stories.

Christensen has many more ghost stories to satisfy your ghost cravings beyond the Halloween season.
Just in time for the holiday season, you can pick up Christensen’s Ghost Stories of Christmas, Ghost Stories of Christmas II, and Haunted Christmas Ghost Stories which are sold separately or as a box set.

The last generation of Indian residential school students tell a different story of the residential school experience

Kerry Benjoe relates her Indian residential school experience, which greatly differs from that of her parents and grandparents. (Photo by Bryn Hadubiak)

Click here for my interview with Kerry Benjoe.

Canada’s dark legacy of Indian Residential schools is well documented. But does that tell the whole story?

Kerry Benjoe of Regina graduated from the last Indian Residential school in Lebret, Saskatchewan in the early ’90s. Hers is not a story of abuses but of happy memories and a school where students excelled in academics and athletics.

Kerry’s residential school experience is the focus of a master’s thesis she completed for the University of Regina’s School of Journalism.

The Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School was the first Indian residential school to open in western Canada in 1884 and the last one to close in Canada in 1998.

For her thesis, Kerry reconnected with former students, parents, teachers, and support workers who told stories that she says “paint a different picture of the school.”

The school was operated by the Star Blanket Cree Nation from 1984 to its closure. Kerry is Saulteaux/Dakota/Cree from the Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation.

The title of her project is Mīnisa, a Cree word meaning family. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

What got you interested in this project?

The fact that there is no history of my time in residential school. When I tell people that I went to residential school I always get the ‘oh I’m so sorry” and I always have to say no it’s ok it wasn’t so bad for me. I’m tired of having to explain that and I think that’s common among students of this era because our story is completely different than that of our parents.

Give us a sense in what way your story is different than the Indian residential school experience of your parents and grandparents?

I wasn’t abused. I wasn’t assaulted in any way. There was a lot of pride. Pride in ourselves. There was a real focus on education and athletics. I think that was to build us up as students so that when we left school we would have the tools to be successful. My parents didn’t have that. It wasn’t a very happy place for them.

My dad ran away from school so many times. He was 13 years when he ran away and they left him alone. My mom used to tell me residential school was the place she would go to cry.

That wasn’t what I experienced. I was surrounded by friends. We laughed. The halls were filled with laughter. Even our supervisors doubled as surrogate parents for us. They consoled us when we were upset. They were supportive. They cheered us on. They gave us advice. They scolded us when we needed to be scolded. They filled that role as parents when we had to be away from our parents.

The Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School was demolished in 1999. It was renamed White Calf Collegiate after the Star Blanket Cree Nation took over operation of the school.

How did you end up in Lebret?

There was no high school on my reserve. The only option was residential school or get bussed to Regina to go to school. So either way I would have had to have left my community and I appreciate that my mom chose Lebret because I had a chance to be sheltered from some of the experiences people of my generation may have experienced here in the city in a predominantly non-Indigenous education system.
I was surrounded by people like me. I was taught by people like me. I did not have this sense of feeling bad about who I was. I felt equal to everybody just because I did not face a whole lot of racism since I entered school.

Students at Lebret attended from Saskatchewan and other parts of Canada including Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario.

How did that make you feel?

I think it gave me a step up when I graduated from Lebret. I entered the University of Regina and pursued by English and Indigenous studies. I was probably the only brown face in a sea of white when I attended but that didn’t stop me. I didn’t feel inferior to anybody. I felt like I belonged there. Because I had that opportunity from pre-school to grade 12 to be told I was just as good as everyone else that I just carried that with me when I went to any place. The culture shock was still there but not to the extreme where it stopped me. I was the first college graduate in my family simply because that’s where I was supposed to be and I didn’t let anything interfere with that goal.

In your master’s thesis there are amazing personal stories you capture of people who attended the school. Generally speaking what were their experiences at this residential school?

They look back at it with a sense of nostalgia. Pride, happiness and connection. It doesn’t matter what year you went there, there was this sense of belonging, which is why I chose why I choose mīnisa ats the title of my project. It means family. There’s this sense of belonging. We all connected. We all bonded we all became family.

Kerry Benjoe, center, with some of her fellow high school graduates.

One student talks to you about the cultural component of the school, smudging for example. What did that mean to the students attending?

When I went there it wasn’t there yet. I learned that when I was doing the project. To hear they woke up with a smudge every morning really filled me with a sense of pride. Those schools were designed to erase all of that from us. The fact it was re-introduced once Star Blanket took over operation of the school and that they brought back these cultural components like language, ceremony, culture. To know that these students in the school woke up to a smudge like we would have if we were at home. It seemed like it came full circle for me. They tried to erase it and after 100 years of trying to erase it they couldn’t and it was back. I think It highlights the resilience of Indigenous people. It is really good to be able to tell this story to my children.

What were the academic standards like at Lebret?

