The Issue with Tissue
– A Boreal Love Story
Film rings the alarm bell on the ongoing destruction of the boreal forest in Canada
By Irwin Rapoport
December 12, 2022
The majestic boreal forest, home to many First Nations in Canada and an amazing range of biodiversity, is under serious threat from rapacious logging in our country and across Scandinavia and Russia, from Norway to the Pacific Ocean. But it’s not only logging impacting it – mining and oil and gas development are causing damage as well. And to add insult to injury, the forest which is barely hanging on in many places, is now being affected by climate change due to an increasing number of forest fires destroying even more parts of it as the planet gets hotter.
Quebec has a significant portion of the forest, which at first sight, appears to be healthy when viewed from the road. This is a modern-day version of a Potemkin Village, as environmental organizations and First Nations have continuously pointed out that logging companies deliberately leave sections of the forest intact along both sides of roads but once you investigate further, you see vast stretches of clear-cut areas as far as the eye can see.
Due to the cold climate and relatively short growing season, when trees are cut down in the boreal forest it could take 30 to 40 years or longer for a new tree to regrow to the size its predecessor attained.
The majestic boreal forest… is under serious threat from rapacious logging in our country… But it’s not only logging impacting it – mining and oil and gas development are causing damage as well.
Wildlife depends upon a healthy forest to survive and thrive. According to the Wikipedia page, “there may be as many as five billion land birds, including resident and migratory species. The Canadian boreal region contains the largest area of wetlands of any ecosystem of the world, serving as the breeding ground for over 12 million water birds and millions of land birds, the latter including species as diverse as vultures, hawks, grouse, owls, hummingbirds, kingfishers, woodpeckers and passerines (or perching birds, often referred to as songbirds). It is estimated that the avian population of the boreal represents 60% of the land birds in all of Canada and almost 30% of all land birds in the United States and Canada combined.”
“Few species of boreal wildlife are classified under government conservation regimes as being at risk of extinction. However, the decline of some major species of wildlife is a concern. Boreal woodland caribou, whose lichen-rich, mature forest habitat spans the boreal forest from the Northwest Territories to Labrador, is designated as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. The Newfoundland population of marten is threatened by habitat loss, accidental trapping and prey availability.”
Enter environmental activist/leader and documentary filmmaker Michael Zelniker, a former Montrealer who grew up in Snowdon, whose new film, The Issue with Tissue – A Boreal Love Story, is being screened at La Cinémathèque Québécoise for a limited run until December 15.
Zelniker’s concern for the environment and the disastrous legacy we’re leaving our children and the generations to come, is illustrated by how he signs off on his emails: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors – we borrow it from our children.”
The documentary was screened on November 22 in Ottawa, with an audience that included several senators, MPs, and prominent environmentalists. Zelniker, co-chair of the Los Angeles chapter of The Climate Reality Project from 2018 to 2021, will be in his hometown as a delegate for COP15, the annual United Nations gathering taking place at the Palais des Congrès.
Here is a trailer for The Issue with Tissue – A Boreal Love Story, which explains what is at stake and highlights the damage being done:
Westmount Magazine spoke with Zelniker about the documentary and his passion to protect the environment and the rest of creation that share Planet Earth with us.
WM: What inspired you to make this hard-hitting film that calls for immediate action?
Zelniker: In April 2020, I became aware that large intact, old-growth forest landscapes across the Canadian boreal are being clear-cut for the manufacture of toilet paper. These critically important forests, which we depend on for our very survival, are being cut down so we can wipe our bums with softer, more plush toilet paper. Is there a more obscene illustration of what’s gone wrong? Having grown up in Montreal, spending summers 100 miles north of the city on the southern edge of the boreal, feeling deeply bonded to these forests and trees, I felt compelled to learn more.
WM: The research that you did for the film is first-rate. How would you describe the process?
Zelniker: After countless hours of research and dozens of hours on Zoom, I came to believe that the little-known, largely untold story of the boreal must be told. Perhaps the most important insight I had was that any story about the boreal must place the Indigenous Peoples of the boreal front and center. It’s home to more than 600 First Nations communities – lands and waters they’ve lived and thrived on for thousands of years.
I flew from my home in Los Angeles to Vancouver during COVID and after quarantining for 14 days, I embarked on a 42-day/12,000-mile journey from coast to coast, meeting with more than fifty First Nations Elders and Leaders, prominent scientists and conservationists, all who opened their hearts and shared their stories, ending up in a remote part of Northeastern Quebec at an Innu gathering, before returning to Los Angeles with 125 hours of interview, landscape and wildlife footage.
What began as a narrative about trees and toilet paper evolved and emerged into a much deeper story that takes us from trees to toilet paper to treaties, from carbon to climate change to caribou to colonization, from water to birds to Indigenous knowledge/stewardship to the way forward. The boreal is an epic landscape that demands a very large canvas.
The Issue with Tissue has transmuted from just another movie about eco-destruction into a critically relevant story about the horrifying impacts and legacies of colonization, the Indian Act, residential schools, and the other atrocities that the Original Peoples of Turtle Island have endured at the hands of settler governments, and how all of it was done in the service of unfettered extractive industrial exploitation.
‘What began as a narrative about trees and toilet paper evolved and emerged into a much deeper story that takes us from trees to toilet paper to treaties, from carbon to climate change to caribou to colonization, from water to birds to Indigenous knowledge/stewardship to the way forward.’
– Michael Zelniker
WM: You have taken the quote “What we do to the land, we do to ourselves” literally to heart. Why does it resonate with you?
