Pipelines, Power and Democracy
Olivier D. Asselin
| 88 min 6 s
The expansion of Canada’s oil sands industry—one of the most polluting on the planet—represents a huge environmental challenge. And, as the documentary Pipelines, Power and Democracy makes clear, when it comes to fossil fuels, political power doesn’t always lie where we think it does.
From the hallways of Quebec’s National Assembly, where parliamentary power resides, to the campaigns waged by environmental defence groups and the big media splashes made by some activists, director Olivier D. Asselin follows the journeys of four people who adopt a variety of tactics—showing that it is still possible to effect change.
Over the course of two years, Asselin documents the growth of an anti-pipeline movement in Quebec that rekindled a sense of collective purpose and solidarity.
The result is a film that urges action at a moment in which our planet’s fragile ecological balance is threatened by those who embrace economic growth at any cost.
The news hit in April 2015: the energy company TransCanada was backing away from its proposal to build a tanker terminal at Cacouna, Quebec. The oil port would have used the St. Lawrence River to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands. For those concerned with protecting the river, a major battle had been won—but the fight against the expansion of one of the most polluting sources of fossil fuels on the planet was just beginning.
Pipelines, Power and Democracy is a striking documentary that follows the mobilization of ordinary people to thwart the ambitions of oil companies and halt, even if only temporarily, the advance of pipelines across Quebec. In the process, the film offers a sharp reminder that power can be accessible to all.
It is possible to make a difference—but where does the true power to effect change lie in our democracy? That’s the central question this documentary sets out to explore, by following people who each employed different tactics in the fight to stop the tanker terminal.
From the hallways of Quebec’s National Assembly, where parliamentary power resides, to the campaigns waged by environmental defence groups and the big media splashes made by some activists, director Olivier D. Asselin follows the journeys of four people whose commitment to their cause demonstrates how citizen actions can be a powerful political force for generating social change.
Daniel Breton is a former Parti québécois cabinet member who resigned from his post as provincial environment minister in the government of Pauline Marois. He believes in electoral politics and the ability of elected officials to change the course of events. Defeated by Québec solidaire candidate Manon Massé in the 2014 provincial election, Breton remains an engaged citizen who is committed to the lofty ideals of the Quiet Revolution—including energy independence.
Long-time activist André Bélisle, founder of the Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (Quebec Association Against Atmospheric Pollution) is an environmental lobbyist who favours responsible action and works on several fronts, including public meetings and parliamentary commissions, to advance the cause of building a sensible economy for the future.
In contrast, Michael Rioux is a self-described “pirate” fighting for the cause of Quebec’s rivers. He believes in direct action and doesn’t hesitate to put himself in danger to draw attention to projects he believes to be illegitimate.
Finally, Alyssa Symons-Bélanger works with community groups, offering advice on the art of protest—and creates a stir with a dramatic gesture at the Montreal Suncor refinery, where the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline ends.
These four different personalities, each with their own powerful convictions, offer four different voices and different ways to approach a future marked by solidarity. Director Olivier D. Asselin sees this diversity as helping to map out the road to a more hopeful future.
Filmed over two years, from 2012 to 2014, Pipelines, Power and Democracy documents the growth of a grassroots protest movement that grew as a result of a number of parallel strategies and actions. Honouring the ancestral rights of Indigenous people, the movement culminated in a 700-kilometre walk linking Cacouna and Kanehsatake. Organized in part by Symons-Bélanger, this People’s March for Mother Earth brought together a broad coalition of those fighting climate change and provided an opportunity to raise awareness of the issues in the towns the marchers passed through. That, in turn, helped create a larger and more powerful network of resistance to draw on in the future.
Pipelines, Power and Democracy propels us into the midst of an urgent and broad-based struggle and makes the case that we need to rethink the structure of our parliamentary system and rekindle a movement focused on citizen solidarity—one whose voices will be heard throughout every level of society. The stakes are high. As we consider our future energy sources, the planet’s fragile ecosystems are threatened by those who embrace economic growth at any cost.
We have become too powerful. Our ever-increasing ability to extract resources is growing out of proportion with our fragile planet’s ability to absorb the consequences. I no longer consider being an environmentalist an option—it is a necessity.
