Trou Story: Digging up dirt [anti-mining] – by Jeff Heinrich (Montreal Gazette – November 3, 2011)

MONTREAL – The title – Trou Story, or in English, The Hole Story – is typical Richard Desjardins: a play on words, vaguely scatological, loaded with droll sarcasm. It’s the title of his latest film, made with longtime colleague Robert Monderie: a trenchant documentary about the devastation wrought by a century of mining in the Canadian Shield of northeastern Ontario and Abitibi-Témiscamingue, the filmmakers’ home turf.

The duo have been making social-commentary docs about their far-flung region since the late 1970s. In 1999, they took a whack at the forestry industry with L’erreur boréale (Forest Alert), which won a Jutra and led to the Coulombe commission inquiry into forestry management. Another Jutra followed in 2009 for Le peuple invisible (The Invisible Nation), about the plight of the Algonquin people.

Now, Desjardins and Monderie are back with Trou Story – and already, their doc is controversial.

Produced by the National Film Board and narrated by Desjardins, the film begins with a 30-minute exposé of the history of mining in the Shield and toll it’s taken on human life: Canadian soldiers killed by bullets made from Sudbury nickel that was sold to the Germans in the First World War; unsanitary conditions that led to a typhoid epidemic in the silver-mining town of Cobalt; arsenic from abandoned Abitibi gold mines that continues to seep into the water supply.

“You don’t know anything about mines? That’s normal,” Desjardins tells viewers at the start of Trou Story. “Mines don’t talk much. Especially not about their history.”

In the remaining 50 minutes, he interviews union leaders, miners, residents, politicians and historians to paint an alarming picture of contemporary mining that, despite unionization and environmental laws, is very much in the tradition of the old: free claim-staking by mining companies, the bulk of profits exported out of Canada, piteously few taxes collected by cash-strapped towns, and the ever-present threat of toxic pollutants like lead.

The bottom line? Quebec and Ontario should do several things: exercise sovereignty by finding a formula to nationalize mines; prevent foreign buyouts of mining companies; invest in smelters to transform raw minerals here at home; force mining companies to clean up the region’s 180 disused sites; and stop companies from displacing entire communities for new ventures like the Malartic open-pit gold mine situated between Rouyn-Noranda and Val d’Or.

To put the provinces’ economic and environmental house in order, “it’s time we re-appropriate our basement,” the filmmakers say. Fighting words – and they’ve sparked a lot of reaction.

Trou Story premiered last Sunday at the 30th annual Festival cinéma international en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. The fest is co-sponsored by three big mining companies, which wasted no time denouncing the film, calling it a screed that drags their industry through the slurry. It lacks input from the companies themselves, they complained, and falsely equates modern mining practices with the excesses of old.

“At the start of the film, Mr. Desjardins associates the history of mining with (the making of) war materials, but he barely touches on the fact that the minerals harvested today serve to manufacture products for Monsieur et Madame Tout-le-Monde,” Hélène Thibault, spokesperson for the Montreal-based gold-mining firm Osisko, told the Abitibi Express newspaper after attending the screening.

“It’s an artistic project of two guys who take a long look at the history but one that’s light years away from today’s reality,” added Francis Beauvais, spokesperson for Xstrata Nickel. “The mining industry, it’s a different thing than that. Our environmental norms, for example, are often more strict than the government’s, and we pump $80 million a year into the region’s economy in the form of salaries and goods and services.”

Dominique Dionne, chairperson of the Quebec Mining Association, told reporters that Trou Story should be taken with a grain of salt. “The mining companies don’t do whatever they want. Don’t believe it. Everything is supervised.” Serge Simard, Quebec’s minister for Natural Resources and Wildlife, called the film “an incomplete work. Several situations that are denounced in the film have been corrected.” Annual disbursements of mining companies to the provincial government are $304 million and growing, and, as proposed in the Liberals’ Bill 14, new legislation to reform Quebec’s mining law, “will improve many other aspects,” he added.

The toughest criticism came from Osisko’s vice-president of finance, Bryan Coates. “Biased, you say, this film?” he told a reporter, his voice dripping with sarcasm, echoing Desjardins’s own. “We create wealth in this region: 75 per cent of our employees are shareholders in the mine. The film conveys a confused message from another era.” A local Parti Québécois MNA, François Gendron, was equally dismissive: “Richard plays on people’s emotions,” he chided.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Montreal Gazette website: