Behind the idyllic houses and picturesque landscape façade of Ellen Page’s home province of Nova Scotia lies a disturbing reality that has been ignored for far too long. Toxic fallout from industrial development and contaminated drinking water due to waste dumps have caused cancer rates to rise to critical levels—and disproportionately affect Indigenous and Black communities living in remote, low-income areas. People are being poisoned, but despite the resistance from Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian women fighting against the pollution, their pleas have largely gone ignored.
This is the subject of Oscar-nominee Ellen Page’s new documentary, There’s Something in the Water, screening at TIFF this month. Her directorial debut, the project sees Page leaning into her activism through storytelling. Her co-director is Ian Daniel, with whom she co-created Gaycation—a series for Viceland that explores LGBTQ cultures around the world.
Despite being born and raised in Nova Scotia, Page says she was largely unaware of the environmental issues plaguing her province. In the process of educating herself on the subject, she connected on Twitter with Dr. Ingrid Waldron, a sociologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who literally wrote the book on environmental racism. That book, from which the doc earns its name, became the basis for the film.
“I just really want to help…use my privilege and platform and to continue to educate myself and do what I could to amplify her work and the work of all these activists,” explains Page. “I felt like something needed to happen. Those communities were being destroyed. People are dying. They’re being killed, quite frankly.”
So the two had a talk about how Page can use her celebrity to elevate the issue and the idea for a doc was born. Originally, the film was meant to be an informal and short 20- to 30-minute project that they had planned to post online to help raise awareness, but after filming some footage, they realized that what they were getting was too powerful not to turn into a feature film.
“We also thought that because these women were sharing their stories in such deep ways, that in order to do justice to their stories we needed to do something bigger,” explains Waldron.
While there’s no shortage of coverage on other environmental crises such as global climate change, what’s been happening in Nova Scotia has been largely ignored by media, government and the population in general. “I mean, climate change is important,” says Page, “but I think in Nova Scotia, that is particularly what all the young people are talking about. That’s getting all the attention… But as soon as you focus on racialized communities, people are less empathic, right?”
Page admits that it feels weird to think of herself as a “known” person, but her celebrity also gives her a megaphone that she’s able to use to give others a voice, too. In the doc, we see Page visiting her hometown of Halifax and talking to some of the activists, but ultimately she gets out of the way and gives them a chance to speak for themselves.
Page says meeting the local activists for this doc has meant getting to know some of the most incredible women she’s ever met. “They deserve [to be heard] and their voice is so much more important than mine,” she says. “And that’s what I’m interested in seeing and hearing and learning from, and then continuing to do what I can with my privilege, because I should, it’s that simple. I don’t think it’s actually an option not to.”
Nova Scotia’s community of environmental activists also embraced Page. “I think because she’s very well liked and respected and people see her as authentic, people trust her,” says Waldron. And, like Page, the community wanted to get their stories out. “There are people who are on the front lines who have spoken out about these issues in the media and they’re game for anything.”
Page hopes that this doc sparks an interest in the issue. “Educate yourself,” she responds when asked about the most important thing for Canadians to know about the environmental racism in N.S. “We’ve got to make ourselves aware and learn about the reality of our history. I didn’t learn our history; I didn’t learn it at all. And we have to start having the real conversations about how Canada deals with these issues. It needs to be discussed and addressed and dealt with. And we need to put pressure on the government and politicians to stop supporting corporations that are ruining communities and people’s lives and show the fuck up.”
Here, Page gets visibly emotional. “There’s so much pandering to the community and then doing nothing. It’s all lip service.”
According to Waldron’s research (and backed up by official stats), local Indigenous and Black communities also tend to vote significantly less than others in the province, convinced that nothing’s ever going to change. This notion is reinforced by a lack of action by the politicians that claim to represent them.
“It’s the way in which discrimination is written into environmental policies that lead to disproportionate impact [on Indigenous communities],” says Waldron, “It’s what we call institutional racism. But I think it’s also important for the wider community to understand that we’re all in this. This impacts all of us. Air travels [and] water contamination [impacts] us all.”
“I think what’s problematic is people often say, that’s their issue, those people over there. And that’s not impacting me. And as Canadians, we have to start thinking in a broader way that this is my brother, this is my neighbour, they are dealing with with air pollution, that can also impact me. So I think until we get to a point where we see that we’re all in this together, nothing will change.”
Lower income white communities have also had to deal with similar issues, but, Waldron says, “The reality is that in Nova Scotia, [the] lower income white community have had their dumps dealt with. That hasn’t happened in Shelburne. The response was much quicker to the white community.”
There’s Something in the Water premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and will continue traveling to other festivals, including the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax.
Page says what motivated her interest in activism through film was the desire to figure out how to create a space and platform for representation. She’s always had an interest in non-fiction, reading, and watching documentaries. She rattles off a list of docs that have changed her life like The Corporation, the Romanian doc Children Underground, and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. They served as stepping stones to further reading and research. “I feel compelled by it, because when you have this platform that I have, I absolutely want to use it and give the space for people to tell their stories, because they’re the voices we need to be listening to.”
There’s Something in the Water screens as part of TIFF on September 14 and 15.