But how can things change in an economy based on extracting and consuming non-conventional petroleum?
Throughout the production of this film, we were guided by one question alone: Where does the true power to make change lie? Is it with electoral politics? NGOs? Grassroots organizations? Radical actions?
We could have made this documentary anywhere in the western world. Tar sands are important, of course, but the central issue is political power and the democratic deficit present in western political systems. All over the world, disempowered communities find themselves saddled with unwanted mega-projects. Public outrage is mounting everywhere over the way democratic institutions are being subverted and used to serve ever-more-concentrated private interests.
But it is not just chance that has our film taking place in 21st century North America—and specifically, in Quebec, where green energy sources are part of the cultural DNA. Quebec is a society that was built on the nationalization of hydroelectricity and whose culture has rested in part on revolutionary approaches to energy that set it apart from the rest of the continent.
The question of political power comes in the context of a crucial moment that will decide Quebec’s energy future. The people in our film carry the weight of the encounter between Quebec’s hydroelectric heritage and the expansion of Canadian oil sands projects. Pipelines, Power and Democracy plunges into the power struggle between one of the most influential lobby groups on the planet and citizens holding fast to their ideals. The consequences of the resulting choices will be felt just as much by human beings as by the beluga whales of the St. Lawrence River, whose future they will affect.
Olivier D. Asselin
Photo : Ariane Blais-Ouellette
Olivier D. Asselin
Olivier D. Asselin studied film directing at the Institut national de l’image et du son (INIS) and served for many years as an assistant to the late documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson. He also holds a degree in screenwriting from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and a master’s in communications, for which he undertook a project that combined both research and experimental media creation. Since then, he has gone on to direct or produce about 30 short- and medium-length films, including documentaries, experimental projects, and dramas. What links all of these diverse projects is his particular passion for engaging with social issues.
In 2005, Asselin was the recipient of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema award at the Caméra verte short film competition for Citoyens Inc., an art video about the survival of humanity and the power of dreaming to change the world. His 2008 film, Tout se tient, voices citizen opposition to a methane terminal in Quebec, and won two awards—best documentary and people’s choice—at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM).
In 2009, Asselin’s drama Les âmes en friche screened at the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois, and in each of the next three years his films would be shown at the Portneuf environmental film festival: Dr Fordenstein in 2010, En descendant la Châteauguay in 2011 and Le goût du métal in 2012.When the student-led Maple Spring protests burst forth in 2012, Asselin was on the scene. He would release several short documentaries on the subject (Les casseroles du Grand prix, Le fascisme à la carte and Sabotage libéral) along with a Web series (Poings de vue) on the Quebec student general strike.
While many of Asselin’s films focus on crucial local issues, he has also taken on the great global environmental challenges of our time with projects such as the Web series La Marche des peuples, whose final episode, L’arrivée, premiered at the 2014 Festival du nouveau cinéma. Pipelines, Power and Democracy, produced in 2015 by the National Film Board of Canada, grew out of that experience. In documenting the fight against pipelines and hydrocarbons, the film raises questions about who wields political power and about the future of democracy.
In 2013 and 2014, Asselin served as filmmaker-mentor for the Taling Dialo initiative, which offers video production training to at-risk youth in underprivileged Montreal neighbourhoods. He has also served as a mentor for the Wapikoni Mobile project, which took mobile studios to First Nations communities in order to help young Indigenous people produce their own films, and is a member of several independent media collectives, including Courts Critiques, Médi@s Libres and the publication Journal Ensemble. Asselin founded the Masses et Médias event in 2013, with the goal of creating a network of links between independent media, citizens and community groups, and a focus on media tactics.
In addition, Asselin participates in a number of activities as a video jockey, creating live visual performances at venues such as the Société des arts technologiques (2012‒2013) and the Cinémathèque québécoise (2015).
Photo : NFB
Denis McCready has been working in the Quebec film and television industry since 1996. He started off directing commercials for music channel MusiquePlus before becoming head of advertising for MusiquePlus, MusiMax, Super Écran and Canal Indigo. The early 2000s saw McCready working with independent production companies, where he gained experience as a production director, line producer, and producer of documentaries, documentary series, and dramas.
