In 2008, I visited Attawapiskat with my father, David Lean, and representatives from Ecojustice and Wildlands League, to discuss the environmental impacts of the Victor Mine with concerned community members. The mine – De Beers’ second outside of Africa - had opened just two weeks before.
I was originally motivated to tell this story because before the arrival of the Victor Mine, the Attawapiskat River formed part of the largest pristine wetland in the world. The deep layers of peat in the James Bay Lowland store 26 billion tons of carbon, and contribute to roughly one tenth of the globe’s cooling benefit. The area, which had not yet seen major industrial deve lopment, has profound ecological significance globally, and the Victor Mine risked setting a dangerous precedent for mining in Ontario’s Far North.
Described by the NGO MiningWatch as making as much engineering sense as “mining a sponge in a bath tub,” the Victor Mine had scientists, environmental groups and local residents concerned that corporate power and experimental mining techniques would lead to long-term damage, with minimal benefit to the local communities. My father, Dr. David Lean, an ecotoxicologist, was particularly concerned that as the Victor Mine dewaters the site (and creates an ecological footprint equivalent to four times the size of Toronto), mercury that was stored for thousands of years in the peat would be mobilized, and could potentially contaminate Attawapiskat’s fish beyond human consumption guidelines.
Despite these concerns, the Province was excited about its first diamond mine- the gems extracted from this area are among the highest clarity in the world. The economic impact for Ontario is estimated to reach nearly $7 billion over the 12 lifespan of the mine.
In May 2010, at the age of 25, I returned to shoot a film for my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) thesis at York University. The film intended to focus on questions involving the relationship between De Beers and Attawapiskat: Were the mining benefits reaching the community – and what was cost? I quickly realized the deeper story lay beyond my environmental lens, and was rooted in the vast disconnection between the reality of Attawapiskat and the myth of Canada.
Over two summers, I spent 80 days living in the community, which included teaching youth video workshops, participating in community life and documenting an increasingly dire situation. I believed– like the main participants, including Rosie Koostachin and Chief Spence - that if only Canadians knew, the situation would be different. Once the community was put under the national media spotlight, I observed a disturbing blind spot. I was deeply troubled by some of the coverage and conversation around both the 2011 Attawapiskat Housing Crisis and Chief Spence’s hunger strike in 2013. In both instances, the underlying cause for the situation in Attawapiskat was frequently tied to poor leadership, financial mismanagement and the idea that remote communities are simply not viable.
Meanwhile, significant structural and historical explanations, such as outstanding issues with Treaty 9, the inability to share in resource revenue and chronic government underfunding, were overshadowed. I had come to see Attawapiskat as a viable, promising community, but that its people have been denied access to resources, education, and land – key ingredients to the sustainability of any community.
While my primary interest was initially with the threat of mercury contamination, it expanded to the community’s rights to education, healthcare, housing and a clean and safe environment. One of the goals of the film is to draw attention to a number of intersecting challenges. I want to encourage greater understanding about a community that has divided a nation, and to embolden audiences to continue to engage in listening to First Nations activists, journalists and leaders, participating in events like Idle No More, and to learn more about how Canada’s wealth relates to the emergency situations in communities like Attawapiskat. The stakes are high for Canada to develop a fair and lasting terms of the relationship. De Beers is currently preparing for an environmental assessment for another of the 15 diamond deposits near Attawapiskat, and existing environmental concerns with the first mine have not yet been addressed. Billions in resource development is planned for across Canada in the coming decade, while the country is facing what has been called the “death of evidence” – a situation in which public science is being censored and environmental protections and safeguards have been cut back through legislation like Omnibus bills C-45 and C-38. More recently, the ability to speak out and organize has come under threat. Bill C-51 will enable security agencies to impinge on the rights of protesters and indigenous communities alike.
Set against this dangerous backdrop of political games and economic exploitation, After the Last River intends to create a space for reflection. The film is a call for the viewer to seek further information and question their understanding of Canada – both past and present.
After the Last River