There’s still something in the water

During a discussion at Harvard Kennedy School, activists featured in the film “There’s Something in the Water” warn that environmental racism continues to stymie efforts for clean water in Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia.

body of water and land from afar and high in the sky

“We shouldn’t have to fight for clean water,” said Michelle Francis-Denny, a member of the Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia, Canada, who has helped lead a decades-long effort to stop the dumping of toxic chemicals adjacent to her small community perched along the province’s northern coast.

Francis-Denny is one of several women featured in the documentary “There’s Something in the Water,” directed and produced by Elliot Page and Ian Daniel MC MPA 2023, recipient of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation’s Roy and Lila Ash Scholarship in Democracy. The film showcases how for many Indigenous and Black communities in Nova Scotia, living with contaminated water is the norm and the symptom of a much larger problem of environmental racism.

Earlier this month, the Ash Center hosted Francis-Denny at the Kennedy School for a discussion and screening of Daniel’s film. She was joined by Daniel and two other activists featured in the documentary — Louise Delisle and Dorene Bernard, for a conversation about their work in Nova Scotia. Yanilda González, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, served as moderator. During the event, part of Gonzalez’s discussion series “What Justice Looks Like”, the activists gave an update on advocacy efforts presented in the film and highlighted how environmental racism continues to impact their communities.

“My Black community is dying. And it’s dying because of environmental racism,” said Louise Delisle, a native of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, a town in the far south of the province that was once home to North America’s largest free Black settlement. Delisle and her neighbors believe that the well that the community uses has been polluted by runoff from a landfill not far from their Shelborne homes. The air was contaminated with soot and toxins from burning landfill waste — all of which are thought to be responsible for high rates of cancer nearby.

The runoff and air pollution prompted Delisle to help found the South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED), a community nonprofit whose activism ultimately led to the closure of the dump. Yet when reflecting on the changes that have happened in her community since the film helped publicize the environmental racism challenges in Shelburne, Delisle says: “How many people have passed away in my community with cancer since the film was made? And I count 11 people that died of cancer, four people recently diagnosed with cancer, two with multiple myeloma, and myself with markers of multiple myeloma.”

For Dorene Bernard — a member of the Mi‘kmaw Grassroots Grandmothers, a group of female activists who are campaigning to help heal and sustain their community for future generations to come — the struggle to achieve environmental justice for her community has been a years long undertaking.

Since 2007, She has been waging a fight against a project to drill up to 18 caverns under Mi‘kmaw land to store fracked gas exported from the U.S. Bernard described how even after the documentary first aired, she still encounters brazen racism aimed at her efforts to achieve some modicum of environmental justice for her community. “At one point I was sitting in a courtroom where the lawyer for the province of Nova Scotia said they didn’t need to consult with the ‘conquered people.’ And I was like, [that’s] the most racist thing that was said in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.”

The gas project has since been shuttered, but the lead pipes that were already buried underground in anticipation of the storage facility are expected to stay in place.

Like Bernard, Francis-Denny continues to face roadblocks in her advocacy for the restoration and cleanup of Boat Harbour — an estuary that was once an important fishery for the Pictou Landing First Nation but was then used as a waste site by a pulp mill. Now, the estuary is polluted with various toxic chemicals and dioxins used in the paper making process.

Despite enacting legislation which effectively shuttered the mill, the Nova Scotia government also passed an amendment that protects the local government from any future legal liability, all while not consulting the Indigenous community that left efforts for the estuary’s protection in the first place: “Now that the film has died down, there’s this space where this [act] silently slipped through…Legislation just appeases, you know, the groups at the time, and then they [government] go amend it,” Francis-Denny recalls.

Offering some thoughts from his vantage point as both a Harvard Kennedy School student and the producer of this film, Daniel notes that environmental racism can manifest itself in a host of different ways: “It’s about gentrification, infrastructure issues, transportation problems, accessibility to green spaces and nature. It’s a complex system of discrimination and violence toward the most marginalized, minoritized communities.”

Ian Daniels speaks during a panel of this film screening.
Though progress has been made, each activist highlighted how environmental racism and injustices continue to harm their communities.

Although the specific environmental issues each activist have combatted in their communities vary, all three women recognize their fight is in too many ways the same. Bernard argues that access to clean water isn’t just a necessity that people need to keep their bodies and environment healthy. Rather, clean water and a clean environment should be treated as a fundamental human right. “Everybody should have the right to clean water, and that’s a policy that doesn’t exist,” adds Delisle.

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