For Michelle Francis-Denny and Louise Delisle, this was familiar territory. The two had spent years fighting the corporate and government interests that polluted the land on which they lived. They never expected to hear Nova Scotia’s most famous acting export talk about their struggle on national TV.
“When I heard her say environmental racism I was like, this is amazing, but I didn’t think it would ever involve me,” says Delisle, a retired nurse who has been trying to draw attention to the wells polluted by a local dump that she believes have led to widespread illness in the southwestern town of Shelburne.
Environmental racism, as defined in the film, roughly states that where you live has an impact on your health. It leads to people of color being more likely to live in places where toxic sites are located and government oversight is lax.
Page didn’t stop at her late-night appearance. She and Ian Daniel, her friend and producing partner, got in touch with Delisle and Francis-Denny. They wanted to visit. Their initial plan was to make a short clip for the Internet. That led to a larger project, “There’s Something in the Water,” a feature-length documentary that premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and is being released Friday on Netflix. It has been just 13 months since the Colbert appearance.
“We made the film as fast as we possibly could,” says Page.
What drove the timeline is Page’s hope that the film can raise the profile of issues that are still very much in play. “Water” tells the stories of a polluted harbor on Pictou Landing First Nation’s land, a black community in the town of Shelburne dealing with damage caused by a local dump, and The Grassroots Grandmothers, a group of Mi’kmaq women resisting a project called Alton Gas from dumping brine into the Shubenacadie River.
“They are doing so much work and putting so much on the line, quite frankly, and once that goes into the river, it’s done,” says Page. “It was about getting these stories out as soon as we can. That’s why there wasn’t time to try to get funding [for the film]. The feeling is we just have to do this.”
Even though “There’s Something in the Water” was filmed before anybody knew about covid-19, Page says it’s hard not to think about the pandemic and consider the impact of environmental racism: As people get sick, everybody is now being told to wash their hands. But in some black and indigenous communities, the water is poisoned, so they can’t.
“I also think of the individuals in this country who don’t have the ability to stay home with their children when schools are being canceled,” says Page. “Who don’t have access to paid leave. All these things that should be common sense.”
“There’s Something in the Water” opens with nostalgic, stock footage of Page’s native Nova Scotia, her description of “Canada’s ocean playground” and then, as a dark, twangy ukulele rings over the Kodachrome, we see smokestacks and polluted waterways. Over the course of the film, Page and Daniel, holding cameras, visit three activists — Francis-Denny, Delisle and Dorene Bernard — to tell the stories of the damage caused by certain corporations and the politicians who support them.
The film was inspired by a 2018 book by Ingrid Waldron, a professor at Dalhousie University who has been studying the region for years. Waldron’s book, “There’s Something in the Water,” was published by Fernwood Publishing, an academic press so small it couldn’t pay her an advance.
But Page, an avid reader with a strong interest in her native Nova Scotia — she grew up in Halifax — was so moved by the book, she began to tweet about it and reached out to Waldron. The professor is featured in the film and introduced Page to her protagonists.
Page and Daniel, with whom she worked on the Vice series “Gaycation,” readied the film for TIFF. That meant there wasn’t time to recruit others to help produce the documentary, with Page footing the $350,000 budget. (She’s also working with Delisle to build a community well in Shelburne.)
“There’s a thing with Ellen that she wants to push back against this kind of bully mentality,” says Daniel, the film’s co-director. “She’s this tiny person who has a lot of energy to use her power and privilege to kind of wake people up. I really think she just felt personally she could make a difference there.”
The story of Boat Harbour, which Page and Daniel document, is not new. In the 1960s, the Scott Paper Company paid the Pictou Landing First Nation $65,000 for the use of the harbor. The group was told that the environmental impact would be minimal. Instead, Boat Harbour became a swirling, smoky blend of dioxins that killed a once-fertile fishing ground.
Waldron documented this in her book, but in the film, 30-year-old TV footage shows the outrageous disregard local politicians had and also focuses on the story of Francis-Denny, 41, whose grandfather was one of the tribal leaders duped into signing away the harbor.
As she spoke about her grandfather, who died in his 40s, and the scores of others in the community who died of alcoholism or suicide, Francis-Denny found herself breaking down on camera.
“I felt vulnerable,” she says now. “And I don’t really like to show that side if I can help it. But as I started telling my story and getting these questions and of course it brings up emotions. I feel like going through the process and going through the interview and being able to talk about those things, it was kind of healing for me in a way.”
For Francis-Denny, the great hope is that her story inspires others and that “There’s Something in the Water” makes people understand that Boat Harbour is not an exception but part of a long pattern of environmental racism. Boat Harbour also has the potential to be a success story. In January, after years of protest, the government forced Northern Pulp to close the paper mill. There is a plan to clean up the water.
“The biggest thing is being able to share with other marginalized communities that this is real,” says Francis-Denny. “Look, it happened to us. See.”