It was a Saturday morning and Ellen Page was giving up some of what could have been a bit of down time to do a telephone interview about her forthcoming film on environmental racism in Nova Scotia, which will have its world debut this September at the Toronto International Film Festival.
I was hammering her with intrusive questions, and yet twice, in just a half hour, Page — a megastar actress who has starred in a long list of massively successful movies and television shows — said “sorry” to me, for no discernible reason.
Her humility and earnest demeanour are disarming.
On Twitter, Page describes herself as “a tiny Canadian.”
There’s no argument that physically she is petite. But nothing else about Page is diminutive. Her talent is gigantic and so far has earned her — at the ripe young age of 32 — an Academy Award nomination, and several dozen awards and other nominations.
Just as outsized as her talent are her courage and willingness to take on the causes of marginalized communities and the environment.
In February this year, Page appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, ostensibly to promote the debut of the Netflix series Umbrella Academy, in which she stars. Instead, she used her time on the show to call out US Vice President Mike Pence for promoting homophobia and opposing gay marriage (like her own), and after that, those who believe there is still a debate about climate change, and lastly the environmental racism in her native Nova Scotia.
Six weeks after that appearance, Page, and two of her closest friends, Julia Sanderson and Ian Daniel, with whom she made the television series Gaycation for Vice, were on a plane headed for Nova Scotia to document cases of environmental racism.
The result is a 73-minute feature documentary called There’s Something in the Water.
Speaking to me from Toronto where she is working on season two of Umbrella Academy, Page said the forthcoming film is named after the book that it’s based on, by Ingrid Waldron, associate professor at Dalhousie University, and director of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities, and Community Health (ENRICH) project.
Page said that “the strangest road” led to the film, once that began in late 2018, when her good friend Lil MacPherson, co-owner of the Wooden Monkey restaurants and now Green Party candidate for Dartmouth – Cole Harbour, gave her a copy of my book, The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.
“I just devoured it,” Page said.
She was “horrified” to learn of the environmental racism that the people of Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) have endured since the pulp mill on Abercrombie Point first opened in 1967, and began to spew its effluent into Boat Harbour, once a precious tidal estuary they knew as “A’se’K” — “the other room.” The effluent immediately poisoned the water and killed all the fish, creating a toxic lagoon adjacent to PLFN.
Page then set out to learn as much as she could about environmental racism in Nova Scotia. Her quest for information led her to Waldron’s book, which documented several egregious examples.
Page explains that environmental racism is “essentially the disproportionate amount of landfills and industrial pollution sites next to Indigenous and Black communities,” a pattern that she says is very clear, not just in Nova Scotia but in Canada as a whole.
From her home in New York, she next spoke to the grassroots Mi’kmaw grandmothers who have been trying to protect the water of the Shubenacadie River from the Alton Gas project.
Calgary-based AltaGas plans to hollow out massive salt caverns about a kilometre underground for storing natural gas near the community of Stewiacke, about 70 kilometres northeast of Halifax. To do that, the company intends to remove the salt by dissolving it with water from the Shubenacadie River and then dumping the brine back into the 72-kilometre-long tidal river, which empties into the Bay of Fundy.
The Mi’kmaw water protectors and their allies want the project stopped because of the risk the brine, a deleterious substance, poses to fish in the river, something acknowledged by federal scientists in documents obtained by water protectors Dale Poulette and Rachael Greenland-Smith under a freedom of information request.
It was after she spoke with the grandmothers that Page realized Alton Gas looked like another case of environmental racism in the making.
She passed Waldron’s book to her friend, Ian Daniel, who was also profoundly moved by it. Page recalled how that led to the filming in Nova Scotia:
… we talked about perhaps just coming up with cameras. We had no idea what this was really going to end up being, [whether] we were just going to make these little pieces and put them out online, or what. It just felt like these voices need to be amplified and as fast as possible.
And that was that. We put the shoot together in about two weeks and then flew to Nova Scotia and hit the ground running. It was just myself, Ian, and Julia Sanderson, who’s a producer on the project.
Powerful women speak out
Although Page is reluctant to reveal too many details about the film, she said it profiles three cases of environmental racism in the province, and the women working to end it in their communities. They deeply impressed her.
What’s so powerful about meeting these women and hearing them speak is they’ve embraced their power. They know they’re powerful, and they know they can create change. They should be the leaders, and were for thousands of years, Indigenous women.
The first of the cases of environmental racism the film profiles is from Shelburne on Nova Scotia’s south shore, which is where Page’s family comes from.
“There we meet an incredible woman named Louise Delisle, who has been an activist in her community, at the south end of Shelburne, which is a predominantly Black community,” she said.
For decades, people in the community were exposed to pollution from a garbage dump that was put in their backyard in the 1940s. It has now been closed, but, according to Page, it has left “an extraordinary amount of toxins in the water … and there have been tremendous consequences in the community.”
Page and her crew also went to Pictou Landing First Nation, on the province’s north shore, for a first-hand look at the notorious Boat Harbour lagoon.