They expected the best. They pushed academics. Even if you wanted to participate in any kind of extracurricular activity you needed a 60 percent average. And they made it possible because they worked in study periods and study hall. It was very regimented. That was okay because we were doing it at the same time and so it did not seem overly harsh. Anybody who got over 70 percent did not have to go to study hall so it was a reward system. The better grades the more rewards you got in the end. Really focussing on education helps students become successful when they left because they knew how to study and they knew where hard work could take you.

It has been more than 20 years since the school was demolished but former students still make the journey to the school site.

It begs the question as to why the school was demolished. What are your thoughts on the school being closed and being torn down?

It wasn’t fair because there was a formula, they found a formula that was producing, It was producing well-adjusted graduates. They were providing an environment that was safe. There was so much opportunity there for students. Some who were coming from broken homes. They found a safe place to be and to be successful. I think there was a lot of potential for that school to continue. Once it found that groove they said no more they shut it down and there wasn’t any alternative. There’s still a lack of high schools on reserves. There is still a lack of quality of education on first nations reserves. I think this school in its heyday was meeting those needs of Indigenous students that weren’t being met in other places. I think It is unfortunate it did happen. I know what it did for me and I know what it did for a lot of my fellow students.

Your thesis includes a lesson plan for teachers and students. What the idea behind this?

This is a really important chapter. It’s a chapter that hasn’t been told. It is essential to tell the full narrative of Indian residential schools. We need to get the final chapter because this question is always raised. Well was it that bad right to until the end. And so this project hopefully answers a bit of that question. No, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t horrible like the stories we hear from previous generations. I won’t take away from those experiences but I want people to be able to get the full grasp of residential schools. Because they operated right up until 1998. Our story has been absent. When I was researching there was a minuscule amount of information on residential schools from my time. I think being able to teach this to the next generation will help to highlight the resilience that I keep talking about Indigenous people. Not only did we survive that system, but we also flipped it around and made it work for us. For my children, it’s important for them to know that story and it is important for my grandchildren to know that story. We are here because we come from a long line of survivors. People that refused to give up and hang on to our culture. We still have our fluent Cree speakers. We still have our ceremonies. We still have all of our celebrations. It’s because we survived.
So it is my job to carry on that story and to highlight their successes because they did a lot to help me to become the person I am. I didn’t get here on my own. I got here because of their sacrifices. There is no information, so if a teacher wants to look at my website and share it with their students there’s a lesson plan they can go through it.

Kerry Benjoe is a journalist at CBC Saskatchewan.

My cousin in Beirut in the aftermath of the devastating explosion

Watch my interview with Tommy Gargatdzidis

When I first heard the news of the massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, my thoughts instantly turned to my cousin Tommy Gargatdzidis, his wife Natasha and their two children.

Tommy has lived in Beirut for 16 years and owns a popular restaurant there. I immediately messaged Tommy. He messaged me back within minutes.

“We are okay. The team and family are okay but the restaurant is destroyed. This country is a nightmare,” said the message.

The blast occurred in Beirut’s port. A storage unit, housing ammonia, blew up killing at least 200 people, injuring at least 6500 people. There are at least 300,000 people homeless and the damage is in the billions of dollars.

Tommy grew up in Regina and the city is still home to his parents and brother. His travels took him to Beirut where he fell in love with that city’s energy, culture, people and its diverse and quirky cuisine. Tommy also met and fell in love with Natasha, a local girl with deep family ties to Lebanon.

Beirut’s Baron restaurant was voted 50 Best Discovery Award.

After working in the restaurant industry in various capacities, from chef to management, Tommy opened Baron (pronounced buh-ROE) in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district. The area, about a kilometre from the blast’s epicenter, is a mix of fashion boutiques, design showrooms, bookshops and music bars.  

The restaurant was a hit from the start, garnering positive reviews and receiving the 50 Best Discovery Award (top restaurants in the world).
There are added challenges to running a successful restaurant in Beirut. Prior to the explosion, the country was mired in a currency and political crisis. Those problems were magnified with the onset of the pandemic. All that was bad enough. Then the explosion hit, destroying a third of the city.

I interviewed Tommy on In Real Time and asked him his thoughts after having had some time to absorb the news.

“We’re still under shock to understand everything that happened. It still hasn’t really sunk in,” said Tommy. “Nothing surprises in Beirut but this didn’t seem real. The force just came down the street and took out everything.”

Security cameras posted inside and outside the restaurant captured the moment the blast occurred. One scene shows two Baron employees calmly preparing for the evening’s rush when the explosion hit.

“It was right between the lunch and dinner service. Everyone was doing their regular daily prep and you see them moving with the initial sound of the first blast and the second you see how it just pulled out the glass and moved everything around. It’s a miracle. They are fine aside from a few scratches,” said Tommy.

So now what?

“What is the next step? You can’t really have a next step,” said Tommy. “The currency crisis means you just can’t go to an ATM, get money and fix the glass for a broken business. There are so many steps to get all of that done.”

