By Stephen Kimber
Floyd Kane was frustrated, restless, anxious. On one level, he knew he shouldn’t have to carry the burden of all those angst-anchoring emotions. He should be basking in the glow of everything he’d accomplished and all he was yet to accomplish, thank you very much. He’d grown up in East Preston, a small, majority-Black community on the fringes of Halifax. His father had been a cement mason, his mother worked in retail. The family—Floyd had three brothers—lived in a four-room house on Frog Lake Road that his father had built with “his two bare hands.” Despite “growing up poor and without running water [in a house] that might collapse if there was a strong enough wind,” Floyd—by dint of smarts and hard work—had finally carved out a successful niche for himself in a world he’d aspired to be part of since he was a kid.
It was now 2009, and Floyd Kane was not only an entertainment lawyer—put a checkmark beside one of his childhood career ambitions—but also, and more significantly, the vice president of business and creative affairs at DHX Media, a recently formed, publicly-traded Halifax-based entertainment company in the middle of an inexorable merge-and-grow push to become the largest owner of children’s programming in the world.
Ten years before, just two years out of law school, Kane had landed a job as in-house counsel at Salter Street Films, one of Atlantic Canada’s original movie and TV production companies. He’d followed Salter Street’s key players—Michael Donovan and Charles Bishop—as their ventures morphed into the Halifax Film Company and now DHX.
Perhaps that was part of the problem. “I’m probably somebody who stays in a place longer than I should,” Kane allows. “I’d worked with Michael and Charles for a long time. I consider them friends and mentors. But…”
During his time at Halifax Film, he had gotten chances to work on some of its creative projects. He’d been a co-producer of the feature film, Shake Hands with the Devil, for example, and had even created and produced his own first TV series, North/South, a drama set in Nova Scotia’s construction industry and “steeped in the clashes between the ‘haves’, the ‘have nots’ and everyone in between.” It had lasted one season on CBC-TV.
Recently, he’d teetered on the verge of what seemed like yet another chance to do his own creating inside the new company. He’d felt encouraged. “I thought maybe I can stay a little bit longer and get some experience under my belt.” But then that opportunity “fell apart.”
Kane wasn’t comfortable with where DHX seemed headed creatively. He felt he was being “locked” into a pre-school entertainment and animation box that was “not my jam. It never was.”
Which was why he’d begun a on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that conversation with himself. “I am making good money,” he told himself. “I am doing one of the things I always said I wanted to do, which is entertainment law. And I actually love the job. It doesn’t make sense for someone like me—who has a good career as a VP for an entertainment company that’s publicly traded and allows me to continue to advance within the company—to leave.”
And yet Floyd Kane knew in his bones his corporate-based creative role wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go. “I found myself spending a lot of time reading other people’s work. That was very frustrating because I wanted to write.”
Entertainment law may have been a pragmatic career choice for a poor Black kid, but writing was always the dream.
So, now he had to decide what he really wanted out of his career, out of his life. If he stayed where he was and doing what he did, could he realistically pitch his own projects? “It’s very difficult to walk into a broadcaster and say, ‘I have a show,’ when you’re the lawyer. I had a broadcaster once say to me I should be grateful for the job I have and not be interested in pursuing writing.”
But Floyd Kane was interested—make that obsessed—with writing, with creating, with telling his own stories. And what of his own story? How would he tell that?
He thought about his then three-year-old son. “When my son is 25 or 30, and he comes to me and he says, ‘Dad, I know I have this great job. But I’ve always wanted to do X. What should I do?’ I want to be able to tell him, ‘Do the thing that you love. It will pay off in the long run. Look what happened to me…’”
So, Floyd Kane quit his corporate VP job, created his own production company and set out to make his dreams come true.
It is the late spring of 2021 and Diggstown, the primetime television drama series Kane created, writes and produces, is shooting its third season. It returns to the CBC-TV network in October.
The ensemble legal show centres on a young Black lawyer who quits her high-powered job at a corporate law firm—shades of real-life—but in this case after a family tragedy. She becomes a legal aid lawyer, joining an odd assortment of “do-gooders, cynics and scrappers,” who fight for justice for their diverse clients, “exploring issues of racism, poverty and gender bias” in every episode.