For 52 years, the community has suffered from the stench of the mill’s emissions that the prevailing winds blow over the reserve, and from its effluent that has destroyed a once-beautiful beach on the Northumberland Strait, as well as Boat Harbour, rendering both no-go zones.
Nova Scotia’s former environment minister, Iain Rankin, has called Boat Harbour one of the worst examples of environmental racism in the province, if not the country.
In 2015, with the support of all three political parties in the legislature, the government of Premier Stephen McNeil passed the Boat Harbour Act, giving the Northern Pulp mill until January 31, 2020 to stop using Boat Harbour for its effluent. The Boat Harbour remediation project, which will restore the tidal estuary, is currently undergoing a federal environmental assessment.
Page and the crew spent time with Michelle Francis-Denny, community liaison for the remediation project, who spoke to them about the shameful history of how government officials lied to her grandfather, then chief of Pictou Landing First Nation, to get the rights to Boat Harbour so it could be used for pulp effluent.
They also spent time with the grandmothers who are fighting the Alton Gas project. Page describes them as “extraordinary women who give all of themselves to protecting the water and land and the future for all of us.”
I asked Page what it meant to her personally to spend time listening to these women. She replied:
Firstly I think we felt incredibly humbled that they welcomed us, and wanted … to share their story. It’s not easy, right. There’s an extraordinary amount of trauma.
I’m blown away by these women. Blown away by who they are, by their conviction, their sincerity, their strength. The thing is, though … they shouldn’t be in this position. That’s the bottom line. It sounds so overly simplistic to say, but yes, the feeling is like deep, deep inspiration that I need to do more, because they do not stop and it’s because they don’t have a choice.
She said it is one thing to read about Boat Harbour, and quite another to see and smell it.
“I gagged,” Page said. “It is one of the worst things I’ve ever smelled.”
But that “unbearable” stench, Michelle Francis-Denny told Page, blows constantly into Pictou Landing First Nation, and “comes in your house and attaches itself to the wall.”
Page described Boat Harbour as “post-apocalyptic.”
“An exploration in empathy”
Asked where her passion for the environmental causes and the rights of marginalized groups originate, Page said she is grateful for voices like that of the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, which came into her life and inspired her when she was a teenager.
She also credits her career that has given her so many opportunities to connect with different people. In making Gaycation, which explored LGBTQ cultures around the world, Page said she met many people living in “spaces and situations where they’re extremely vulnerable.”
“I think acting in many ways is like an exercise in exploration of empathy,” she said. While some very negative things have happened on sets since she began acting at the age of 10, other things have been very positive.
She said the actual moment when she gets to act is magical, something she can’t fully describe and for which she feels extremely fortunate. So when she meets people who “stand up in the face of extraordinary threat” she finds it deeply humbling.
An invitation to Premier McNeil
Page wasn’t impressed when, in February, Premier Stephen McNeil dismissed her criticism of his government’s decision to subject Northern Pulp’s new effluent treatment facility to a fast-tracked Class I environmental assessment, by saying her comments were coming from someone “far away.”
“What a weird thing to say!” she said. “I was born and raised in Nova Scotia, and graduated high school there and all my family is there. And I’m back there all the time.” She continued:
I just made a documentary that’s going to be at TIFF, and [also shown] in Nova Scotia. It would be wonderful if Stephen McNeil watched the film. I’d be so grateful if he was open to that. I think he would really benefit from seeing it.
Page said that she and Ian Daniel decided to submit the film to TIFF after they began the editing and realized that they had a feature film.
And then it was an insane rush, but obviously [TIFF is] the dream place to premiere [the film]. It did feel like a long shot, but [the Toronto International Film Festival] is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, and more importantly than that, I just wanted that audience.
She said that the film will take Canadians on a journey that will “shock them,” adding that she feels fortunate that the Toronto Film Festival seemed to be moved by the film and invited them to screen it there.
While she’s in Toronto filming the second season of the Umbrella Academy, Ian Daniel is in New York working with two editors, and Page and he communicate daily. She took pains to express her respect for and gratitude to Daniel.
Page told me the documentary will eventually be screened in the communities that it profiles in Nova Scotia.
I asked her what she hopes to accomplish with the film.
I want these women to have justice. I want these women to be listened to. I want them to be celebrated … the fact that the degradation of our environment or the police presence outside of the Alton Gas gates is all normalized is so devastating.
And the fact that these women, like the three grandmothers that were arrested, that they’re being criminalized! So really to me, this film is … it’s them. And in terms of how people respond, I hope they feel inspired by these women to go, “Shit, I have power, man. I can, and I’m going to use it. I’m going to use my privilege.”
But mostly I just, I really want these women to receive the support or the respect that they deserve.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5 through September 15.
There’s something in the water will be screened at the Park Lane Cinema in Halifax on September 14, as part of the Atlantic International Film Festival.
Cover photo: Louise Delisle and Ellen Page (still from film There’s Something In The Water, courtesy Ellen Page)
Joan Baxter is author of The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.
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