The sun is shining, the water is a hospitable shade of blue, and maple leaves scatter themselves across outfits of national pride- a picture so beautiful you can almost hear the bubbly jazz of Lenny Breau in the background. A woman’s voice narrates the scene until the viewers nearly believe themselves to be Canadian patriots. “But when you look beneath the surface, the perfect image begins to crack”. This idealism is quickly juxtaposed with arrested Indigenous people and protesting young adults carrying a banner that reads “ STOP ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM”. Mellow tunes disappear, making room for a brutal reality check that sounds more like the rock and roll of Neil Young.
Based on environmental justice activist Dr. Ingrid Waldron’s book of the same title, There’s Something in the Water is a chilling, facade-breaking, fervently humanizing documentary that impugns Nova Scotia’s spotless reputation and demands accountability of it.
Many Americans imagine Canada to be the ‘simply better’ version of the United States, largely due to their universal healthcare and pioneering social liberties. This was the Canada actress and producer Ellen Page knew. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Page takes her own province and unapologetically turns it into the very target of criticism this work centers around.
Page grew up in a white Nova Scotia, a beachy Nova Scotia, a seamless Nova Scotia that could very well be a symbol for the heart of Canadian patriotism. To compensate for this inherent bias, Page takes her viewers on a trip to three major towns in Nova Scotia that historically and presently suffer from the repercussions of large, greedy corporations, marginalization, and wasteful consumerism. Within each Black and Indigenous community, viewers discover heroic spearheads of the movement in favor of a life free of toxins.
The documentary, co-directed by LGBTQIA+ activist and co-creator of Gaycation Ian Daniel, begins with its mobilizing inspiration, Dr. Ingrid. A map of Nova Scotia is released that plots out where predominantly Indigenous and Black communities are located that also has marks of where landfills and toxic industries are built. As strategically brutal as could be, it becomes clearer than ever that environmental racism is real, raw, and utterly disturbing.
“Environmental racism is the condition, is the problem, of disproportionate exposure of indigenous communities, black communities, other communities of color to environmental burdens, to pollutants and contaminants”, Dr. Ingrid said as she defined what environmental racism truly pertains to and the impact it has on her own community of Shelburne.
It’s a crisis the people of Flint, Michigan know too well- contaminated water. Same skin, different country- environmental activist Louise Delisle of Shelborne, Nova Scotia, walks viewers through the horrifying cancer rates in her small town that are correlated to brooks and streams which carry the local water supply. As descendants of Black Loyalists that came to Nova Scotia seeking freedom, Shelborne is filled with families of color. There’s Something in the Water covers how the creation of a now shutdown “dump” hosting a conglomeration of human waste has not only caused elevated levels of arsenic within communal drinking water but essentially precipitated in the death of several family members across town from Multiple Melanoma and other forms of cancer.
Next, Page documents the violation and manipulation of natural reservations that Canadian Indigenous communities, such as the Mi’kmaq, face. Near Pictou County, A’se’k, which translates to “the other room”, is a historical body of water that provided local Indigenous people with nature’s sanctuary. Clean-water activist Michelle Francis-Denny shares the story of how her then-Chief grandfather made a deal on false pretenses with a company that led to the death of their clean water supply.
What used to be a “treasure”, as described in a summary from the Pictou Landing First Nation community, “is now a toxic place, fueling serious environmental health concerns for the community, along with economic plight, exhausting legal and political strain”. This “general atmosphere of unrest” is the work of Northern Pulp, a Nova Scotian manufacturing company that built a treatment plant over A’s’ek and, on theme with their colonizing ancestors, titled it “Boat Harbour”.
Page faced a notable backlash following the release of the documentary, criticizing the work to reflect white savior tendencies. Since then, many climate activists of color have applauded Page for providing the people of Canada, as well as the rest of the globe, with an accurate representation of the generational environmental burdens of Black and Indigenous communities. In fact, for the majority of the documentary, Page is not on camera and instead briefly narrates between the activists and clip transitions.
There is an added sweetness to Page’s indirect criticism of Nova Scotian politicians, family-name corporations, and executive leadership due to the fact that she herself grew up with no reason to question their integrity.
“Afterall, Canadians take care of their people,” she said while explaining that her naiveness was a side effect of a false narrative of love for her country. In this, Page builds her credibility and serves as a global reminder that true patriotism is questioning, challenging, researching, and organizing against authority when authority permits injustice. Only then can a country truly be great.