The Watershed: Activism in Art (by Laura Gilbert)


I had the pleasure of watching The Watershed at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal last Friday (it runs until December 4 by the way). Some of my friends in the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) master program (that I completed last April) had told me about it just a couple of days before, and we went as a group. All I knew before watching it was that it was documentary play about the tar sands in Canada. It turned out to be so much more than that.

This is not Soutar’s first documentary play. She is well known for her 2012 play Seeds about the politics of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in the case of Percy Schmeiser versus Monsanto. Her plays are special because they feature real people and are based on actual conversations and events that took place. The Watershed is autobiographical and tells the tale of Annabel Soutar who was commissioned by the Arts and Culture program of the TORONTO 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games to write a play. She embarks on a mission to research the state of Canada’s fresh water resources. Her husband and their two young daughters join her on this mission. The cast expands to include more of their family as well as many important Canadian figures of the last decade such as Maude Barlow, Adèle Hurley, Dr. David Schindler, Mayor Rob Ford, Justin Trudeau, and of course Stephen Harper.

I don’t want to spoil the story in case you decide to go watch it (which of course, I highly recommend you do), but it follows Annabel’s struggle to uncover the economic and political motivation of the Harper government to shut down the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a unique facility dedicated to the study of fresh water in Northern Ontario. In her quest, she meets the young scientist and activist Diane Orihel who leads the fight against the government’s decision to cut the ELA’s 2 million dollars yearly funding. She also crosses paths with Dr. Hank Venema of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) who will be tasked with taking over the ELA and privately funding its research.

The fast paced play communicates a range of opinions to the audience, usually pinning ecological integrity against economical interests. Through the interactions with her father, a conservative and capitalist, Sautour critiques the unfeasibility of perpetual growth and, as a mother, she expresses her fears for the future of her children.  In the powerful concluding scene of the play (spoiler alert), Annabel asks her father if he believes that economics should really be dictating social decisions such as the direction of education, health, and environmental protection. Her father responds, defeated, that the values of our current economic system should not be guiding decisions in our personal or social life.

I loved the play for its ability to communicate emotion to the audience, teach difficult concepts and explore touchy subjects. It exposed the need for transparency in decision-making and the importance of social movements in promoting institutional change. It showed that everyone has a voice and their own way of influencing the world. The arts have always touched people in a way that science cannot. The Watershed did an incredible job of combining the two to communicate a strong message and make a case against economics as a tool for decision-making.


If you want more information about the play, check out the Centaur Theatre’s website:



Laura Gilbert is a PhD student at McGill with the E4A project. Her research interests focus on ways that policy can alter environmental values, perceptions, and attitudes to facilitate the implementation of environmental initiatives to lower water consumption.

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