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Fighting Slow Violence: A Review of ‘There’s Something in the Water’

Representing environmental racism and resistance

In the documentary film There’s Something in the Water (2019), Elliot Page brings attention to the injustices caused by environmental racism in his home province, Nova Scotia. Inspired by Dr. Ingrid Waldron, whose book addresses the systematic environmental racism that has led to health damages for Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, the film follows Page as he listens to the Indigenous and African-Nova Scotian women fighting against government-sanctioned environmental racism to protect their communities, their land, and their futures. The film focuses on three different sites of environmental racism and grassroots activism: Shelburne, A’Se’k (Boat Harbour), and Stewiacke. At each site, the film captures the history of environmental degradation in the community as well as the resilience of activists fighting against the harms incurred on their land and water. By borrowing from Rob Nixon (2009)’s and Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012)’s theoretical works, this article examines how the film tells a story about what Nixon terms “slow violence” – violence that is incremental and accretive, playing out across a range of temporal scales. It also focuses on how the grassroots activists in the film speak to Tuck and Yang’s proposition on decolonization, a practice that starts with the land, as well as the subversion of the colonial powers controlling that land.

The film opens with Dr. Waldron explaining how environmental racism is the disproportionate exposure of Indigenous, Black, and other communities of colour to environmental burdens, pollutants, and contaminants. The film also discusses the slow response of the government to address these issues. In other words, where you live has bearing on your well-being. The first major location looked at is an area outside Shelburne, which contains Nova Scotia’s largest concentration of Black residents. Lousie Delisle, a local activist, tells Page about a landfill created in 1942 that served as the Shelburne Town Dump. This landfill has been located at the south end of Shelburne, right next to the Black neighbourhood. Since its creation, the municipality has dumped all garbage from the town, including hospital waste, shipyard and naval waste, animal carcasses, chemicals, and old car parts, into the landfill. Once the dump was overflowing, the municipality burned the piles to make space for more waste. Delisle recalls the smoke, ash, and soot that filled the air whenever the dump was set afire.

In addition to showing the effects of this site, the film listens to Delisle’s community and their concerns about the invisible health impacts this toxic site continues to have. For example, Page follows Delisle as she drives around the neighbourhood and shows the sobering cases of cancer rates in the community. At one moment, she stops at a house where the entire family living there died from cancer, all in the years since the dump opened. Delisle tells Page that the community believes the dump has caused this. In these poignant moments, the film alludes to what Nixon has termed “slow violence”  – violence that materializes over more extended periods of time, quietly and modestly. The slow violence of water degradation presents the viewers with a geography of deferred environmental threats, where violence is outsourced to communities that have been historically marginalized. Just as Delisle is taking Page (a surrogate for the wider audience) to the residential area where a disproportionate number of cancer patients has been recorded among Black residents, it is the communities who are exposed to slow violence and are best placed to witness its gradual injuries. These scenes show that everyday exposure to the accumulations of slow violence is not necessarily a formless threat but often a tangible brutality. Although the source of these health threats cannot be grasped with our eyes, the toxic pollution manifests itself on the bodies of Black residents. Thus, Delisle highlights the representational stakes that the nature of slow violence presents; how do we make sense of long-form disasters that do not display themselves in spectacular moments of terror as a single event but instead quietly accumulate their damage over time? She does this by taking the viewers to peoples’ homes and speaking to elders. Her witnessing of harms involves countless stories, so common in the residential area, of family members becoming ill and dying from cancer. These are the most intimate means of noticing the slow violence of water degradation in a community, and the film poignantly captures them.

As Nixon states, adequate representation is needed to mobilize political will around violence that is not naturally spectacular. If slow violence provokes one to expand their definition of harm, There’s Something in the Water insists that viewers take forms of violence seriously that have led to gradual deaths, destructions, and violence over time. Indeed, it forces the viewers to look beyond the immediate, the visceral, and the obvious in the explorations of violence. Delisle argues that the effects of these spills span over a lifetime; they are often attritional, disguised, and temporally latent.

The dump permanently closed in July 2016, but fear remains about what’s buried underground and if it’s seeping into the water. The neighbourhood is not serviced by a municipal water supply, and its residents have no choice but to use well water from nearby streams, and they’re concerned that waste from the dump site has leached into water. Well tests have shown high levels of arsenic in the water as well as  E. coli, coliform, and contaminated wells. Delisle has been fighting for an environmental bill of rights and for compensation for their community, but they continue to be ignored or silenced by local and provincial levels of government. Therefore, in Nixon’s account, “the failures to maintain protective structures, failures at pre-emergency hazard mitigation, failures to maintain infrastructure, failures to organize evacuation plans for those who lack private transport, all of which make the poor and racial minorities disproportionately vulnerable to catastrophe.” This points to the discriminatory logic under which environmental racism operates and, in the case of the Shelbourne toxic spill, the slow violence of environmental degradation exemplifies how discrimination predates disaster. It’s not about individual hostility and the bad intentions behind slow responses from the government, but one needs to look at the role of structural and hegemonic forms of racism in contributing to such inequalities.

What becomes important later in the film is how communities themselves bear witness to slow violence, which questions the implicit invisibility of environmental injustices. By capturing moments of resistance against structural powers, the film highlights that slow violence is not simply about time and uneven exposure to social harms; it is also about uneven structures that allow such brutalities to gradually propagate in the first place. The film turns to the other two locations, both primarily inhabited by Indigenous peoples. In A’Se’k, or Boat Harbour, the Pictou Landing First Nation have been battling neglect and colonialism in their community around the site of a Pulp and Paper Mill. Furthermore, the film visits Mi’kmaw tribal lands, where a group of Grassroots Grandmothers is opposing a new threat caused by Alton Gas, a company that plans to release mass quantities of salt brine into the Shubenacadie River, an apparent violation of treaty agreements.

