Ellen Page says it’s “pretty unbelievable” that the documentary film, “There’s Something in the Water,” which she co-directed in 2019 with her friend Ian Daniel and co-produced with Dalhousie University professor Ingrid Waldron, will be available for viewing around the world on Netflix starting March 27.
Page is no stranger to Netflix audiences. She stars in several films and series available on the streaming service, including the immensely popular “Umbrella Academy,” “Tales of the City,” “Tallulah,” and “Inception.”
But, she says, it’s a “very different thing” having her own documentary, which exposes environmental racism in Black and Indigenous communities in her home province of Nova Scotia, available on Netflix.
In a telephone interview from New York just after the release, Page told the Halifax Examiner that the film is a “testament” to the women it features — Ingrid Waldron who wrote the book that inspired it and lends the documentary its title, as well as Louise Delisle, Michelle Francis-Denny, Dorene Bernard, and the other Mi’kmaq grassroots grandmothers who have been struggling for years against environmental racism in their communities.
“They are the film,” Page says.
Not only does Page seem slightly overwhelmed by the fact that the documentary, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and drew huge crowds at the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax, will now be available globally on Netflix, Page still seems surprised that the film even got made.
It all started in late 2018 when she read Waldron’s “extremely powerful” book on environmental racism. Page was so affected by what she read that she started tweeting about the book to her 1.4 million followers. Then she contacted her friend, environmental activist and Halifax restaurateur Lil MacPherson, who linked her up with Waldron.
Page says she wanted to thank Waldron, a sociologist and associate professor in the School of Nursing at Dalhousie University, for writing the book, and also ask if there was anything she could do to help attract attention to the environmental racism it documented.
In April 2019, Page, her assistant Julia Sanderson, and Ian Daniel, with whom she co-hosted the Vice series “Gaycation” that explored LGBTQ cultures around the world, decided “to head up to Nova Scotia with some cameras.”
The idea, she says, was to get a few video clips to post online, to highlight environmental racism in Indigenous and Black communities. They had no intention of making a feature film.
Once in Nova Scotia, Page and Daniel interviewed Mi’kmaq grassroots grandmothers who oppose Alton Gas’s plans to carve out large underground caverns to store natural gas, which would involve flushing large amounts of brine into the Shubenacadie River near Sipekne‘katik First Nation. The Mi’kmaq grandmothers and other water protectors say the briney water will pollute the river and harm fish, and they have been fighting the case in court.
Page and Daniel also drove to southern Nova Scotia, where they met Louise Delisle, founder of Shelburne’s South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED).
For years, SEED had been fighting for clean drinking water in the community, which was founded by Black Loyalists in the late 1700s. SEED had also pushed for the closure of the Shelburne town dump that for decades received industrial, medical and residential waste from all over southwest Nova Scotia, as Robert Devet reported in the NS Advocate. In a powerful segment of the film, Delisle drives Page through her community, pointing to one house after another in which one or more family members had died of cancer.
Their next stop was Pictou Landing First Nation, where Page and Daniel saw, smelled, and filmed Boat Harbour, the foul lagoon into which toxic effluent from the Pictou County pulp mill has flowed since 1967, before which it was a pristine tidal estuary that was so important to the Mi’kmaq they knew it as “A’se’k” or “the other room.”
Page interviewed Michelle Francis-Denny, whose grandfather was chief in 1966 when two unscrupulous provincial officials tricked him signing over rights to A’se’k, with lies that the pulp effluent would not harm the water. In the film, Francis-Denny tells Page that her grandfather never recovered from that deceit and from the loss of A’se’k.
“The more we filmed, and the more incredible women we met,” Page says, “the more we just started to feel like ‘goodness, maybe we have a feature film here.’ And here we are!”
She says she is “profoundly grateful” to the women for wanting to be part of the film, and to Ingrid Waldron who agreed to co-produce it with Daniel and her.
A fairy tale
In an interview, Waldron said that she is “amazed” at everything that has happened since Page first contacted her. Waldron has watched her scholarly work, “There’s something in the water — environmental racism in Indigenous and Black communities,” go from the printed pages of an initially innocuous book, to the silver screen, and now to Netflix.
Ingrid Waldron’s book is based on the project Waldron directed for seven years, called Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health, or ENRICH. Using Nova Scotia as a case study, it delved into the legacy of environmental racism and its health impacts in Canada, and resistance in the communities to the pollution that was poisoning them.
Waldron credits Dave Ron for the ENRICH project, and all that has now come out of it.
“The ENRICH project was brought to me by an environmental activist, a white environmental activist,” Waldron says. Ron, an engineer and at that time executive director of the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, had been working with a group trying to close down a landfill in the African Nova Scotian community of Lincolnville in Guysborough County.
She says that one day Ron came to her office at Dalhousie University with the idea for the ENRICH project.
“He said, ‘I want you to take on a project on environmental racism,’” Waldron recalls. “I looked at him and said, ‘What’s that?’”
Waldron told Ron she didn’t want to undertake such a project, that she had never written anything on the environment. However, Ron convinced her and worked with her on the project until moving to Oakland, California, where Waldron says he now works on solar energy for low-income communities.
“I have to attribute all of this to him, because he came to me … he just kind of helped me along the way.”
Although Waldron was hesitant to take on the project when Ron suggested it, she says she now feels as if it was “meant to be” given the success of the book and the film. That is not to say that the seven-year project was easy and there weren’t times when she had doubts about it.