Diggstown’s star is Vinessa Antoine (Being Erica, General Hospital), the first Canadian-born Black female lead character in an original Canadian TV drama series. In fact, she’s part of an unusually diverse cast that showcases Black, Indigenous and other often marginalized characters—in both positive and negative everyday roles.
There are African Canadians in key behind-the-camera roles too. Actor-director Cory Bowles (Trailer Park Boys, Poor Boys Game, Black Cop) has become one of the series’ go-to directors. During Season 3, well-known Nova Scotia theatrical playwright and director Juanita Peters—whose current day job is as general manager of Halifax’s Africville Museum—joined the show to become the first Black woman from Nova Scotia to direct an hour of Canadian primetime drama.
Peters remembers “the little flush of pride” she felt sitting in Kane’s office one day discussing the show and noticing the wall behind him covered with 8×10 head-and-shoulders photos. “It wasn’t peppered with diverse people,” she told CBC’s Information Morning. “It was a wall entirely of people that looked like my world.”
Diggstown is unabashedly, proudly set in and around Halifax, Nova Scotia, which includes Kane’s own home turf in the Prestons.
That matters. For Kane. For his community. For Halifax. For Nova Scotia. For the province’s film business and—not to forget— its tourism industry.
In Spring 2020, the series began airing on the American BET+ streaming service. In Spring 2021, FOX, one of the big four U.S. broadcast networks, acquired the rights to air the show’s first two seasons. That means a lot of American viewers—not to forget location-scouting film and TV producers—will get an opportunity to discover a Nova Scotia that is more than just fishing boats and lighthouses. And white people.
Diggstown got its production green-light in the aftermath of controversial 2015 changes to Nova Scotia’s film tax credit program that had decimated the industry and forced hundreds of skilled film technicians to seek work elsewhere. The show’s existence, and the production revival it played a major role in creating, helped bring many of them back.
Filming, in turn, has greased the local economy. During its most recent season, Diggstown and its 125-member crew spent a sizeable chunk of its $12.5-million budget in Nova Scotia, including $500,000 for locations, $400,000 for hotels and accommodation, $206,000 for food and catering, and another $620,000 on vehicle rentals and support vehicles.
Of the nearly 200 actors cast for the show, 70 per cent have been “Nova Scotia hires,” including Kirsten Olivia Taylor, an East Preston actor who has a continuing role in the series. Being on set in her own community has been “emotional,” she says. “I remember growing up here dreaming about doing things like this.”
Beyond such speaking roles, the show has spent $300,000 more to hire background extras, all of them Nova Scotians, many from the Prestons.
Ah, yes, back to the Prestons…
Despite his own growing-up connections to the community, Kane acknowledges he was not instantly welcomed back as the conquering hero. For starters, the Prestons—North Preston in particular—have long been portrayed in negative stereotypes: gangs, drugs, prostitution, violence… Worse, shortly before Kane arrived to begin shooting Diggstown’s first season, residents there felt they had been “betrayed” by a documentary filmmaker they believed had come to “celebrate” their community only to conclude he’d “trashed it” instead.
Residents, Kane recalls, were understandably wary of his intentions. They wanted to be sure anyone planning to film in their communities intended “to be honest about the community, not play into the age-old stereotypes.”
Even during Diggstown’s first season, Kane acknowledges, “there were some challenges, and frankly, there were situations where we fucked up.”
At one point, for example, “our background casting person had ‘flown in’ Black people from Halifax to play North Preston residents.” Kane shakes his head. “Why would you do that? All these people are here. We’re showing their community, they should be in the show. And it’s just…” He pauses, remembers the uncomfortableness he experienced working in small communities in Nova Scotia and Ontario where he was often the only Black person on set. “There are just things like that—the nuances of shooting in a Black community—that the film community don’t understand because they’ve never had to.”
Besides telling stories he wants to tell and making programs he wants to make, Kane is determined to use his newfound power as a Black man in charge to help change those dynamics, “to find ways to encourage more people of colour, more Black people to get involved, to try to get the industry here to be more embracing of that.”
