By Sue Tiffin
“After nearly 40 flood-free years, the township of Minden Hills has developed a flooding problem. But as the community digs out, they also deepen their commitment to one another.”
So reads the description of an episode of CBC’s Still Standing that focuses on Minden Hills and is airing on Feb. 23.
Still Standing features Jonny Harris, comedian and actor, as he travels across the country visiting small towns, meeting the residents there, and finding humour and oftentimes moments of joy in how they have persevered through setbacks in rural life.
While the pandemic paused the show during initial public health measures and restrictions, in June 2020, Minden council heard a presentation from story producer Shayla Howell and executive producer Anne Francis about how the filming could happen with protocols in place. Minden was of interest because of news stories about repeated flooding and the community’s response to it after states of emergency due to severe flooding on the Gull River in 2013, 2017 and 2019.
“We’ve been to towns that have flooded before, but for a town that, I think the three floods over the last decade or so …” Harris told the Times. “The first one sort of came out of the blue and it’s been a bit relentless since then … By the third time around, people knew what to do. The town purchased a sandbag filling machine, and you know, just sort of getting prepared for it and ready for the next time without hitting the road or heading for the highlands. That’s pretty impressive. It’s also a gorgeous area, it’s going to look like a million bucks in the final cut.”
Harris and the crew came to the area from Sept. 21 to 26, 2020, speaking with business owners, residents and visitors about what makes Minden stand out. Those featured include Emily Stonehouse, Suwan Khamduang of Suwan’s Thai Cuisine, Brigitte Gall and Michael Bainbridge of The Occurrence, Shawn Chamberlin of the Dominion Hotel and Pub and Shawn Smandych, also known as Plum Vicious of Minden Pride.
“Minden turned out to be a really strong episode,” Harris told the Times. “The town is gorgeous, the story – you know, getting rocked three times over 10 years by these devastating floods. Something we see on our show time and time again is how these sort of devastating things end up, in a way, uniting people. People come together and make an effort to get over it. The fact that Minden’s at a place now that you can kind of have a quick response to flooding – I don’t know, is that a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s an impressive thing, let’s say.”
Despite the restrictions in place in Ontario and throughout several provinces in Canada at the time, much like many of the towns the crew visits, Still Standing paused and then carried on.
“It was heartbreaking to have to put our production on hold,” reads a statement on the Still Standing website. “But the safety of our crew and the incredible people we visit was paramount. After months of monitoring the situation and carefully re-imagining how we produce the show, we were proud to be able to recommence production with COVID-19 safety as our central focus.”
Harris said Minden had been on producer’s radar for awhile, and then became the first trip out for the crew during the pandemic because it was possible to drive to the area without having to go to airports or bring a crew onto airplanes to get here from Toronto. One restriction in place that differed from previous seasons is that the audience was smaller for a live comedy session at the end of the filming, in which Harris summed up and made connections between his experiences here.
“I remember it really sort of weighing on me,” said Harris of the restrictions with limited capacity of audience. “And I turned on the TV a couple of nights later and Jimmy Fallon was on there doing jokes for, essentially, the crew. He tells a joke and you hear a smattering of people, who are kind of behind cameras and stuff, laughing. So I thought, if he can do that, maybe I can go out and … you know, we’ve all got a little egg on our face, we’ve all got to eat a little dirt right now.”
While in an interview, Harris makes a point to acknowledge each of the people he met with that are featured on the show, but he also acknowledged highlights of his experience in this area including being able to take to the Gull River himself.
“Getting out there to enjoy the river, which is sort of the stem of the flooding issues, to get out there and enjoy it in the best possible way, to get out there with Claudia [Kerckhoff Van Wijk], Canada’s whitewater woman, and do some paddling down over the rapids was definitely a highlight,” said Harris. “I’ve seen some of the footage, it’s going to look amazing.”
He also said meeting with Smandych, whose drag queen character Plum Vicious features at the Haliburton County Public Library’s Drag Queen storytime during Minden Pride, was important.
“Drag Queen story hour, which is a phenomenon but mostly in larger cities around the world … to speak with Shawn, and learn about his role in that, and sort of the Pride movement, seeing that move into small towns I think is really important, especially for young people growing up who are questioning these things and facing these issues,” he said. “It’s like, he said to me, kids can sort of go on their laptops or tablets, and you see RuPaul and you know this world is out there, and it’s OK somewhere but I think bringing this stuff into small towns and giving kids the sense that it’s OK there is very important.”
“The idea that it’s really been embraced by the community, it’s not an upstart thing, it’s something the town is looking to rally around I think is quite impressive,” he added.
Speaking to issues of the town’s flooding, and how to find humour in what has been an ongoing struggle, Harris said it is possible to acknowledge and celebrate efforts made during challenges and also find ways to find joy.
“I think laughter is medicine, and I think, you know, you need to give due diligence to the struggles that towns are facing and acknowledging them earnestly and respectfully,” he said. “But I think the comedy comes out of a place … comedy doesn’t have to fly in the face of that acknowledgment. It’s more about sort of celebrating the earnest efforts that people have made. Any town we go into, it never really has to be sort of saccharine or pandering, you’re always going to find, in towns that are facing a struggle, earnest efforts that are commendable.”
“As long as that’s sort of first and foremost, that sort of acknowledgement and commendable effort, that’s the cornerstone and then I think after that it’s kind of easy to make a few jokes and have some fun,” he said. “You can be saucy without being mean-spirited.”
Harris said his time in Minden resulted in a show that celebrates the town and the people who live here.
“Everybody needs a reminder now,” Harris said. “That’s the cool thing about the show. There’s so much commendable stuff that people do, or communities do and nothing ever – like who’s ever going to get up and make a speech about what a great person you are? Maybe at your wedding, you know, your best man or woman might get up and acknowledge some of the cool things you’ve done, and maybe when you retire, somebody gets up and says a few words, but largely it’s not a huge part of our society for someone to give that acknowledgement or pat on the back, and this show is a good excuse to do just that.”
The first six seasons of Still Standing saw the show visit more than 80 towns. The latest season sees Harris visiting Hope and Chemainus in B.C.; Middleton and Oxford in Nova Scotia; St. Laurent in Manitoba; Wakefield, Quebec, and Port Stanley, Warkworth, Fenelon Falls and Minden in Ontario.
The seventh season of Still Standing began Jan. 5. It airs on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. on CBC, or can be watched on CBC Gem. Minden’s episode airs on Feb. 23 and the episode featuring Fenelon Falls is currently scheduled to air on March 23. An episode featuring Wilberforce is available to watch on CBC Gem in the show’s fourth season. For more information visit https://www.cbc.ca/television/stillstanding.
Please see next week’s edition of the Times for a special photo spread devoted to Still Standing: Minden.