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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

The Issue with Tissue connects Indigenous history with industrial exploitation

BY Patrick Quinn Oct 13, 2022

On September 18, The Issue with Tissue: A Boreal Love Story made its world premiere at the Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival. The documentary by award-winning actor and filmmaker Michael Zelnicker draws a connection between colonial violence and unfettered extractive industrial exploitation.

While its catchy title springs from a 2019 report exposing how major US tissue brands degrade boreal forests for throwaway products, the film serves as a launching point for a group of First Nations leaders to talk about the importance of these forests for both cultures and the entire world. 

“It has evolved into a much deeper story that runs from trees to toilet paper to treaties, from carbon to climate change to caribou to colonization, from water to birds to Indigenous stewardship,” Zelniker told the Nation

Zelniker says the 600 First Nations communities inhabiting Canada’s boreal forest need to be front and centre of any story about the world’s largest forest ecosystem. It’s why he embarked on an epic 42-day, 16,000-km journey to meet with more than 50 Indigenous leaders and conservation scientists. 

Despite pandemic protocols, Zelniker was able to conduct outdoor interviews exploring the stories his subjects wanted to tell. With the Kamloops residential school discoveries fresh on people’s minds, these often-emotional discussions probed the painful legacy of colonization while transmitting generous cultural wisdom. 

“They shared their stories with an honesty and candour that is surprising to most people who see the movie,” said Zelniker. “When I met Senator Michèle Audette, after three minutes she was talking about feeling she didn’t have a place on Earth in 2013. I’m humbled by the fact these people trusted me the way they did.”

Framed as a talking circle, numerous Indigenous storytellers speak intimately about their “umbilical” connections with their traditional territories. As Kaska Elder Dave Porter said in the film, “The forest is alive, the land wants to talk to us – we have to train humanity to listen.”

“Our identity is embedded in the land and expressed through the trees themselves,” explained the late Anishinaabe Elder Dave Courchene. “The boreal forest carries that identity of who we are as a people. The trees hold the memory of our creation. It is said if you want to hug the Creator, hug a tree.”

Introductory segments break down the basic science of how trees have evolved, the photosynthesis process and the symbiotic forest ecosystem. Viewers learn the boreal forest contains a quarter of the world’s wetlands and more freshwater than anywhere else on the planet. It stores more carbon than any other ecosystem, including twice the amount available in remaining oil reserves. However, forest destruction turns it into a deadly carbon source. 

With vivid glimpses of the region’s wildlife, the film shares that about two billion birds nest in the boreal each year, although that number has declined 30% in the last 50 years. Parallels are inferred between species loss, like the 99% decline of the George River caribou herd from 1990s levels, and industrial motivations.

“As scientist Martin St-Laurent said, no more caribou on the land, no more constraints to get at the resource, which you could substitute for no more Indigenous peoples on the land, no more constraints,” Zelniker asserted. “So much of this genocide against the First Peoples was to get at their land to auction it off for industrial exploitation.”

According to Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, southern forests are lost at a rate of 1% each year, a pace matching the tropical rainforest’s destruction. Another study by Wildlands League found an average of 14% of clear-cut areas surveyed showed no tree regeneration decades after logging, exacerbated by roads, slash piles and other logging infrastructure that inhibit vegetation. 

The film implies we are complicit in flushing our forests down the toilet by purchasing toilet paper brands sourced from virgin boreal. In 2020, activism led to a Procter and Gamble shareholder revolt, yet the corporation’s biggest tissue products remain unchanged, and its supplier even launched lawsuits against Greenpeace to silence the protests.

“Accumulating more and more is only lining pockets of the corporate world and destroying our planet,” Zelniker said. “What were we hording at the beginning of Covid? Toilet paper, of all things!”

Environmentalists emphasize the boreal forest’s role in stabilizing the climate and mitigating global warming. This “boreal love story” takes Courchene’s words as its motto: “What we do to the land, we do to ourselves.” 

The Issue with Tissue concludes with potential solutions, particularly Indigenous-led environmental stewardship. By becoming aware of where our products come from, consumers can choose more sustainable options.  

As Sturgeon Lake First Nation Elder AJ Felix suggests, the way forward may be to emulate a forest’s mutually supportive methods. Understanding our shared connection to Mother Earth and respecting all life as family could help humanity escape its existential crisis.

“The larger systemic issue is one of disconnection, which allows us to do things like colonization, exploiting resources without concern of how we’re impacting the rest of creation or our children’s future,” said Zelniker. “Trees have existed on the planet almost 400 million years. Surely, they have something to teach us about longevity and sustainability.”

When crossing the border once again at his journey’s end, Zelnicker explained his film’s message to a border guard. She told him he could avoid the two-week quarantine and she would promise not to use Charmin toilet paper again.

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.