No stranger to technical and creative challenges, McCready has produced low-budget auteur documentaries on subjects as diverse as dance, music, the environment and child trafficking, as well as big-budget documentary series dealing with science, exploration, and war. He has overseen shoots both in Canada and abroad, many in locations that are hard to access (the Arctic, NASA, the Russian space program) or dangerous (the Atacama and Mojave deserts, the giant Cave of Crystals in Naica, Mexico). He oversaw the production of hundreds of special-effects sequences for the series Mars Rising and produced and wrote the serious game L’or du golfe for the ICI Radio-Canada website. McCready has delivered HD programs for major broadcasters, including National Geographic (US and international), Discovery (Canada, US, Latin America), History (Canada), ARTE (France/Germany), NHK (Japan), CBC, Radio-Canada, Canal D, and Télé-Québec. In addition, he’s worked on a number of official international co-productions (Canada-France, Canada-Mexico).
McCready won several awards as the producer of Chercher le courant (including the RIDM Audience Choice Award and Gémeaux Award for Best Documentary: Society) and Bas! Au-delà du Redlight (NFB Colin Low Award at DOXA). The films he’s produced have screened at many international festivals, including Hot Docs, Visions du réel, the International Festival of Films on Art, NXNE, DOXA, the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), and the Vancouver International Film Festival. He has also produced two documentaries directed by Ian Jaquier: L’or du golfe, with Kevin Parent, and Kanata: Aujourd’hui la colonisation, as well as the powerful documentary MTL Punk: La première vague, by Érik Cimon and Alain Cliche.
McCready is currently Executive Producer for the NFB’s Canadian Francophonie Studio. Previously, he worked on many NFB short and feature-length documentaries and interactive projects as a producer for the Documentary Studio and the Institutional Program.
Executive Producer (NFB)
Photo : NFB
Colette Loumède began her career at the Coop Vidéo de Montréal, a group that has had a significant impact on Quebec cinema. Alongside Robert Morin, Lorraine Dufour, Jean-Pierre St-Louis, Louis Bélanger and others, she learned every aspect of the film trade long before becoming the veteran producer she is today.
Currently the head of the French Program Documentary Studio at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), Loumède is known for producing documentaries that stand out for both their subject matter and artistry. Her productions have screened at many of the world’s top festivals, including Hot Docs, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the Berlin International Film Festival, Visions du réel, Sundance, and the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM).
Loumède’s work is driven by a desire to produce films with meaningful content by auteurs intent on addressing the important issues of the day. She has worked with Serge Giguère, Richard Desjardins, Patricio Henriquez, Hugo Latulippe, Benoît Pilon, Sophie Deraspe, Zaynê Akyol, Claude Demers, Jean-François Caissy and many other contemporary Quebec directors.
Over the course of her career, Loumède has collaborated with a wide range of groups and people. She was responsible for analyzing documentary projects for SODEC, Quebec’s public film-financing body, and founded and led the documentary program at the Institut national de l’image et du son de Montréal (INIS), Quebec’s foremost professional cinema training institute. She is actively involved with the Documentary Network, RIDM and other festivals across multiple genres, and has regularly served on panels, juries, and many domestic and international platforms devoted to promoting auteur documentary.
With the participation of
Olivier D. Asselin
Research and Script
Olivier D. Asselin
Director of Photography
Olivier D. Asselin
Simon Van Vliet
Productions Multi-Monde Inc.
With the participation of
Natasha Kanapé Fontaine
Jessica Lambert Massicotte
Gilles E. Pelletier
Technical Support ‒ Editing
Translation ‒ Subtitling
Titles and Infographics
Jacques Bertrand Simard
Guitars, bass, keyboard and percussion
“Lost For Ever”, composed and performed by ACT (Kristian Aduriz)
© 2015 NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
About the NFB
The NFB is Canada’s public producer and distributor of award-winning documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences, working with talented creators across the country. The NFB is taking action to combat systemic racism and become a more open and diverse organization, while working to strengthen Indigenous-led production and gender equity in film and digital media. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including 12 Oscars. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.