In these activist spaces, the community activists anchor what Tuck and Yang conceptualize about decolonization. They explain that the language of decolonization has been subsumed into broader discourses on “social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches which decenter settler perspectives” without regard for the fact that decolonization is a distinct political project from these other forms of justice. Because metaphorical decolonizing discourses – usually led by non-Indigenous peoples – generally attempt to mitigate the effects of colonialism rather than strive for the complete abolition of colonial power structures, these moves ultimately serve to uphold rather than dismantle colonialism. What is important is that Tuck and Yang highlight how moves toward decolonization require an understanding of settler-colonialism as it operates in the North American context from which they are writing. Drawing from the work of Patrick Wolfe, Tuck and Yang emphasize the distinct structure of settler-colonialism as being founded on Indigenous elimination and territorial appropriation. Because the land is the most essential aspect of settler colonialism – whether to extract its resources or to impose sovereignty over a delineated piece of it, decolonization starts with the land. decolonization is not a metaphor because colonialism is about the control of land, and conversely, decolonization requires the complete subversion of the power(s) controlling that land.

For example, the film’s Michele Francis-Denny, from the Pictou Landing First Nation, recounts a colonial history of deception and betrayal from provincial government representatives. When the Scott Paper Company opened the Pulp and Paper Mill in 1965 and proposed to pipe the effluent from the treatment plant to Boat Harbour for dumping, Chief Raymond Francis raised concerns about the environmental impact this would have on the water, especially how it would affect fishing. The Nova Scotia Water Authority approached the Chief and the Council and told them there would be no environmental impacts. However, one of the Water Authority members took her grandfather to a municipal water treatment plant instead of a mill treatment plant. After being shown this façade, the Chief accepted a $65,000 offer from the Water Authority, who had him sign a document stating the Pictou Landing First Nation relinquished their water rights in exchange for this payment. Within a week of the mill operating, masses of dead fish floated in the water along Boat Harbour. The community has also been hit with high rates of cancer-related death and suicide in the past fifty years. In these moments, the film takes seriously the knowledge claims of communities who live in toxic spaces, and in doing so it unravels the power structures and politics that perpetuate the uneven geographies of pollution.

Francis-Denny then takes Page to visit the effluent treatment facility, and viewers see the raw, untreated effluent coming directly into the mill as a ghostly vapour floats over the water in the area. There remains a constant worry about health in the A’Se’k community, but there are also concerns about the land. After approximately 27 million litres of effluent spilled into Boat Harbour in 2014, Pictou Landing First Nation occupied the area in protest. Francis-Denny explains that “we’re doing it because we need a future. We need to be connected to the land. We need to, you know, have sustainable environment for our kids, for our kids’ kids […] we are doing this because we’re meant to be here and do this.” Moreover, Page talks with various Water Protectors from the Mi’kmaq community, including the Grassroots Grandmothers, who have been protesting to prevent abuses of treaty rights and to prevent environmental harm since 2018. Just as in Shelburne and Boat Harbour, the thrust of activist work in Stewiacke is led by women who are water carriers and water protectors. The proposed deposit would be located in the Shubenacadie River, unceded land and a sacred site for the Mi’kmaq which acted as a superhighway that connected their territory. Refusing to allow the company to destroy the river, the Grassroots Grandmothers built a truck house on the river in accordance with article 4 in the 1752 Treaty and occupied the area along the Shubenacadie River. This began the site of near-daily resistance to government and corporations opening territory to development, breaking treaty rights. In April of 2019, three Grandmothers were arrested in what the water protectors call the criminalization of Indigenous peoples. The Alton Gas protests are ongoing in the Stewiacke area.

What is important in these representations of Indigenous resistance against water degradation is that they first highlight the modalities of Indigenous land-connected practices and their longstanding experiential knowledge informs their ethical engagements with the land. Indeed, as the Grassroots Grandmothers tell the viewers, water is the source of life and water is a gift, but it is also a shared responsibility. The women protestors, in condemning the actions of the government and corporations, argue that the irreversible damage to future generations’ land and water needs to be accounted for by settler-colonial and corporate institutions. Their concerns are made clear, over and over again, as protestors cite the necessity of protecting water for their children and/or grandchildren. In doing so, the film shows how the communities are shifting toward their desire for an Indigenous future by acknowledging the legacy of exploitation, land loss, and cultural loss as well as the role of women in healing the community. The film is also quick to point out that it is not these damages that define the affected Indigenous communities; it is their resilience and continuing resistance. Indigenous resistance has consistently engaged with the impacts of capitalist violence and power within the context of settler-colonial Canada. Their critiques of such formations of colonial power are built around the conceptualizations of the future, which speak to the fact that decolonization is inherently about land and self-determination. Indeed, their protests against the extractive colonial power are forms of imagining alternative futures for their communities, which have the possibility to carve open spaces for more concrete enactments of decolonization and self-determination for Indigenous peoples and their future generations.

There’s Something in the Water grapples with the slow violence of environmental degradation and racism, which disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, the film’s mode of story-telling revisits the quotidian micro-politics of living and relating within geographies where extractive industries and state violence continue to leave a deep imprint. In doing so, the film sheds light on these lives that persist despite conditions of precarity.