Movie star backs Black NS community to get fresh water

Ellen Page with Shelburne community activist Louise Delisle

IT DOESN’T ONLY HAPPEN IN THE MOVIES. The Black community in Shelburne, NS will get a happy ending. It will finally get clean water. But it took a movie star to get it for them.

The town council in Shelburne has finally agreed to accept an offer from Oscar-nominated actor Ellen Page to pay all the costs for drilling and maintaining a new well in the community. The council turned down an earlier offer from Page.

Page got involved with the water issue in Shelburne when making her 2019 documentary film, There’s Something in the Water. The film exposes the reality of “environmental racism” in Shelburne and two other Nova Scotia communities.

Identifying ‘environmental racism’

Activists, like Page, define environmental racism as the practice of placing threats to our environment and human health next to minority communities. What happened in Shelburne is a prime example.

It started when Shelburne needed a town dump 75 years ago. They put it in the south end—right next to the homes of most of the town’s Black people.

For long decades south end residents worried the dump was a high health risk. The neighbourhood is on a boggy downward slope from the landfill. Three brooks descend from the dump into Shelburne Harbour, crossing many South End properties.

Dumped on for too long

The people in the South End smelled the smoke from the burning dump and breathed it in. They feared water oozing from the dump was contaminating the water in their dug wells.

Many of their homes are just 500 feet from the dump. The two closest homes are just 250 feet away.

“We lived it, and we talked about it every day,” says resident Louise Delisle. “We breathed it. You couldn’t open your windows, you couldn’t breathe.”

“You know something isn’t right when you have people drive by your house in hazmat suits (protective clothing) to go to the dump and drop off their containers of whatever. And a few days later there would be a fire, and we don’t know what it was they dumped,”

Louise is one of the south end residents who formed the South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED) to force the town to act on their concerns. SEED sees the tortured history of the battle to get clean water for the South End as more evidence of underlying racism.

Water worries spill over

The water supply in south end Shelburne is unreliable and unsafe. The wells there dry up every summer. Tests show high rates of e.coli bacteria in the water. The town’s response was to make fresh water available through a garden hose at the fire hall kilometers away in the middle of town.

SEED refused to accept the situation. It mounted a strong and persistent campaign to get the town to deliver the same supply of safe fresh water to the south end as it did to the rest of town.

The town dragged its feet. Ellen Page made her offer to pay the cost of drilling a well where the south end residents wanted it. The town rejected the offer. The costs of maintaining the well were just too high, they said.

What the town offered instead was to makeover a town-owned shed next to the sewage treatment plant to allow public access to a tap connected to the local water supply.
“It’s almost like a slap in the face.” said Louise Delisle. “Nobody is going to want to go down there and get water.”

This was not the kind of reaction the town expected. The chief administrative officer of the town sent Lousie a letter threatening legal action for being too critical and doing what he claimed was irreparable damage to the town’s reputation.

Ellen Page steps in—again

On February 10 Ellen Page made the town an offer they couldn’t refuse. She offered to cover the $25,000 cost of drilling a new well, at the Roger Grovestine Memorial Recreation Complex, as well as the $5,000 cost of annual maintenance. Shelburne town council unanimously accepted her offer.

“It was a lot of talking, a lot of angry words, but you know, this community needs a good thing right now,” Delisle told the Nova Scotia Advocate.

“I really, really wish that it hadn’t taken so long, and caused all these bad feelings and all that racism just to get there,” Delisle says.

The fact it did take so long is another reminder of how rooted—and slippery—the lived reality of racism still is for too many Black people in Nova Scotia.

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