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Uncovering Environmental Racism in Nova Scotia: “There’s Something in the Water”

By Nicole Pham-Quan

Source: Netflix

If you look through Canada’s rose-coloured glasses, you will see nothing but picture-perfect images of Canadian equality, acceptance, and multiculturalism. But once you take a step back, you will see the fractures in the glass of Canada’s perfect image. Worse, you will see the people and the communities who have fallen through the cracks.

In There’s Something in the Water, directors Elliot Page and Ian Daniel explore three communities in Nova Scotia whose lives are threatened by toxic water pollution. The injustices faced by all three communities are symptoms of environmental racism, which is defined as the disproportionate location of potentially hazardous sites or industries near racialized, low-income populations, as well as the slow response of government officials to address those issues. Elliot Page, a Nova Scotian native, and Ian Daniel uncover the province’s history of colonialism, the government’s prioritization of corporate interests over public concerns, and the disproportionately significant environmental problems faced by Black and Indigenous communities. Through the use of archival footage and interviews with affected community members and activists, Page and Daniel present the shocking and tragic realities of communities plagued with toxic water pollution and their efforts for change. They learn that your postal code determines your health.

The first community that we visit is a southwestern Nova Scotian town called Shelburne, which has a high proportion of Black residents and is grappling with the health effects of a garbage dump that opened in the late 1940s. Despite the dump’s closure in the 1990s, the toxins continue to leach into the wells, causing high and unsafe levels of arsenic in the community’s drinking water. Water contamination has led to high rates of cancer in the community, especially amongst men. We meet Louise, an older woman from Shelburne, who continues to advocate for the installation of a community well which will provide clean drinking water to the town’s residents, despite the political apathy of municipal officials. Louise drives through the community and identifies the houses which have lost family members due to cancer. It is striking to witness the sheer number of lives that have been lost or affected by water contamination and upsetting to reflect on the current injustice perpetuated by the mayor’s inaction.

The second community is the Pictou Landing First Nation, which is home to the Mi’kmaq people. The community is not only grappling with the intergenerational trauma of colonization and residential schools, (resulting in higher rates of alcoholism, drug use, and suicide), but they are also victims of environmental racism. In 1965, the Scott Paper Company deceived and misinformed the Mi’kmaq chiefs about the environmental effects of building a pulp-and-paper mill, which pumps raw, untreated effluent into Boat Harbour. The community is plagued with dead fish, seals, and higher rates of cancer due to water contamination. The documentary highlights a heavy aura of grief and guilt that hangs over the Mi’kmaq people. Later, we meet local activist, Michelle Francis-Denny, who is advocating for the shutdown of the Boat Harbour Effluent Facility. She wants the community to heal and hopes for a better future for her family. The film depicts the ongoing negotiation with the government, the Scott Paper Company, and the Mi’kmaq people for the facility shutdown; however, the government has given leniency to the company by allowing them to extend their operations to give them time to determine alternative solutions.

In Stewiake, the third community, Alton Gas has constructed an underground gas facility that dumps salt water in nearby rivers, which kills fish and eliminates the food source for Indigenous communities. The water pollution has inspired the creation of Grassroots Grandmothers, a group of Indigenous women who are advocating for water protection. As women, they feel like they are given a responsibility and a gift, as carriers of life, to protect their rivers and their water. Their protests, which are in accordance with Indigenous treaty rights, are met with corporate disregard and a federal government that is designing legislation that is compliant with the Alton Gas’ interests.

This documentary illuminates the disturbing realities of marginalized communities and the work of Black and Indigenous activists in Nova Scotia to protect their fundamental human right of access to clean and safe water and to combat environmental racism. I would recommend this film for anyone that wants to see beyond Canada’s picture-perfect image and learn more about current injustice in our country.


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