During its last two seasons, the show has been part of a mentorship initiative organized by Screen Nova Scotia and the Halifax Black Film Festival’s “Being Black in Halifax” program. The aim is to create a more diverse pool of talent in front of and behind the camera. It’s beginning to show dividends. North Preston’s Amira Berry, for example, a graduate of the mentorship program, is now one of Diggstown’s makeup artists.
“We’re not there yet,” Kane is the first to acknowledge. The province’s small, insular film industry still has to confront its own comfortable, comforting history of hiring “who you know.” As long as “hiring a relative is more important than trying to bring up somebody new who hasn’t had an opportunity in the industry,” Kane says, achieving real diversity will be difficult.
And yet… Like the show he created, Floyd Kane doesn’t opt for easy answers. Or even let himself off the hook. “If my son decided he wanted to be in the industry,” he acknowledges, “I would try to figure out a way to get him a job. I totally would. But I also think that if I’m going to do that, I need to make sure that I’m making space for somebody who I don’t know, who may not have an opportunity to do this work.”
He remembers what that’s like.
Floyd Kane’s first creative outlet was art. “I used to love to draw, and I was good at it,” he says. “But you get to a point where you know you have some raw talent, but you need to have somebody who can teach you the technique?” He considers. “The idea of having somebody to teach me art wasn’t in the cards.”
But then one of his aunts gifted him an old Smith Corona typewriter. He taught himself to type in elementary school, then began making up stories inspired by what he was reading. “A lot of Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins.” He developed an appreciative audience for his racy tales among his junior high school peers until the day his social studies teacher grabbed a page being surreptitiously passed around the class. “It was a fairly lewd scene,” Kane admits with a laugh. The teacher told him: “Don’t ever bring this to class again.”
He didn’t but writing quickly became “my outlet.” One of his high school English projects was to update the story of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, making the lead character a Black woman and setting the story in a law firm. “That was where my head was at then.” In university, he took the academically debated question of whether Emily Brontë had intended the character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights to be Black and toyed with it, rewriting a chapter with Heathcliff as an actual Black man “and seeing how it played out.”
Still the idea of a full-time career as a writer seemed beyond imagination. “I thought that the law would be a more practical thing to do, because I’d be able to make a living and I wouldn’t starve…” And after he became an entertainment lawyer? “My ambition was to write on the side and hopefully get to a place where I could write full-time.”
His law career didn’t get off to a promising start. Although he landed an articling position in Toronto with Blake Cassels & Graydon, an international corporate law firm with Canadian offices from Montreal to Vancouver as well as in New York and London, he wasn’t hired on after his articling term. Suddenly unemployed and, as he told one interviewer, “one EI cheque away from not being able to pay the rent,” he made his way back to Nova Scotia where he found work as a researcher for Yvonne Atwell, the NDP MLA for the Prestons, the first Black woman in the Nova Scotia legislature.
That gave Kane a front row seat for what he recalls today as “a very rancorous and ugly election. I knew right away that politics was not where I wanted to be.” In the 1999 provincial election, the NDP lost nearly half its seats, including Atwell’s. The party had to lay off staff, Kane among them.
Before that happened, however, Kane—who’d made clear his interest in arts and entertainment issues—represented the NDP at a meeting with producer Michael Donovan to discuss the province’s film tax credit. Kane discovered there was an opening for a lawyer at Salter Street, applied and was interviewed. But he clearly wasn’t hopeful. He’d decided to return to Toronto where he had “started dating someone” and look for a permanent job there. In fact, he received his you’ve-got-the-job call from Salter Street’s VP Corporate just after his plane landed in T.O. And the woman he’d begun to date? “We got married,” he says with a laugh.
Ten years later, he was ready to fly on his own. And the rest, as they say…
Not so fast.
You might assume Across the Line, Floyd Kane’s first feature film project, which he wrote as well as produced, should have been a no-brainer box-office success.
