While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the federal election campaign official on Wednesday, cementing October 21 as the day Canadians will head to the polls, another date was on the minds of several special guests at the Toronto International Film Festival this week: January 31, 2020, the deadline for Northern Pulp to cease dumping its liquid waste into Boat Harbour, Nova Scotia.
The pulp mill’s impact on the harbour is one of three cases of “environmental racism” highlighted in There’s Something in the Water, a new documentary shot, directed and produced by Canadian actor Ellen Page and her Gaycation collaborator, Ian Daniel. While Page may be best known for some of her dramatic works — Juno, Inception and the more recent Umbrella Academy and Tales of the City series, for instance — she and Daniel spent several recent years hosting the Viceland docuseries, which saw the duo explore LGBTQ communities around the world.
Their latest project puts Page’s home province under the microscope, inspired by the 2018 book of the same name, written by Dalhousie professor Ingrid Waldron. The film follows several women from three African-Nova Scotian and Indigenous communities as they fight against local environmental degradation and for the right to clean water.
Several of those featured in the documentary joined the crew for the film’s world premiere this week at TIFF, some wearing shirts and hats emblazoned with messages, including Northern Pulp’s 2020 deadline — a reminder of the issues they are ultimately out to raise awareness of.
Some of those at TIFF included Louise Delisle from Shelburne, the small community in close proximity to what was once a long-time dump site, Michelle Francis-Denny from Pictou Landing First Nation, near Boat Harbour (or A’se’k), the location of the pulp mill treatment site, and Dorene Bernard from the Mi’kmaq Grassroot Grandmothers group out to stop Alton Gas from dumping brine into the Shubenacadie River.
Page and Waldron sat down with OpenCanada’s Eva Salinas on Monday — the morning after the film premiered — chatting excitedly about the day before. (Page and Daniel arrived in Nova Scotia only a few months ago, in April, cameras in hand, intending to capture the stories and provide them with a platform of some kind. The last few months have been spent scrambling to get the film to the festival — “the absolute dream,” Page said.)
“It’s been a ride,” Waldron said, sitting next to Page. “People stopped me on the street last night who wanted to pay for [a new] well for Shelburne.”
“It’s getting taken care of,” Page replied, smiling. “A well is going in, if you know what I mean.”
For part of the morning, the two discussed how society treats the environment and marginalized communities, the need for more Nova Scotia stories and the misleading elements of Canada’s global brand.
There are big messages in this film, and many moving moments. The drive with Louise in Shelburne, for instance, when she points out, house by house, everyone who has died of cancer. Which moments have stayed with you most?
Ellen Page: There’s a lot. Just something someone would say would floor me, you know? It shifts your consciousness. And yes the Louise drive was just… [even when] you’ve read Ingrid’s book, you’ve done the research, and you know there’s a high cancer rate — there’s nothing like that drive. As well as going to Boat Harbour. It was the worst thing I’ve ever, ever smelled. And that’s being blown, as Michelle says, into their community every day.
And [the scene with] the grandmothers, when you're seeing them stand on that side of the fucking yellow bar. [Alton Gas securitized its storage site, including the placement of a metal bar and no trespassing sign, in Fort Ellis, and three Mi’kmaw women were arrested there in April.]
Why are we all just living in a society where we think this is normal? That this is appropriate — arresting the women, criminalizing the women and changing federal regulations to allow Alton Gas?
We have normalized this complete and utter disconnect from the natural world which we’re a part of. The environment isn’t just a pretty thing in the background. We’re all connected — [we share] 10 percent of DNA with a fruit fly. And it goes back to the fact that we live in a society that normalizes the destruction of the planet and, again, criminalizes the people that are trying to uphold their rights, as well as the right for all of us to have access to clean water.
The women leading these fights speak throughout the film and then at the end, you come in with a short and powerful call to action. Are there specific groups you are speaking to there and are hoping will see this film?
EP: Of course. These women are amazing. These are the voices that should be leading the way. And did. Before European white settlers showed up and committed genocide, it was a matriarchal society. The grandmothers were making decisions about the water. Now we have this society where nobody’s listening to the grandmothers. And I love when Darlene says that to Trudeau: ‘Why don’t you listen to the grandmothers?’ And they [governments] don’t. Because they [the grandmothers] will say no.
So you hope that [Nova Scotia Premier] Stephen McNeil watches it. I invited him to the screening in Halifax next weekend but he’s busy. His office told me he has a prior commitment. And this is exactly who you want to see it. I don’t know how you can listen to these stories and not be moved, and if you can’t, please get out of a position of power. You shouldn’t be there, quite frankly.
You and Ian worked together as a team on Gaycation. Were there certain elements of filmmaking, etc., that you carried over to this project, in addition to the similarity of showcasing struggles for equality?
EP: Yes, one hundred percent. So I’d love to say thank you to the amazing group and crew we worked with, and our show runner, on Gaycation, because we learned so much from them. [From that] we had the knowledge of how to put these shoots together, essentially. We discussed with Ingrid [which] activists to reach out to and we started those conversations. And that comes with the experience with Gaycation and the understanding of being sensitive and wanting to enter a space in a way that feels good, in a way that allows the conversations that you see, the vulnerability.
What’s your experience with the “activist” label and why do you think many do not cross the line into a kind of deliberate activism?
