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Early in the new documentary There’s Something in the Water, Shelburne resident Louise Delisle takes filmmakers Ellen Page and Ian Daniel on a tour of her neighbourhood, a largely African-Nova Scotian community which for decades bordered on a large dump used by the town, the hospital and the Canadian military.
As she drives, she points to houses where wells have been polluted, and her neighbours have died of cancer. The cumulative effect is heartbreaking.
And that’s only the beginning, as Halifax-born actor Page and her Gaycation co-producer Daniel take their cameras around the province in the eye-opening study of environmental racism that has its Atlantic Canadian premiere on Saturday night at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival on two screens at Park Lane Theatres at 9:30 p.m.
Page opened up about what she’d learned for this project to a worldwide audience on Jan. 31 when she appeared on CBS’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote her Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. In a clip that soon went viral, she spoke about marginalized communities like the Mi’kmaq people of Pictou Landing, who’ve seen the waters of nearby Boat Harbour polluted by the effluent from the Northern Pulp mill.
Now, with the help of Dalhousie University researcher and sociologist Ingrid Waldron, she and Daniel have constructed a taut and emotionally powerful 73-minute film that builds on the momentum from that appearance, profiling the women on the front lines of fighting environmental injustice in Shelburne, Pictou and Stewiacke, where the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s Grassroots Grandmothers have been protesting for months to prevent Alton Gas from pumping thousands of gallons of subterranean brine into the Shubenacadie River.
“I’ve had people come up to me when I’m home in Nova Scotia and say, ‘Oh my God, my father’s from Pictou and I had no idea.’ Or, ‘My father-in-law’s from Shelburne and I had no idea.’ So this is what needs to happen,” says Page, who felt galvanized to action by Waldron’s book There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities and Joan Baxter’s The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.
“Politicians need to be held accountable. It’s been going on forever, and the provincial government has continuously perpetuated this, and communities have been destroyed and people have been killed,” says Page, citing the high rates of cancer in the affected communities in Shelburne and Pictou as well as the rate of suicide among the First Nations people of Pictou Landing.
“So that’s why this film was made, to stop normalizing this complete and utter horrific devastation. When the Grassroots Grandmothers are criminalized and arrested for protecting the Shubenacadie River and their treaty rights, it’s absolutely absurd and the government should be ashamed of itself.”
“It’s hard for people to recognize what’s happening in their own backyards, particularly if it’s not impacting them directly and there’s no media attention on it.”
- Ellen Page
Page and Waldron initially connected via social media after the actor expressed her admiration for the Dalhousie School of Nursing associate professor’s award-winning book on Twitter. For her part, Waldron is pleased to see the work she did on the page take on new life on the big screen, especially for a hometown crowd in Halifax during FIN, and at a hugely successful world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival where she and her co-producers received considerable feedback from the audience.
“In Toronto, I did have to explain quite a bit what environmental racism was, even though one of the most serious cases of it is in Sarnia, called Chemical Valley,” she says. “Many of the people I talked to in Toronto didn’t know about Chemical Valley, which has 62 industries surrounding Indigenous communities, which have incredibly high cancer rates and considerable reproductive health issues.
“It’s hard for people to recognize what’s happening in their own backyards, particularly if it’s not impacting them directly and there’s no media attention on it. I’ve done a lot of work on this in Nova Scotia over the past seven years, particularly with public engagement events at the library and different venues, but there are always people who aren’t aware of it.”
New York-based Daniel, who co-hosts and produces the Emmy-nominated series Gaycation with Page for Viceland, is the outsider of the group, and only knew about Nova Scotia via Page’s descriptions of the province during their decade-long friendship.
When she encouraged him to read Baxter’s book about Northern Pulp and Boat Harbour, he was immediately engrossed by what he learned, and when Waldron’s work became part of the equation, the idea of working on a project inspired by them was “an immediate yes.”
“When Ellen is passionate about something, I feel her passion,” he says. “Then I give it a minute and I revisit it, because I’m from America and these issues weren’t necessarily affecting me directly, so it takes a minute to wrap your awareness around it.
“But the more passionate that Ellen was about issues affecting her community, the more I listened. And then she connected to Ingrid’s book and sent it to me and I loved everything about it, from the title through its concepts. The book really discusses a lot of the intersectionality of issues that I was also thinking about personally, like race, health, space, geography, and how that impacts the environment and how the environment impacts these communities.”
With Page and Daniel behind the camera and a sound recordist rounding out the three-person crew, the filmmaking team was able to capture an intimate portrait of women like Delisle in Shelburne, Pictou Landing’s Michelle Francis-Denny and Dorene Bernard and the Grassroots Grandmothers in Stewiacke, trying to hold decision-makers accountable for past injustices and prevent similar catastrophes from happening in the future.
Besides highlighting what’s been happening in rural communities around Nova Scotia, they hope the film inspires viewers around the world to look at what’s happening in their own regions and take action in whatever way they can.
“I feel really grateful and humbled that I’m a part of being able to bring these stories to light, hopefully in a larger and international way,” says Page. “For me, I’m most excited that Ingrid’s work and these women whose voices should be leading the way right now are getting the attention and the platform they deserve.
“I’m also looking forward to being able to do that at home in Nova Scotia where these urgent and awful issues are happening.”