Louise Abbott is a professional writer, photographer, and documentary filmmaker in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. She is a partner in Rural Route Communications, a small audio-visual production company, and the president of an artists’ cooperative that runs a gallery and cultural centre called Studio Georgeville. She has dedicated most of her career to exploring the culture, heritage, and natural environment of rural and indigenous communities in Canada and abroad as well as the social and environmental challenges facing these communities. She is the author of seven books, including Memphrémagog: An Illustrated History (2 volumes, 2017), Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree (2010), and The Heart of the Farm: A History of Barns and Fences in the Eastern Townships of Quebec (2008).
Rural Route Communications: www.ruralroutecommunications.com
Studio Georgeville: www.studiogeorgeville.com
You work across a range of disciplines, including non-fiction writing, photography, and documentary film. How do you think these different disciplines feed one another? Has this changed for you over time?
After my first book of text and photographs—The Coast Way—was published, a producer hired me to script a TV documentary about the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery. The experience whetted my appetite for filmmaking. I realized that with ambient sound, authentic voices, evocative music, and fresh visuals, a documentary could inform and move an audience differently than the printed word or a still image.
I eventually became a director-videographer for modest independent films. But I’ve never abandoned non-fiction writing and photography. I relish the freedom to choose whatever medium best suits my subject. I’ve sometimes told a story in multiple media. In Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree, I included a portrait of an Inuk named George Kudlu and described how he’d arrived in the Cree Nation of Wemindji. I later made a commissioned film about the historical presence of Inuit in southeastern James Bay. George featured prominently in Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story.
This sort of cross-fertilization continues in my work. In my recent two-volume landscape history of the Memphremagog region, I incorporated three chapters on the islands of Lake Memphremagog. I was so enchanted with the islands that I also made a 35-minute documentary about them.
Your work has taken you to anglophone villages on the Lower North Shore of the St. Lawrence River, francophone villages on the Port-au-Port Peninsula of Newfoundland, Nunaaluk island in southeastern James Bay, Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee, Inuit communities in Nunavik and Nunavut, and rural communities in the Eastern Townships. It seems profoundly rooted in history, people, and place. What attracts you to document a particular locale or community?
As a young writer-photographer, I lived in Montreal. After visiting the remote Scottish island of Iona, however, I felt drawn to out-of-the-way places where communities are closely knit and people look to the land or sea for the sustenance and rhythm of their daily lives.
On assignment for CBC Television, I learned of the Lower North Shore. I was intrigued by “the coast,” as it’s known to its English-speaking inhabitants, and applied for a Canada Council grant to do research and photography there. That was the genesis of The Coast Way.
I eventually moved to the Eastern Townships, and I feel blessed that I’ve been able to continue to pursue both commissioned and self-generated projects here and in other outlying parts of Canada.
In some cases, an idea for a book or film has come from others familiar with my work. For instance, when I was photographing the Royal Tour of Newfoundland in 1983, a publisher in St. John’s introduced me to a well-known francophone fiddler, Emile Benoit, and suggested that I document the francophone villages on the west coast of the island. I applied for a provincial grant and ultimately produced an exhibition and a book about French-speaking Newfoundlanders.
What are the most pressing environmental issues facing remote and rural communities in Quebec today?
The depletion of cod fish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1990s and the ensuing moratorium continue to affect the Lower North Shore. The villages there are losing their populations faster than any other region of Quebec.
Hydroelectric projects in Eeyou Istchee—the homeland of the Cree in northern Quebec—have changed the direction and flow of rivers, flooded forests, altered the temperature and chemical makeup of northern waters, damaged local fisheries, displaced wildlife, and disrupted traditional Cree life in the bush.
Climate change has also wrought many changes in the North, affecting humans, fauna, and flora alike.
In my own neighbourhood in the Eastern Townships, water pollution is of considerable concern. I live on the shores of a river that I daren’t swim in—the Tomifobia.
Despite the efforts of environmental activists, nearby Lake Memphremagog is also threatened by wide-ranging problems: excessive plant growth; recurring algal blooms; the spread of invasive species, such as zebra mussels; agricultural runoff; and effluent from a huge and expanding landfill in Vermont.
Overall, I would say that deteriorating water quality, reduced indigenous biodiversity, growing plastic pollution, and climate change are the most pressing environmental issues in far-flung parts of the province.
How have changes in technology impacted your work?
Changes in technology have impacted my work continuously since I began to tape record interviews in the 1970s to ensure the accuracy of my texts.
Computer software has eased my writing process and enabled me to design my books. The Internet has facilitated my research and communication with collaborators and readers or viewers. As a creator, I still marvel at the feedback that I receive regularly from all over through email.
I was initially resistant to digital photo technology. I doubted that any digital camera could surpass my Leica or that any digital print could surpass a darkroom print. But I became a convert fifteen years ago.
Around the same time, I bought a digital video camera and editing software at the urging of a colleague who had faith in my ability to adopt a new skill set. My first shoot was of a neighbour logging with a draft horse. I’ve shot and edited films ever since. I recently finished a mini documentary titled Portrait of a Round Barn and a longer documentary called Driving into the Past: A History of Covered Bridges in Quebec. I’m currently working on three CALQ-subsidized documentaries and two commissioned films. I’m living my dream!
You’re part of the marvellous Studio Georgeville in the Eastern Townships. Can you tell us a little more about it?
Eleven-odd years ago, eight artists conceived the idea of establishing a year-round art gallery and cultural centre in Georgeville on Lake Memphremagog. In many ways, it seemed like an impossible dream. But a landlord was willing to rent us a beautiful space in a historic building for a small fee. And a government agent was willing to shepherd us through the process of obtaining the status of an artists’ cooperative.
In the spring of 2008, Studio Georgeville became a reality. With a motto of “Where Art Meets Community,” we’ve offered regularly rotating exhibitions with established and emerging artists. We’ve held workshops, life drawing sessions, literary events, film screenings, and other special presentations.
We’ve held three indigenous arts festivals in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action in the domain of culture. We’ve collaborated with other groups, including the Quebec Writers’ Federation. And we’ve raised funds for local and international causes.
Most recently, we’ve held an exhibition titled 71 per cent—a reference to the percentage of the earth’s surface that is covered by water. We’re also publishing an exciting anthology edited by Hatley poet Angela Leuck called Water Lines: New Writing from the Eastern Townships of Quebec.