Ingrid Waldron: I think my research interests in black, Indigenous, refugee, immigrant and other marginalized communities — and perhaps health and social issues as well — lend themselves to that term, ‘activist.’ And so people tend to forget that I teach — I’m called ‘activist Ingrid Waldron.’ I don’t label myself in any particular way but other people do.
Certainly when you do community-based research, which is what I do, it takes longer. I am listening to people, I am entering their communities, I am testing the waters, I can’t do what I want to do when I want to do it, it has to be on their timeline and that can be very difficult.
However, now that everyone in my faculty is congratulating me… hopefully for other people in my university who are doing this kind of research, who are not all about, ‘I have get a journal article by February,’ it’s going be easier for them. And this type of research will be more respected because, as somebody said to me from my faculty last night, impact is most important. That is ultimately what academia should be about. In the end, it’s been so satisfying because changes have been made, and people have been inspired. It was great that we invited everybody who was involved in the film, who have been active around these issues, on stage last night, to hear their voices. I felt how proud they were to be on that stage.
Anything to add, Ellen, on activism? Your own or what prevents others to act?
EP: The water protectors talk about not liking the term ‘activist’ because it seems so ridiculous that speaking out, that not wanting people to suffer and not wanting there to be such horrific discrimination and inequality here and around the world… [is seen as fringe or revolutionary]. That goes back to why are [certain] aspects of our society normalized?
I think people get freaked out. Even just coming out, the shit within the industry that has been said to me by people that would perceive themselves as progressive… just by coming out and sharing who you are. Powerful people. I would talk, be all excited, about VICE wanting to make Gaycation, and [those people would] be like, ‘We get it, you’re gay.’ Or they would say things to me about another queer celebrity: ‘I think it’s cool because they just don’t make a big deal about it.’ And you get blow back. Death threats. All those kinds of things.
But here is the thing. I go around the world and I meet people who absolutely do not have the resources that I have. I can be dealing with something and hire security and they are getting up every day and can barely leave their house. I’m talking to a lesbian couple in India who have their faces covered and they had to escape their family because they were maybe going to be murdered. So you keep it in perspective. If you’re not using your platform and your privilege, why do you have it? Like Louise says, why do you get up in the morning, if you’re not going to care?
Louise and others are here with you this week. How has TIFF been this time around?
EP: It’s been a really nice feeling. And that’s because I’ve been here with Ingrid and Louise and Michelle and Dorene — and Ian, obviously, my dear, dear love. Doing press the last couple days has just been so special. These women getting this platform here — I don’t want to speak for them by any means, but we’re pals and we’re all doing the same thing next weekend in Halifax for the Atlantic Film Festival… it’s been a spectacular experience that I couldn’t have imagined when we set off in April.
The most important thing is, obviously, the message going out there. I am just a very, very, very tiny part of what this film ultimately is and represents. Really, truly, I am. Just a little tiny bit of it.
What does the upcoming screening in Halifax mean to you both?
IW: It’s a Nova Scotian film… so it’s going to be a different feeling because people in the audience are going to know the people in the film, they’ve worked with them, they’ve supported them, they’ve been on the front lines, they’ve been at the protests. And for the people who are on the screen to be back home, to see themselves up on screen, in an audience with people that they know — that’s just a different level of excitement.
EP: It’s always weird to talk about these things. I am thrilled that we’re showing the film there but you’re like, fuck, I wish we didn’t have to make this film. So it’s sometimes weird, the language in expressing this, but I am just thrilled that we are able to take this film there and I do think people will really respond to it. Because I think there’s something else that is a part of this, which is that Nova Scotia is not talked about. Atlantic Canada is not talked about. I’ve had a lot of people say that to me here [at TIFF]. You know, it’s a more lower-income area of the country and that’s been a part of why often Nova Scotia, throughout history, has been a target for horrible environmental situations that have been allowed to happen with worse regulations than other areas.
I went home again [after shooting this film] for something else quickly and…I did have more than one person come up and be like, ‘I had no idea about what was going on in Pictou and I am so glad that I know now.’ I think we’re going to sit in an audience with a lot of people that I believe will be activated.
Canadians may not know these stories but those outside of Canada may be even less familiar. Living abroad, do you find there is a particular narrative about Canada?
EP: Yes. So, for example, Ian [Daniel] and Julia Sanderson, who produced this with us, being American, that was a big part of their experience.
I am grateful that I grew up in Canada, in a place where I can make this documentary and put it out and show it and we can have these conversations. But yeah, this is what Canada does. It is in denial of its history — a country built on genocide, horrific discrimination, residential schools. I mean absolute horrors. I think Canada has a brand, and that does perpetuate a lot of these issues. So you have this idea of Trudeau and what he ran on and that hasn’t come to fruition at all.
IW: The discrimination and racism that we have in Canada can be obscured because of [the country’s] brand. People are not expecting any of this because we have a brand that has been disseminated worldwide. A lot of things are allowed to go on in Canada, without people recognizing it. We expect this from the United States, because they have a brand which is not very positive, but we don’t expect it from Canada.
And especially when contrasting those brands, Canada may seem better?
EP: That’s always such a horrible excuse that so many people have. ‘That thing’s worse over there.’ Why don’t you go say that to those communities that are suffering?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.