David Schindler, winner of the Stockholm Water Prize and one of Canada’s most decorated scientists, led an historic research project, the first ever to examine pollution from the Canadian tar sands. In 2009 and 2010, he published his team’s results in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The documentary follows Schindler and his researchers as they carry out their research and documents the aftermath as the results make world headlines.
James Cameron, Director of the environmental blockbuster Avatar, became an unexpected ally of the downstream people and a character in the documentary. From Elder Francois Paulette’s first visit to Cameron in New York to Cameron’s three-day visit to the tar sands in 2010, our cameras had exclusive access to his conversion. Cameron and his Avatar filmmaking team describe how the fictional mining station on planet Pandora was inspired by Canada’s tar sands.
Francoise Paulette is a legendary aboriginal Elder living downstream of the tar sands, the veteran of many battles to defend his lands from industrial encroachment. His first victory was a Canadian Supreme Court decision in 1973 – the Paulette Caveat – which sparked the era of Native land claims. Now, the documentary follows his campaign to halt the expansion of the tar sands, a journey that takes him from his bush home in northern Canada to Copenhagen, Oslo and New York,
Dr. John O’Connor, a soft-speaking community doctor from the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan, began to notice a rare form of cancer turning up in extraordinary numbers. He called for medical research and went to the media, but the Canadian Government accused him of “raising undue alarm”. Driven from his practice, and now vindicated of wrongdoing as the true state of toxic pollution emerges, the documentary follows his return to Fort Chipewyan.
Dr. Erin Kelly, an expert on water contamination, worked in secret to carry out a controversial study of oil pollution in the Athabasca River flowing through the Canadian tar sands. What she found was shocking – the equivalent of a major oil spill occurring annually in a river at the heart of an aboriginal hunting and fishing culture stretching to the Arctic Ocean. The documentary is alongside her and her colleagues as they carry out their research and then bring the tragic results to the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan.
Chief Allan Adam represents the Dene of the Athabasca Fort Chipewyan First Nation and is Grand Chief of Treaty 8 in northern Alberta and the North West Territories. Adam was elected several years ago with the promise to fight tar sands expansion and finally bring the community’s plight to the attention of Canadians.
Dr. Gina Solomon is an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco where she is also the director of the occupational and environmental medicine residency program and the associate director of the UCSF pediatric environmental health specialty unit. She studied the Alberta Cancer Board’s report on cancer in Fort Chipewyan and determined that cancer rates were disturbingly high and likely related to petroleum pollution.
Roland Hwang is the Transportation Program Director for the Natural Resources Defence Council’s energy program, working on transportation energy and global warming issues at the state and national levels. He visited the tar sands in 2010 and is working to have California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard adopted by states across America.
In addition to these central storyline characters, the documentary includes interviews with globally recognized intellectuals and experts, including NASA Chief of Climate Science Jim Hansen, author and scientist Tim Flannery, climate scientist Andrew Weaver, writer and columnist George Monbiot, author and climate scientist Bill McKibben, and author Ronald Wright.