DIGGSTOWN (Floyd Kane) with Vinessa Antoine, Natasha Henstridge and C. David Johnson. Premieres March 6 at 8 pm on CBC and CBC Gem.
With her role on CBC’s new legal drama Diggstown, Vinessa Antoine is breaking a barrier you might be surprised still existed. The Scarborough native is the first Black Canadian woman to lead a prime-time drama on network television.
“Its about time,” says Antoine, speaking to NOW at CBC’s winter season launch late last year. Her sentiments echo comments by actor Grace Lynn Kung, who tweeted about the lack of diversity in the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards nominations. With 11 television acting categories (not including child performance) totaling 55 slots, only five POC actors received nominations, all in supporting and guest performance categories.
“We’ve needed and are craving real diversity and representation on TV, period, but particularly in Canada,” says Antoine.
She goes on to list the Black women who came before her on Canadian television, a short list including Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Trey Anthony and Ngozi Paul on the Global sitcom Da Kink In My Hair and American actor Aunjanue Ellis on the CBC mini-series The Book Of Negroes.
Antoine walked away from her role on American soap opera General Hospital to play Marcie Diggs, a corporate lawyer reeling from a family tragedy. Diggs shifts her practice to legal aid so she can help people in need, fighting cases that have her confronting poverty, gender bias and racism.
Diggstown arrives a little over a year after Hadiya Roderique published Black On Bay Street, a withering take on what it means be a lawyer facing systemic racism. But the show isn’t about fitting in on Bay Street. Instead, it’s about North Preston, home to Canada’s largest Black community. Both the significance and history behind North Preston, which dates back to slavery in Canada, is something both Antoine and I were ignorant to. This isn’t stuff that was taught to us in schools.
“The history, as far as Black people go in this country, unfortunately [has] been told from one perspective,” says Antoine. “I’ve learned more about my history and being a Black person in this country from YouTube.
“My entire adult life, I’ve told people Toronto has the biggest Black community,” she adds, reciting a belief many hold. “That’s what I represented. I’m West Indian background, with immigrant parents from Trinidad and Tobago. I never thought for a second there was anything beyond my Caribbean roots in Toronto [representing Black culture in Canada]. When I dove down the rabbit hole of Canadian history and saw how rich we are in Black history, particularly in Nova Scotia, that opened me up to a whole new world.”
But before descending on North Preston to shoot Diggstown, Antoine had heard negative stereotypes about the community, often from former Nova Scotians. North Preston was a dangerous place, they said, filled with crime, gangsters and pimps.
“When we got there, not only is it aesthetically beautiful but the people were so welcoming and so sweet,” Antoine recalls. “I think you get what you give. If you come in with any kind of preconceived notion or stereotypes… you’re going to receive that back.”
Antoine points to the discriminatory language used against the people of North Preston and beyond as a reminder that Canada is not the “kumbaya” nation we make ourselves out to be. We can be as racist as Americans, even if we fashion ourselves as more progressive.
“Everyone is so conservative and passive-aggressive here that they don’t want to actually talk about it,” says Antoine. “Shows like Diggstown are going to force people to look at their own preconceived notions, stereotypes and what’s actually happening as far as police brutality and so many more things that are going on in this country.”