Tracy: Want to start by telling me about the trip that widened your perspective on the issue of human rights: you went to South America with an organization called Development and Peace [CCODP]?
Fiona: Yes, so the organization is based in Toronto and it's called Development and Peace. They're actually a Catholic-based organization so I found out about them because I went to a Catholic school, but religion for them is just a side-bar. [Specifically] they run campaigns advocating for policy change. When I was there they were running a campaign about Canadian mining companies operating in developing countries and focusing on the politics behind that. Mostly they looked at the policies that allow for these mining companies to operate according to the country's standards that they're operating in. So say if they go into Guatemala, they operate according to Guatemalan standards, but there are no Guatemalan standards so they can basically do whatever they want. And that's what [CCODP] advocate around: rather than go into the country and provide 'aid', they try to hit the root of the problem. So I really enjoyed it. I lived with a community affected by a Canadian mining company - which was Glamis Gold at the time, but now is Goldcorp - who would create these subsidiary mines. My case was Marlin Montaña [Mine] where I saw firsthand atrocities like cyanide leaking into the water, or cattle dying, which was extremely eye-opening at age 20. That's also when I realized I really wanted to get into photography and film, because I journaled a lot and I took a lot of photos with my dad's old manual camera. I felt like [these atrocities] weren't captured in the depth that they should be. That was the spark that went off surrounding film and it continued from that point on.
It's so important to have people actually go down there to see what's really happening, and then to hear directly from them - not from the mine's PR campaigns.
Yeah it was eye-opening work; to be exposed to those sorts of things at that time really shaped me.
Later you wound up at the BC Civil Liberties association which focuses on similar injustices, but which we face at home. Want to talk a bit about that experience?
Yeah it was great. It was when David Eby was the executive director and he's just awesome. I had always admired him when he was at Pivot [Legal Society] and I just followed in his footsteps a little bit. I thought I wanted to go into law because of people like him before I realized I actually wanted to learn more about film and media. I really liked the work that the BC Civil Liberties were doing, so I figured that would be an organization that might allow me to pursue the middle ground of media, communications, and a little bit of legal work - but not have to become a lawyer. So I had a sit down with David and told him I'd make films for him [Laughs]. I can't believe he actually hired me, but it was through a YMCA youth internship program or something of that nature which was a one year-stint. I did a lot of grunt paper work for sure, which was boring but also interesting at the same time, and hard but simple; there are a lot of paradoxes within that work. I learned a lot about freedom of information requests, and how much of a struggle it is for people to connect with higher authority, whether it's the police or government.
Also at the time the [2010 Vancouver] Olympics were going on, so the BCCLA had their team of Legal Observers where we wore orange shirts and filmed the police in case there were any abuses of peaceful demonstrations. The idea was if the police weren't going to be held accountable for themselves, then the citizens would do it. The bigger project I worked on with them was a position paper. In order to be a board member with the BCCLA you have to write a position paper on something, and a man named Tom Sandborn who was the journalist on the board of BCCLA wrote this position paper about the right to water in Canada. I was asked to do something on that position paper because it was tucked into a pile and didn't get much attention, yet it was an important issue about how Canada doesn't declare water a human right, and what happens when those kind of policies trickle down to the everyday.
So was this where Most Livable City comes in?
Yes. I made a film called Most Livable City which covers a man and his life - just a snippet of his life. He lived in the Balmoral Hotel in the Downtown Eastside and had a lot of trouble accessing water. That film was sponsored by BCCLA and I made it on something like $250. But that was the first film that I'd say aligned with my vision. It got into a few festivals and screened at their gala.
How are our civil liberties being eroded in this country? And what would these associations do to combat entities trying to trample on the rights of regular citizens?
At BCCLA they do a lot of constitutional law work. When I was there they worked on Omar Kadhr's case for example, but right now they're working on the death with dignity issue. But in terms of people in Canada in general and their civil liberties? I think the most important fight right now is against Bill C-51. It's just really scary what's happening, and also really inspiring to see all of the most esteemed law professors, lawyers, and previous Prime Ministers banding together to fight this bill. It's [intention is to] basically create National Security as an entity in Government that's on par with our Justice System. Our Government in general right now is just terrifying.
I read an article recently about an artist who applied for an arts grant and she got it. But then they found out that she was doing climate justice work and they took the money away. This ties into the BCCLA work because she figured out how to file freedom of information requests. It took a while but eventually she figured out that they were spying on her emails; they read around 200 or so of her emails. It was a grant to bring her art to Europe or something that would have been just amazing, and hers wasn't even an anti-Canada project, it was just a project about general global warming. But luckily she's getting loads of press on it. So that's where these liberties are really being hit. For online spying, I think Open Media does some really great work around that. The BCCLA did work around privacy when I was there, and I'm sure they still do (as recently it's been a growing issue). But they were on top of government spying before this whole thing exploded.