Waldron says she was not sure whether her work was going to make a difference, and admits that the topic of environmental racism was “very difficult” and “challenging.”
But, she says. “I was lucky. This is not the case with every professor. I was lucky that a movie star noticed and reached out to me on Twitter … this is like a fairy tale.”
And a miracle
For Louise Delisle in Shelburne, the experience of “There’s Something in the Water” is a “miracle” — starting with the first phone call from Ellen Page, through the filming, and then some encouraging things that have happened since: Page’s offer of $25,000 for a new well plus $5,000 a year for its maintenance, and now the news that the film will be on Netflix.
In a telephone interview, Delisle recalls how long her community suffered from the proximity of the dump, and about the countless deaths, particularly among young men, from rare cancers. She also says her community has suffered from water shortages when their wells run dry in the summer, and e-coli contamination in the wells.
Delisle laughs, remembering her own reaction when Ellen Page called to tell her she had read Ingrid Waldron’s book, and that she wanted to come and talk to her in Shelburne:
I was running around here, fussing around; this famous movie star is coming to my house! And I got to get things perfect. You know what women are like. My mother and I — my mother’s 87 years old — and she was saying, ‘Who is she?’ And I’m saying, ‘She’s a movie star, mom. We’ve got to get cleaned up here.’
Anyway, Ellen comes and I have never been so easy-going or comfortable with anybody in my life. She was not at all like what I ever expected. She’s so down-to-earth, like she’d come into my home a million and one times, and [she] was so comfortable in it … you feel it when somebody is not comfortable in your environment, and this woman [Page] was, and so was Julia [Sanderson], and so was Ian [Daniel]. They were just like my grandchildren. … They were part of the family. And so very genuinely kind and so emotional about things that hurt other people. They’re rare, I’ll tell you, people like her, and Ian, and her assistant.
Delisle says it has been a struggle to get the mayor and CAO of Shelburne to agree to a new well for her community, which Page has offered to pay for, and she says she has been hurt by some of their comments and behaviours. But she is optimistic that the film is having positive effects on other organizations. She says that African Nova Scotia Affairs and Housing Nova Scotia are now accepting applications from SEED for new wells to replace shallow contaminated ones, and ensure clean water in her community.
Asked what she hopes will come of the film’s availability worldwide, Delisle replied:
I hope that people understand what Black and Native communities across Canada have gone through with environmental racism issues, and that these issues never happen anywhere else in the world. I know they do, but [I hope] that people have the strength to stand up and stop them.
Emotions still raw
It is not just residents in the African Nova Scotia community in Shelburne who have seen changes since the film was completed.
On December 20, 2019, Premier Stephen McNeil refused to give in to pressure from Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence to amend the Boat Harbour Act and allow the mill to use Boat Harbour for its effluent past January 31, 2020, until a new treatment facility could be approved and built.
After Northern Pulp announced that it would continue with the Environmental Assessment process, and thus planned to put the mill into “hibernation” rather than closing it down, the province issued a ministerial order that allowed the mill to continue to dispose of wastewater from the power boiler — which it would run to keep pipes from freezing — until the end of April 2020.
However, the pulping process had been stopped so the effluent now going into Boat Harbour is far less noxious than it was. Today, Pictou Landing First Nation is breathing air free of mill emissions and eagerly awaiting the final capping and removal of the effluent pipe, and after that, the remediation of Boat Harbour.
In Page’s film, Michelle Francis-Denny, Community Liaison for the Boat Harbour Remediation Project, recounts the tragic story of Boat Harbour. In an emailed response to questions about the film’s debut on Netflix, Francis-Denny says emotions are still raw:
There are a lot of emotions behind our stories in the film; each of us expressing the hurt, grief, pain, and frustration our people and communities have suffered through the impacts of very deliberate acts of environmental racism.
Francis-Denny points out that hers was only one perspective and story from Pictou Landing First Nation, and that it needs to be multiplied “by hundreds, through many generations.”
We each have a story that begins with the loss our families suffered when A’se’k was destroyed. Sadly, we know the devastating impacts all too well, loss of culture, connection to the land, food and recreation. Now we need to try to rebuild all that was taken away and it will never be the same again.
Francis-Denny sees the stories of environmental racism in the film as relevant across the country.
When it comes to what is happening in Canada, from Alton Gas to Wet’suwet’en, we have been there, our ancestors were lied to, our rights were ignored, and the land was taken and abused and we were left to fend for ourselves. We would not wish that grief and pain on any of our indigenous or non-indigenous brothers and sisters, and I believe they truly are doing what they need to do to get Canada to pay attention.
And, she adds:
We are thankful Ellen and Ian took the time to learn about Boat Harbour and shared our passion to share it with the world. It’s crazy to think it will be on Netflix for anyone to access. I would hope it would inspire our Treaty holders and land protectors all over the world to hold strong, and serve as a reminder to those political leaders what is really at stake.
Page told the Halifax Examiner that after the film launches on Netflix at the end of March, she will be bringing Waldron, Delisle, Francis-Denny, and grassroots grandmother Dorene Bernard to New York for a few days of press, “to get their voices heard as much as possible.”
The Halifax Examiner is an advertising-free, subscriber-supported news site. Your subscription makes this work possible; please subscribe.
Joan Baxter is author of The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.