Review of “There’s Something in the Water”

"Canada's Ocean Playground." Photo by author.

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I recently attended a screening of the new Ellen Page and Ian Daniel documentary There’s Something in the Water at the Halifax Black Film Festival (#HBFF2020). The documentary focuses on environmental racism in rural Nova Scotia and acts as a critique of industry and the inaction of provincial politicians and leaders. Inspired by Ingrid Waldron‘s book of the same name, the film brings urgent attention to social justice, grassroots activism, and the costs of development.

The film opens on scenes of children swimming and playing at the beach, families picnicking, and folks walking along shorelines. Page’s voice narrates the opening by discussing the deeply held image of Nova Scotia as “Canada’s Ocean Playground,” connected with the idea that the province (and Canada more broadly) is connected to nature, and water, specifically. However, the screen quickly changes to the image of boiling, bubbling, contaminated water and Page’s narration argues that the history of the province is tied to colonialism and environmental harm. She echoes what environmental historians and social justice researchers have been arguing for years: that contaminated and toxic sites of development are disproportionately placed in or near marginalized communities, and that, as a result, marginalized groups are most exposed to environmental harm and the burdens of toxic legacies.

The film focuses on three different sites of environmental racism and grassroots activism among Black and Indigenous communities in mainland Nova Scotia. The three communities in the film include Shelburne, A’Se’k (Boat Harbour), and Stewiacke. At each site, Page connects with local activists who are leading the fight against environmental racism in their communities.

Map of Mainland Nova Scotia with Case Sites.

In Shelburne, community activist Louise Delisle (who was at the screening and got a roaring round of applause) tells Page about a landfill, or dump site, created in 1942 which served as the Shelburne Town Dump. This landfill is located at the south end of Shelburne, alongside the Black neighbourhood. Since it’s creation, the municipality dumped all garbage from the town including hospital waste, shipyard and naval waste, animal carcasses, chemicals, and old car parts into the landfill. Once the dump was overflowing, the municipality burned the piles to make space for more waste. Delisle recalls the smoke, ash, and soot that filled the air whenever the dump was set afire. But more than these visible effects of this site, her community is concerned about the invisible health impacts this toxic site continues to have.

The south end of Shelburne has extremely high rates of lung cancer and multiple myeloma. Entire families living in one house died from cancer in the years since the dump opened. It seems the entire neighbourhood has been affected by some form of cancer. Delisle tells Page the community believes the dump has caused this. The dump permanently closed as of July 2016, but fear remains about what’s buried underground and if it’s seeping into the water. The neighbourhood is not serviced by a municipal water supply, and they have no choice but to use well water from nearby streams and they’re concerned that waste from the dump site has leeched into water. Well tests have shown high levels of arsenic in the water, E coli, coliform, and contaminated wells. Community leaders like Louise Delisle have been fighting for an environmental bill of rights and for compensation for their community but they continue to be ignored or silenced by local and provincial levels of government.

In A’Se’k, or Boat Harbour, the Pictou Landing First Nation have been battling a toxic legacy of neglect and colonialism in their community around the site of a Pulp and Paper Mill. Page talks with Michele Francis-Denny, who recounts a heartbreaking colonial history of deception and betrayal from provincial government representatives. The Scott Paper company opened the Pulp and Paper Mill in 1965 and purposed to pipe the effluent from the treatment plant to Boat Harbour for dumping. Chief Raymond Francis raised concerns about the environmental impact this would have on the water, especially how it would effect fishing. The Nova Scotia Water Authority approached Chief and Council and told them there would be no environmental impacts. In fact, members of the Water Authority told the Chief they would show him another mill treatment plant so he could see there was no risk of environmental harm. Francis-Denny, granddaughter of Chief Raymond Francis, explains that the Water Authority members took her grandfather to a municipal water treatment plant instead of a mill treatment plant. After being shown this façade, the Chief accepted a $65,000 offer from the Water Authority who had him sign a document stating the Pictou Landing First Nation relinquished their water rights in exchange for this payment.[1]

Within a week of the mill operating, masses of dead fish floated in the water along Boat Harbour. The community has also been hit with high rates of cancer-related death and suicide in the past fifty years. Francis-Denny explains that her grandfather died believing that the destruction of their land was his fault. In the film, Page and Francis-Denny visit the effluent treatment facility and viewers see the raw, untreated effluent coming directly into the mill as a ghostly vapour floats over the water in the area. There remains a constant worry about health in their community, as well as great grief for community and relatives, but also for the land. After approximately 27 million liters of effluent spilled into Boat Harbour in 2014, Pictou Landing First Nation occupied the area in protest. As of January 31 2020, the effluent treatment plant closed. However, an intensive clean-up project will take years to remove toxins like mercury from the area and transform the polluted Boat Harbour back into A’Se’k and for the Mi’kmaq community to rebuild their relationship with the land.

The last, and shortest, sequence of the documentary focuses on Stewiacke, the site of Mi’kmaq protest against Alton Gas’s proposal to build an underground natural gas deposit (which would release tens of thousands of liters of brine into the river). Conflict in this area originated more recently than in Shelburne and Boat Harbour, with protests beginning in 2018. Page talks with various Water Protectors from the community, including the Grassroots Grandmothers, who are protesting to prevent broken Treaty rights and to prevent environmental harm. Just as in Shelburne and Boat Harbour, the thrust of activist work in Stewiacke is led by women who are the water carriers and water protectors. The proposed deposit would be located in the Shubenacadie River, unceded land and a sacred site for the Mi’kmaq which acted as a superhighway that connected their territory. Refusing the allow the company to destroy the river, the Grassroots Grandmothers built a truck house on the river in accordance with article 4 in the 1752 Treaty, and occupied the area along Shubenacadie River. This began the site of near daily resistance to government and corporations opening territory to development braking Treaty rights. In April of 2019, three grandmothers were arrested in what the water protectors call the criminalization of Indigenous Peoples. The Alton Gas protests are ongoing in the Stewiacke area.

The film demonstrates three cases of environmental racism in rural, marginalized communities in Nova Scotia, but these cases can be replicated across the country. Each case makes clear that environmental racism is not only rooted in the creation of such toxic sites, but includes the slow response by government to address the resulting issues. In each case, community leader and activists argue that environmental policy requires listening to affected communities and that is not happening here. This is a difficult film to watch, but it sheds much needed light on issues that have been overlooked for too long. Surprisingly, it ends on a tone of hope – a message that beyond corporate neglect and government dismissal, “a love of nature and of each other” can prevail and fight for environmental equity and equality.

There’s Something in the Water is set to hit Netflix on March 27th.


[1] For a longer history of Pictou Landing First Nation resistance and protest to destruction of their land, see Colin Osmond, “A’Se’k – Boat Harbour: A Site of Centuries’ Long Mi’kmaw Resistance” in Active History, October 18, 2019.
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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. Her research interests include Indigenous histories, mining history, and histories of environmental tourism. Her current research projects focus on the development of trophy hunting and wildlife regulation in the Yukon and a history of coal mining and power generation in Northeastern Arizona. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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