It was, after all, a hockey story about a young Black man whose professional aspirations are sidetracked by racial tensions at his high school, his own brother’s growing involvement in criminal activity and his romantic interest in a young Black woman who already has a white boyfriend. The film’s racial violence was even inspired by a real-life event—the 1989 race riots at Cole Harbour High School when Kane himself was a student there.
What could go wrong?
Everything, as it turned out.
Financing a low-budget movie is hard at the best of times because you usually need more than Across the Line’s $2.5-million budget to attract high-profile stars, who can then attract the financing to entice distributors to pony up the rest of the cash you need to finish the film.
That shouldn’t have been a problem for this project. The film’s star was Stephan James, a young Canadian actor who had graduated from the iconic TV series Degrassi to a role as American civil rights pioneer John Lewis in Selma and was about to star as legendary Olympic runner Jesse Owens in Race.
“Remarkably,” says Kane now, shaking his head, “none of the Canadian distributors was like, ‘Oh, you got the next project of the guy who is playing Jesse Owens in this movie called Race.’ No one cared.”
In the end, Kane only got to complete the movie because “we were able to access some private money to make it. Not a large amount, but enough to close the financing.”
Across the Line premiered at the 2015 Atlantic Film Festival where it won Best Atlantic Feature, but its theatrical release was brief, and it quickly disappeared without further evidence of its existence.
“I don’t think there was much interest in telling that story,” Kane reflects today. For starters, Across the Line “interrogated the myth of Canada being the promised land [by] looking at the way that Blacks are treated within our ‘national game.’” And while the story of the high school race riots resonated in Atlantic Canada, “I don’t know if the story matters that much to the rest of Canada. That made it hard to get made because Canadians don’t see themselves as being racist…”
Let’s circle back now to that moment earlier in this story when Floyd Kane was trying to figure out his own future and wondering what career advice he might offer his future-son. I didn’t mention his follow-your-dreams advice came with a postscript. “If it doesn’t pay off,” he would tell his son, “no harm, no foul. You have still got all the skills that you had before, you can always leap back into the other thing that you were doing.”
Was this the time for Floyd Kane to leap back into the safety of the corporate world he’d left?
Kane and his long-time producing partner, Amos Adetuyi, kept pitching. Diggstown, while more subtle and sophisticated than Across the Line, continued to probe the tender underbelly of our self-image of “our Canada.” And yet… “Selling Diggstown was easy,” Kane marvels. “Honestly, what a difference three years made.” The world had indeed changed. Entertainment gatekeepers—not to forget audiences—were beginning to be open to different narratives, different Canadas. “When Amos and I walked in to pitch that show, CBC was ready. The pitch went well. We basically waited two months before we were told the show was in development, and then, once I delivered the scripts, we were told within two months again that they were ordering the show. It was really fast.”
And the rest, as they say, is… just beginning.
Though he is careful not to give too much away, Kane says Diggstown’s Season 3 will tackle a whole new array of ante-upping plot twists—from COVID, to “birth alerts” that allow social workers to take the babies of poor, Black and Indigenous mothers as soon as they’re born, to Africville, to a Black-Lives-Matter moment after one of the series’ recurring characters shoots a policeman. And, of course, “there’s a big thing that’s going to happen in mid-season with Marcie (Vinessa Antoine) that’s going to spin the show in a different direction.” If Diggstown gets renewed for a fourth season, Kane already has plans for a plot “dealing with the whole ablest issue.” And, and…
While Floyd Kane has travelled a great distance from—and back to—East Preston, he hasn’t forgotten the view from the other side of the mirror. “When I grew up—and I’m sure you remember—there were all these tourism commercials. We’d see all these people doing really great things in and around Nova Scotia, enjoying that lobster dinner and going to the beach and holding hands at the lighthouse, and all those people were White.” He laughs. “In my show, I get to recast all of those images with Black and Indigenous people at the front.”
Floyd Kane contemplates that for a moment. “That to me is the most beneficial thing the show can do in terms of showing the rest of Canada that we exist, we’re here, we come in all shapes and sizes, we come in all different financial snack brackets, and we don’t bite. To me, that’s a great thing that the show is trying to do, and I think it’s accomplishing.”
This story originally appeared in Atlantic Business Magazine. You can subscribe here.