Full disclosure: my son Dan Brioux is among the executive producers of the documentary series I’m about to recommend. It’s called Good People and it starts streaming Friday on CBC Gem.
Don’t watch it because Dan had anything to do with it, or because, as his father, I am damn proud of him. Watch it because, if we ever needed a series called Good People, it is right now.
Host Mark Sakamoto is the driving force behind the series. Soft spoken and passionate, the award-winning author looks like he fronts a Cat Stevens cover band. There’s a hint of the ’60s about him, that he’s trying to get us aboard the Peace Train. To push the Cat Stevens analogy perhaps a stop too far, Sakamoto has been on the edge of darkness, but he sees a way to take us home again.
This author, lawyer and social and political activist, originally from Medicine Hat, Alberta, took his idea for a series to Vice. He wanted to celebrate ordinary heroes, people who have seen and lived the grim realities of poverty, gun crime, drug abuse and despair, but still saw a way to change things for the better.
Sakamoto teamed up with Rick Mercer Report producer/directors Nik Sexton and Tom Stanley. They took their series idea to Vice, where Dan was working in program development. A question was raised at that very first meeting: Is it possible to be earnest and not be corny? Dan heard that and thought, “I’m in.”
It wasn’t until the series was sold to CBC Gem, however, that two episodes turned into five. Friday’s first episode deals with homelessness, a subject Sakamoto knows too well. He shares the story of his mother, for whom, sadly, there was no happy ending. He returns to Medicine Hat and with great reluctance visits the seedy, downtown hotel where she lived out her days, alone in a sketchy little room in a cellar below a bar. It is a place of utter despair. It is heartbreaking.
Sakamoto then seeks out the good people who are helping combat homelessness today. He meets up with former Hamilton Ont., city councillor, now Member of Parliament, Matthew Green. The two visit tent cities under overpasses, where, sadly, there are many homeless residents with stories to tell. Older people in poor health are there, but shockingly young people too. Even the homeless dogs are like, WTF?
He then returns to Medicine Hat for the miracle finish: that city is now a model in Canada for eliminating homelessness. Mayor Ted Clugston explains how a revolutionairy “Housing First” policy was adopted. This policy has proven a net saving on prison confinement costs and other social and medical expenses.
That all this is taking place in “Gas City,” one of the mot conservative spots in Canada, is the real eye opener. If they can make it there, they can make it happen anywhere. And that’s the inspiring thing about Good People — positive examples give hope.
Good People also does a good job of going from the specific to the general and back again. Bracing statistics are flashed onto the screen. “235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year,” reads one stat. “That puts us fourth worst among wealthy nations.”
In Episode Two, which is titled, “The root of violence,” gun statistics are shared. Be not smug, Canada. Twenty-six per cent of Canadians have guns. Canada is fifth among nations in per capita gun ownership and fifth in gun-related deaths.
This was driven home recently with the horrible mass shootings in Halifax. Good People seems so timely as it premieres on the heels of that tragedy, as well as the on-going COVID crisis. The gun episode visits a woman who let her three school-age kids out to play in the park only to have them hit by randon gun fire. (Miraculously, all three survive).
Later in the episode viewers meet former gang leaders who now counsel youth not to do what they did; gangbangers turned gaurdians. A commuity boxing match is set up in Toronto’s Jane/Finch neighbourhood. Cops and cons are interviewed, all urging kids to punch their way out of gang-related gun addictions.
As well-timed as it all seems, the first two episodes were actually shot a year-and-a-half ago. Which goes to show that crises are on-going in Canada, as elsewhere, and good people are needed all the time. Other episodes deal with opioid addictions and the plight of returning veterans.
It is, of course, easy to go back to the “earnest and corny” question. How do you stem the tide of homelessness, gun violence and despair? Sakamoto says you have to show turnarounds can and do happen.
“We’re trying to not offer blind hope, not blind faith, but actual, meaningful, tangible, realistic offerings of hope,” he says. Do they acheive that with every episode? “We went five for five,” says Sakamoto. “Every single time we found a solution that was deployed at scale and was helping hundreds if not thousands of people.”
Sakamoto says positive change must be a rational thing to believe in. He points to the COVID crisis and the fact that we are currently seeing “profound acts of kindness at the personal level, at the community level and at the governmental level.
“The country has paused. The city has paused. The nation has paused. The world has paused,” he says, describing life during the current pandemic. “I think it does behoove us to take this quiet moment in the dead of the night and the stillness of the morning and think, what kind of world do we want on the other end of this? What kind of city do we want? What kind of nation do we want?”
If new episode were being made today, Sakamoto and crew would be profiling care givers on the front lines of long term care homes. Who walks into situations like that? Heroes, says Sakamoto, whose day job today is running a digital health company called Think Research. They work with the Ontario government to provide virtual care to assist personal workers on the front lines.
“There better be a ticker tape parade once we can all gather again,” Sakamoto told me when I spoke with him earlier this week. “There better be a ticker tape parade for those nurses and doctors and janitors and clerical workers who are keeping the acute care system up and running.”
Sakamoto feels that if COVID has taught us anything — and every single one of these episodes does the same thing—”it is that we as a community are only as strong as our most vulnerable.”
Good People is lively, un-blinking storytelling, a well-aimed punch to the gut and a slap upside the head, driven by a smartly-curated music mix. It’s also very, very moving and inspiring. That it was all done on a Canadian dime is a credit to the good people behind the camera.
My son Dan has moved on to other studios and other projects but he hopes Sakamoto and company get to make more of these soon — and so do I.