Once those steps are done, Tommy is now looking to the day he serves his customers again.

“We took some time to gather. We have decided we will try to rebuild,” he says.

Baron received much-needed donations to help cover some staff wages from the group that runs the 50 Best Discovery Restaurants Awards, to assist in the restaurant’s recovery.  

“We really appreciated this donation,” says Tommy.

In the face of the devastation of the cleanup, Tommy told us about a fundraising campaign to assist Beirut’s Red Cross. He’s teamed up with New York-based TILIT, a clothing company catering to the restaurant industry. Proceeds from the sale of the Love Lebanon Apron will be directed to the Red Cross.

Tommy is also raising funds to help with his restaurant rebuild. A Go Fund Me campaign is underway.

“We are now looking for help to reopen the soonest and to bring us all back to the street and area we have called home for the past five years,” says Tommy.

Made-In-Sask COVID-19 research advancing in a climate of vaccine skepticism  

Watch the full interview with Dr. Volker Gerdts

Dr. Volker Gerdts, Director and CEO of VIDO InterVac in Saskatoon, reports his research team is making good progress in the search for a coronavirus vaccine. “We have chosen a technology that has an excellent safety profile,” says Gerdts.

It is assumed life will get back to ‘normal’ once scientists around the world roll out their approved coronavirus vaccines.

Not so fast.

Recent polls taken in Canada, the US and elsewhere show there is a sizeable number of anti-vaccine advocates.

It’s believed at least 80 percent of the population must take a COVID-19 vaccine to achieve herd immunity. Anything less may compromise the vaccine’s effectiveness. That concern was expressed by the head of the Saskatoon-based research team developing a coronavirus vaccine.

Dr. Volker Gerdts is the Director and CEO of VIDO Inter-Vac (Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre). The research team is based on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan and received $23 million from Ottawa in March to pursue its COVID-19 vaccine research. VIDO Inter-Vac is one of 187 vaccine teams being tracked by the World Health Organization.
In an interview on In Real Time with Costa Maragos, Gerdts predicted there will be a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccines developed by the spring or summer of 2021.  

That is a fast timeline given most vaccines take years to develop.

“We are seeing a lot of vaccine hesitancy out there. Having these vaccines in only 60 percent of the public or maybe 70 percent, that’s not good in that we don’t get much herd immunity,” he says.

VIDO Inter-Vac, based on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, received a $23 million boost from Ottawa to speed up its COVID-19 vaccine research.

Recent polls back up Gerdts’ observation.

A poll by Angus Reid released in August shows that nearly a third of Canadians will wait a while before taking the vaccine while 46 percent say they will take it as soon as it becomes available. Fourteen percent of those polled say they will not take the vaccine.

The poll reported that Saskatchewan people expressed the greatest resistance to a COVID-19 vaccine in Canada with 33 percent saying they would take the vaccine when it is available but most will either wait or not take it at all. As of September 24, there were 1,835 reported COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan. Of those cases, 24 people are believed to have died from COVID-19 related causes.

Americans were more skeptical as that country approached its 200,000th death related to COVID-19. An Axios/Ipsos poll shows 33 percent of Americans are not at all likely to take the vaccine. It’s a similar story in Germany, Italy and Sweden. Russians are the greatest skeptics where nearly half the population, according to polls, would refuse the vaccine.
All of this paints a concerning picture for the medical community and vaccine supporters who hope a series of coronavirus vaccines will put the breaks to the pandemic.

I asked Dr. Gerdts what might be the source of peoples’ skepticism.

“Information and misinformation is out there,” he says. “People don’t know who to trust and who not to trust. As long as people trust the scientific data that’s coming out and showing how well these vaccines work I think that’s the best advice for everyone.”

While there is a skeptical public out there, Gerdts’ team has been inundated with people volunteering to take part in the vaccine trials.

“It’s a fantastic story for us. We have had people all over Canada contacting us and wanting to take part in the trials,” says Gerdts. “I don’t think it will be a problem finding any volunteers.”

Gerdts says the VIDO Inter-Vac team is on track for human trials.

“It is really exciting. We are just entering the last phase (animal testing) before clinical trials,” says Gerdts. “It’s all about safety. Nobody wants to cut any corners. We have chosen a technology that has an excellent safety profile. We know our vaccine is very safe. We just have to demonstrate it and once we have that hurdle cleared we can apply for a clinical trial and start our clinical trials in December.”

Show Premiere | 08-20-20

Costa Maragos is back in front of the camera and ready to explore current events affecting Saskatchewan.Our show premiere is one of a kind, with guests who are living in middle of COVID-19 hot spots, a local filmmaker ready to launch her own show…in Regina? And of course, we look at the CFL and what the future looks like for the players, communities and the league. This is In Real Time with Costa Maragos. Real People. Real Conversations.