Zelniker: I have come to understand that the larger systemic issue we have to confront and reconcile is the one of disconnection. Disconnection allows us to do things like colonization. Disconnection allows us to go into wild spaces and exploit the resources without any care or concern for how we’re impacting the rest of creation. Disconnection allows us to throw away our children’s future in service of satiating, selfish, greedy, temporal needs.
As Elder Dave Porter says, “when we’re in a forest, among the trees, we’re with our ancestors, our Elder relatives. The trees are talking to us, telling stories of life. The question is, are we listening?” Through the process of photosynthesis, trees breathe out oxygen, we breathe in that oxygen. We exhale carbon dioxide, trees inhale that carbon dioxide. Can there be a more mutually beneficial relationship? Were it not for these forests and trees, we wouldn’t be here – our very survival depends on trees and plants.
Dr. Suzanne Simard, the author of Finding the Mother Tree, speaks of her decades-long research into the subterranean, mycorrhizal networks that exist in forests, and that these collaborative, cooperative, mutually supportive relationships between the trees, the fungi, the mosses and plants are what have allowed forests and trees to strive and thrive for millions of years. Trees have been on Planet Earth much longer than we humans. Surely they have something to teach us about longevity and sustainability.
Perhaps the trees, our Elder Ancestors, are talking to us, perhaps they are guiding us to understand that the way forward is not through survival of the fittest and competition to the death but through cooperative, symbiotic, mutually supportive relationships. As Elder AJ Felix says, “let’s be family again, let’s be relations again, let’s love each other because when we love, we respect and we look after each other.”
WM: Many environmentalists across the globe have noted how modern society has essentially cut itself off from nature and because it doesn’t see or feel it, lacks a connection with the natural world and has essentially shielded itself from the impacts caused by humanity collectively. What is your take on this view?
Zelniker: This theme of interconnectivity ties all the elements in our documentary together, encouraging us to realize that we are all connected, we are all family. As Joni Mitchell says in her iconic song, Woodstock, that we adapted for the closing of our documentary, “we are stardust, billion-year-old carbon.” We are all made up of the same elemental DNA, the same primordial soup that those who call Planet Earth home literally have emerged from. In fact, we are all related, we are all family, and we all come from the same stuff, the same Mother Earth.
And the sooner we embrace and embody this ideal, the sooner we will find our way out of the existential crises that we have created that confront us today, threatening human survival and that of the rest of creation we share Planet Earth with.
WM: If Canada, the United States, Russia, and various European nations fail to protect the boreal forest, what are the implications locally and globally?
Zelniker: There is so much that distinguishes the boreal region that makes it a critically important ecosystem. Perhaps the most important is that it stores more carbon than any other terrestrial landscape. As we continue to allow more and more extractive industrial exploitation (logging, mining, oil and gas), that banked, that stored, that legacy carbon is being degraded and released into the atmosphere.
‘If we want our elected officials to legislate in ways that support the common good, then we must take back our civic responsibility, get engaged politically and demand that our planet be protected and conserved for our children and the generations to come.’
– Michael Zelniker
Combined with the impacts of global warming and climate change, we are seeing more disturbance than ever before. More wildfires, more drought, more insect outbreaks, all of these disturbances further degrade that stored carbon, causing more and more of it to be released into the atmosphere, thereby turning this enormous carbon storehouse into a carbon source. There is so much carbon stored in the boreal forest that if we allow that carbon and methane through permafrost melting to be released into the atmosphere, it doesn’t matter what else we do to stave off the worst consequences of the climate crisis. The feedback loops that will be triggered by those greenhouse gases being released will render meaningless any other mitigation steps undertaken.
WM: You screened the documentary in Ottawa to an audience that included many legislators at the federal level. What was their reaction, and did you get a sense that their concern could be translated into effective legislation and regulations?
Zelniker: The reaction was very encouraging. The Senators and MPs in attendance shared their concerns. Whether and how it might impact legislation, time will tell. We are at the point where we need our policymakers to step up in a most aggressive way. We are running out of time and it’s up to us, the citizenry, to demand that our elected officials do more. We must let our politicians know that whatever political capital they spend in service of saving the environment, we will provide them with all the political cover they need. Right now, our elected officials are bought and sold by industry, by those who have paid to have a seat at the table. If we want our elected officials to legislate in ways that support the common good, then we must take back our civic responsibility, get engaged politically and demand that our planet be protected and conserved for our children and the generations to come.
Among the many important lessons I learned from the Indigenous Elders I met with is captured by this foundational belief: “Take only what you need, give thanks for what you take with an eye towards the seven generations to come.” This belief is anathema to American, so-called western credo that counsels us: “A lot is good, more is better and too much is just right.”
This corporation-driven, brainwashed belief that our sense of self-worth, our sense of value, is determined by how much we can accumulate and appropriate, runs counter to everything natural law teaches. No wonder the human family is in so much trouble.
WM: What can people do to help save the boreal forest?
Zelniker: Buy post-consumer recycled paper tissue products. If you feel so inclined, use a bidet. Buy FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified paper and lumber products. Demand governments fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Support Indigenous stewardship – Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) and Land Guardian programs. Only buy products from companies that respect Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from Indigenous communities. Only buy products from companies that respect the habitat of woodland caribou and other endangered species.
Spend time in a forest. Connect with our Elder Ancestors, the trees. Thank them for the breath of life they provide. And if you want to learn all about these issues, come and see The Issue with Tissue – A Boreal Love Story during our run at La Cinémathèque Québécoise here in Montreal.
Feature image: slash heap
Images: courtesy of Michael Zelniker
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.