As someone who is creative, in your opinion what are some successful ways to reach those who may not know about an issue, and then help get them involved?
How you do it is one thing, but the bedrock of it all is partnerships. If you're an environmental organization like the Sierra Club, it doesn't matter how interesting you make your event, you're only going to attract the people who are interested in the Sierra Club's work. What people don't do often enough is really branch out and create interesting partnerships - say with an arts collective, or a film group, or an acting club. There are often events at the eatART lab. That stands for Energy Awareness Through Art, and they build these robotic, electric, art sculptures that aim to educate people about energy awareness through their art, and they throw these really awesome parties in their eatART lab in East Vancouver. They engage people who are socially charged, but who have their day jobs and kind of know what's going on, but who aren't fully engaged. They've heard of a bill, but they might not know the details. So encompassing that demographic of low hanging fruit, if you will. They're not only just throwing these great parties, but they're planning them with other people who are deeply invested in issues, such as the transit referendum. They recently hosted a party which was a transit referendum party where there was a panel in the lab, the Mayor DJ'd, and you could only get in if you voted, which was cool. They'll have 500 people come out, and all the projections and the posters are really cool, like a cave man walking into a speed train - just amazing imagery. You've got people who care deeply about politics, art, and the city, partnering with a group that engages people who don't necessarily think about referendums and city policies. So that's a really great model.
I see, it gets a different audience out. Another way to make social issues more clear to people - and why I think you guys do great work at Gen Why Media - is documentaries. For people who may not have a degree in political science, or sociology, or law, they can still watch a documentary and really get a good understanding of the root causes of an issue. Want to explain what your documentary Generation Why was about?
Generation Why is a film I made with my now business partner at Gen Why Media, Tara Mahoney, when we took a film course at Pull Focus Film School. It was a six week intensive course in documentary filming which was after my university degree. So Tara and I hooked up, and she was really interested in generational theory which basically says that every generation has an archetype, and there are four archetypes. At the end of the day the hero archetype looks back on the previous four generations and sees what's gone wrong and what could be better, and then completely changes everything with a complete new way of thinking - letting go of the old ways: attachment to resources and such. The last hero archetype during World War II set up social security, and looked at the way of war and said, "That's not okay. We won't move forward with that". So according to generational theory, Generation Y is a hero archetype that has an unprecedented capacity to look at the world in a different way. Not only that, but we're the biggest generation in human history and the most connected.
So we made a film that focused on a 26 year old, a 29 year old, and a 31 year old. We asked people things like how you're asking me questions right now, and we made a film about it. It was an essay-style film and it was about 14 minutes long that got into some film festivals. We screened it at the eatART lab in a container ship one night and a few people came up to us and said, "You guys are really on to something. Your message really resonates with my world and what I'm doing. I know this is just a film that you guys did, but you should really think about turning this into something more." So that's basically how Gen Why Media got started: it was a film, then it was a community project, and then we were making media and working on campaigns. But we also had our day jobs; I was working at a restaurant and Tara was working at the film school. We decided that we wanted to try to make it more sustainable, so we became a business, and now we produce media, events, and art projects that aim to inspire public conversation.
In comparison to blockbuster films and hollywood tv, how do you get the message out that there's more to consider? Whenever I meet people who don't understand issues of social injustice or inequality, when I dig deep enough it almost always comes down to lack of exposure to the discussion around social issues that is more commonly found on alternate media sources. So how do you get the message out from under the shadow of big media?
It's almost like figuring out how conservatives operate and then modelling or replicating it. Of course not with crazed spying laws or anything. But for example, Preston Manning, the previous leader of the Reform Party, engaged the grassroots in incredible ways. He created what's now the Conservative Party [of Canada]. So politics and ideology aside, the actual, tangible, practical, way that he engaged people across Canada is a model that you can look at and say, "That was something we should've been paying more attention to." So with media and film, it's also about working really hard, and again making really strong connections. I mean look at Democracy Now! which is a great example of a network that covers these things and you could say it's pretty mainstream now; they're up against all of the major media outlets in the US. And you have to be really smart, especially as a woman. Look at Amy Goodman - she's a really strong woman and if you consider media that makes up stories in a way that is not accurate, she knows how to deconstruct that and break it down in a way that is interesting and that resonates. On top of that she has really strong connections that she's utilized to build something really incredible. So it's difficult, but it can be done. And again collaboration. Imagine if the Tyee, the Vancouver Observer, and all our more left-leaning news outlets in Vancouver grouped together, and maybe even made some alliances with other networks in Canada? It would be really, really powerful and we just don't do that enough. I mean, I love both those publications; they do great work and that's cool, but it's just something to observe. Maybe it's because the media in the conservative mainstream world is very business oriented, so there are constant mergers and funding like there are in big companies. Like a law firm will merge with another law firm to make an even more massive law firm.
Or like how Heinz Co and Kraft Foods just merged for something like $23 billion.
Yeah, yeah exactly [Laughs]. We don't really do that in alternative media.
I wanted to talk to you about party politics. Going back to what you mentioned about the conservative coalition championed by Manning, the idea of a left-wing coalition has come up. We have a Prime Minister who's held power for almost 10 years, largely because everyone on the left (or even those who might have more right-wing undertones, but who are sick of the tyranny of PM Harper) have been dividing their votes between three different opposition parties. And every right-wing person routinely votes for the one and only conservative option - The Conservative Party of Canada. So do you think it would be a good idea for the other more progressive parties - the Greens, the Liberals, and the NDP - to form a coalition?
I think Lead Now and those types of groups are doing some really interesting work around trying to make people see this [as an option]. For sure a coalition in my opinion is entirely the way to go. I don't know if it would ever work out. I think ideologically The Liberals are pretty far-right actually, and then the NDP and the Greens are so similar. But I can't see Justin Trudeau wanting to enter into a coalition with [Thomas] Mulcair. But that would be amazing. And not that I agree with Trudeau's politics, but yeah we've just got to get Stephen Harper out of power.
For those who don't think Harper's so bad - like my grandmother or friends from high school - want to explain why we should want him out?
He's a big bully and that's what it comes down to. I don't know if you've ever been bullied, but it's like the girl or guy in elementary school who pushes you around or speaks poorly of you, and they're always at your back and they run the show; it's like that. Who wants their country to be run by a bully who doesn't actually care about citizens of Canada, and really only cares about corporate oil and gas interests. The economy conversation narrative he goes on about is all wrong. And even if in his eyes, the economy is about Canadians being sustainable and putting money into living a capitalist lifestyle, well he's not doing his job. There's an increasingly huge divide between the rich and the poor; the middle-class is disintegrating right now. And I think if your friends were middle-class people, or definitely if they are lower-class people, even if they're not environmentalists or environmentally charged, they should really look at his policies - take a really good look at his politics. There's just so much information out there and it's all over the place. But again, that's why I think that with the left, their work could be stronger if they were more cohesive and more aligned in their messaging. Because I don't think it reaches people like your friends and your grandma unfortunately.
So how do you think the internet is changing people's perceptions and experiences of media?
Well for sure the internet is democratizing media - so that's really powerful. We don't have to rely on news from TV which is really controlled by one or two huge media conglomerates that are in bed with Stephen Harper, while the CBC is being thrashed. Luckily we haven't gotten to a point where website are being shut down for having dissenting opinions - we're not China yet. You can still go on to Greenpeace's site and read [about their work]. So yes, it's huge for us and it's huge to know what our friends, peers, family, and people we don't know think about things. That helps generate a group mentality which is powerful in some situations for sure. Look at what's happened in the Middle East and also what's happening around bill C-51, there's so much social media attention. But also to play devil's advocate, the internet can be isolating in terms of people feeling lonely and that they don't belong, or get left out, which has a negative wellness effect too. People often feel more engaged online than they do offline, but ultimately the real change happens offline. Online is just a tool. So whether social media will have a net positive effect I think has yet to be seen.
It's true, the internet can be an illusion of company and connection, yet the health benefits of being around people are not solely in just messaging each other or watching each others lives from behind a screen. The health benefits are from physically being with people - eye sight, touch, laughter. It's akin to the white loaf of bread. It's remnant of food, it fills the stomach up, but it has insufficient minerals and nutrients that we need for good health. Which is the scary thing about the internet - it can make you feel like you're doing something, but until you get out there, you're really not.
Exactly. When you get off your computer you're kind of like, "Oh. Now I'm alone. Here I am, all on my own." So Gen Why Media does a lot of bridging the online and the offline. We do more offline stuff actually. But we do partner with groups like Lead Now and Open Media and we've done campaigns like Reimagine the CBC. And that was an interesting model because we worked together to rally people to submit their thoughts, ideas, feelings, and views around the CBC and it's progression online - where it should go next. We had thousands of people from across Canada submit. So we synthesized that into a report and then submitted that to the CRTC. Before we did that we had the offline component which was the big event at the Vogue theatre where we had Dan Mangan playing, and Wade Davis spoke, and other people who either got their start with the CBC or owed a lot to the CBC. (Davis had his Massey Lecture Series with CBC.) We also had people who were more up-and-coming like filmmakers.
