Toronto Film Review: ‘There’s Something in the Water’

September 19, 2019 12:18AM PT

Native Nova Scotian Ellen Page returns home to investigate environmental crimes against minority communities in this informative activist documentary.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the unpleasant sights, smells and pollutants of industry have typically been located where the poor folk dwell, and police society needn’t notice. With the dawn of popular environmental consciousness about a half-century ago, it became clear that toxic byproducts with a dismayingly long shelf life and unknown (or, worse, known) health impacts were inordinately directed toward isolated minority communities with little political or monetary clout to protect themselves.

Inspired by Ingrid Waldron’s book of the same name, Ellen Page and Ian Daniel’s “There’s Something in the Water” sees that history of environmental bias continuing as it investigates three locations in Nova Scotia where industrial waste has ruined water sources and spiked cancer rates. This handmade activist documentary deals with issues relevant around the globe but will primarily be of interest to Canadian audiences. Movie star Page’s frequently on-screen presence could broaden its outreach in streaming formats.

Page is a native Nova Scotian, and the initially charming (particularly as accompanied by vintage tourist promotional clips) if ultimately rather trite bookend sequences have her musing that the picture-perfect land of her youth turns out to be hiding major injustices — something that could be said of any place, of course. She’s returned with collaborator Daniel to explore the province’s past and ongoing instances of environmental racism, which directly contradict the comforting notion that “Canada takes cares of its people.” In fact, taking care of the majority has too often meant shafting a minority, as Waldron observes. One legacy of colonialism is the tendency to locate landfills and other hazardous sites or activities near the most disenfranchised communities.

The first major stop on this brief tour is an area outside Shelburne that has the region’s largest concentration of black citizens. Though recently closed, a longtime dump situated there has contaminated well water (there are high levels of arsenic and E. coli), with outlandish cancer death rates in the immediate area surely no coincidence. Politicians have dragged feet on improving matters, even though digging a deeper community well to access clean water would cost relatively little. Local activists like Louise Delisle are more often told their complaints embarrassingly “play the race card,” rather than that their concerns are important.

The other two locations spotlighted are ones primarily inhabited by indigenous peoples. Michelle Francis-Denny is a native of Boat Harbor, where waste from a paper mill that opened in 1965 destroyed all the fisheries virtually overnight, despite every promise of “no impact.” Substance abuse and suicide as well as cancer rates skyrocketed as a result of the tribal population’s traditional ways being abruptly terminated.

On Mi’kmaw tribal lands not far from Halifax, a group of “grassroots grandmas” is opposing a new threat: A gas company plans to release mass quantities of salt brine into the Shubenacadie River, an apparent violation of treaty agreements. It’s pointed out that in this as in many other such cases, the government (not excluding P.M. Justin Trudeau) seems more on the side of big business interests than affected citizens.

“Water” is competently if simply crafted by what’s basically a two-person filmmaking team. Its unabashedly activist agenda is underlined by the scant representation of opposing viewpoints — it might have added some drama to hear more of politicians and corporate reps’ official excuses for harmful policies. While Page’s name will duly increase visibility for this project and its issues among those who might not otherwise notice, there’s a certain amount of typical celebrity-docu errata, with too many gratuitous shots of the thesp hugging her interviewees.

Still, if “There’s Something in the Water” isn’t the most sophisticated treatment of the issues it scrutinizes, it nonetheless makes a very convincing case for protections against environmental harm being applied equally to all members of society.

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