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Can Virtual Reality Get Apathetic Canadians to Care About Waterless Communities?

VICE’s new documentary ‘Cut-Off’ aims to find out.
August 18, 2016, 1:00pm

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rode into power partly on the promise to make up for the Canadian government's years of neglect and rank abuse of First Nations peoples. Right now, nearly 90 reserves are under drinking water advisories, and some communities have relied solely on bottled water deliveries for more than a decade.

Even in the face of such a clear humanitarian crisis, some Canadians have been less than sympathetic. A huge part of the problem is that many Canadians still go through their lives without actually visiting a reserve, or even knowing any First Nations people. In a recent survey, 44 percent of respondents said they rarely or never had contact with Aboriginal peoples. Even so, some nonetheless believe that if there are problems plaguing reserves, First Nations people should just up and move.


I wonder what these Canadians would say if they could stand in a ruined house, look out on a placid lake, or go skating in the community rink. If Canadians won't visit a reserve in real life, maybe they could do it in virtual reality. It's no substitute for the real thing, and nobody should pat themselves on the back for doing it, but it might just help.

This is what I experienced in our VICE colleagues' new VR documentary, Cut-Off, which follows Trudeau to Shoal Lake 40, a community of 250 people about 150 kilometres from Winnipeg. It's been under a boil water advisory for 17 years. The doc also goes to Cross Lake, a reserve in Manitoba where a state of emergency was announced due to a wave of suicides earlier this year. Cut-Off is premiering at TIFF on Friday, August 19th, and will play until Sunday the 21st.

Canada's deep-seated issues with racism and inequality aren't going to be solved by any new technology. These are issues that are both social and also deeply personal, rooted in experience and conditioning. But I have to believe that any reasonably empathetic person, when placed in an immersive, 360-degree environment that puts you face-to-face with a teenager speaking passionately about the issues affecting their community… Well, if you don't feel something, then something's wrong.

There's been a good deal of research recently into the empathy-boosting effects of virtual reality. Researchers have subjected people to a Freaky Friday-esque gender swap to try and mitigate sexism, and the United Nations has even produced a series of documentaries aimed at showing well-off people how a lot of the world really lives.

It would be tone-deaf to conclude that virtual reality has some magical properties that can mend the deep wounds of Canada's history. It won't bring clean drinking water to Shoal Lake 40, and it won't solve Cross Lake's suicide crisis. High technology is rarely, if ever, a solution for social ills, and usually serves as a self-congratulatory deference mechanism at best, or actually causes even more problems at worst.

I think there's something deeper going on in Cut-Off. It shouldn't be overstated, or serve as a replacement for real-world political action. But it's clear that face-to-face contact in VR lends a feeling of human weight that simply can't be conveyed by words on a page.

This should not come as a huge surprise: the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that all moral responsibility flows from coming face-to-face with another person, and it's especially powerful when it's someone that society has conditioned many of us to believe is nothing more than a flat stereotype.

Does virtual reality reproduce some small part of Levinas' idea, refracted and diffused through trick mirrors and high definition displays? Can it? I'm not really sure, but I would challenge anybody who believes that First Nations people should "just move" to watch Cut-Off and find out for themselves.