So we had an open and honest dialogue about what the CBC should look like, and people were really, really jazzed - the CBC means a lot to people, it's second to hockey. And then we got people to go online (which is what I mean about bridging the online and the offline) where people were going on their phones and submitting their opinions. So it was really powerful. I love events; I love going to a show for a night out, so you can dress up, it's at a theatre, but you also learn something. I love that. But I also feel like it's very top-down. Someone's speaking to you while you sit there, and then maybe you have a conversation for five minutes, but then you leave. So another piece that came to us was this work we did with Lead Now: they have this really interesting tool on their site where you enter your postal code. They did this with the Blackmark campaign as well. So you can find your nearest conversation around Reimagine the CBC, or the Blackmark campaign about the conservatives. Then you just walk up and go to someone's home, and they have tea and cookies, and you talk about the CBC.
Awesome, that's a great idea! Can you describe what the Blackmark campaign was?
The Blackmark campaign was targeting conservative ridings, and then people connecting with conservative MPs, trying to get them to talk to people directly essentially. So it was just meetings on strategy surrounding that.
With offline engagement in mind, would you prefer to have documentaries about important issues freely available online to watch at home? Or not available so that viewers have to go to a screening where the audience has more chance for interpersonal discussion? So, have it seen by anyone who wants to see it, or have them get engaged with other likeminded viewers at a screening.
Yes, that's our model with Fractured Land - we had a fundraiser before we went to Hot Docs. So we're having private distribution of our film. I mean we might get a distributor if Mongrel or whoever picks us up, which then we'd have screenings in the bigger cities and that's great. But we want to also reach out to communities who actually need the film - who don't have a theatre necessarily, or who our distribution company might decide, "There's no point in going up to Fort Nelson" or where ever. So we're going to do that ourselves basically by offering a screening kit, so that if we're not able to make it up there, people have the tools - they can download the poster, and download the pamphlets, and gain access to the film. They'll have everything they need to host their own screening.
So what is Fractured Land about? And can you also briefly explain fracking for those who are unaware.
Fracking is getting the gas out of the ground through high pressure steam and water, with chemicals and sand which cracks the shale and the gas comes out. Then the gas is piped over to the coast where it gets liquified. So that's LNG - Liquified Natural Gas. So Fractured Land is a coming-of-age story about Caleb who is a young aboriginal leader and now lawyer (he becomes a lawyer in the film). And he essentially has to weave through the fractures within himself along with those in the world around him. So in the title Fractured Land, 'fracture' is metaphor for the fractures in the land, in his community, and within himself, as he's trying to figure out how he feels about everything. He's ultimately not pro-industry I would say, but his mom is a high-ranking oil and gas executive at TransCanada, and his dad is a staunch environmentalist and residential school survivor. So his family you could say, is 'fractured'. He was also born fractured - his face was deformed with a cleft palate, and so he's had to navigate all these iterations of division, if you will. But he's also had to navigate whether he wants to be an advocate for these issues and live off the land, hunt, and be up North - do what feels natural to him basically. Or if he should move into the white man's world and do the law school thing. He's very conflicted about it in the film, but he comes out the other end.
We followed him for four and a half years; he started off as a young guy in law school who I was really impressed with and that's why it's so compelling. People will really listen to him - and it's not very often that you find someone that can speak from the heart and not in an overly critical way. I find that left-leaning spokespeople around issues oftentimes can make people feel guilty and don't actually offer that much heartfelt emotion, but Caleb has a knack to open people's hearts and minds in a different way, which is really profound to me. Even from year one, or maybe it was year two in law school, I was just astounded. He's really impressed me, so we just followed him. We were initially interested in making a film about what was happening up North in terms of the issues, but we ended up thinking it would be so much more interesting to tell the story from his eyes.
What were the issues in his community that he was trying to fight against initially that drew him to law school?
So his territory is on the second largest hydro-carbon deposit on the planet, and he was a Lands Manager for a long time, just inundated with applications. Piles and piles, rooms and boxes full of these applications that he just couldn't deal with, and that his community couldn't deal with.
For a gas plant, or a fracking rig, or a dam, or some sort of industrial activity. Not all of his people were educated or understood what was happening, or could keep up with it, and Caleb as one person couldn't either. Even if he could keep up (for the example of fighting a battle that you're never going to win), the oil and gas commission - which is the regulatory body for oil and gas - is 100% funded by industry. Therefore no applications are rejected; maybe one the entire time he was Lands Manager. So he decided to go to law school because he saw that he was in this high-ranking position in his community and this was the job to fight this. But he decided, "I'm not getting anywhere, I need stronger tools." So he went to law school. Of course that was hard for him because he had to come down South - away from his land, family, and culture.
Well I'm very excited to see the film! Thanks so much for your time Fiona, it was cool to learn about all the actions we can take, and what is being done by people like yourself.
Likewise Tracy, thank you for the chance to talk about all of this.
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.