How a vigilante killing rocked a remote Maritime community to its core
‘There are more complex layers to this story than we were able to show,’ says director of new documentary
Isle Madame, N.S., is an intensely beautiful place. The ocean surrounds it on all sides, and in the right light, its raw landscape is almost painful to behold: it will stop you in your tracks and tear your breath away as your heart swells in your chest.
Just off the coast of this remote island is Petit-de-Grat harbour, the setting of a vigilante killing that made international news. In June 2013, a notorious lobster poacher named Phillip Boudreau was killed by local fishermen, a story captured in a new documentary from CBC Docs POV.
The details were horrific, and the crime tore the close-knit Acadian community apart. Some residents were on the fishermen's side, saying Boudreau got what he deserved. Others were on Boudreau's side, saying no one deserves to die like that.
An outsider hoping to tell a local story
On a research trip to the island, I ran into a group of women on their way out for a swim. Seeing I was a stranger, one of the women stopped me to ask who I was and what I was doing there. When I told her about the story I wanted to tell, she looked at me long and hard, then said, "Hmm, make sure you get it right."
Her words stayed with me throughout the making of The Killing of Phillip Boudreau. Trying to "get it right," and provide an honest portrayal of people, places and events should be the goal of all documentary filmmakers, and it's certainly something I aspire to do. But this film taught me that "getting it right" can mean very different things depending on your point of view. And there are as many points of view on Isle Madame as there are ocean views.
A community in pain years after a killing
When we first started filming in March 2019, I wanted to know how people were doing six years after the killing. In a world that feels increasingly divided, I was eager to find a hopeful story of community healing. But instead of healing, I found pain — frustrated, repressed and misunderstood pain, boiling just below the surface on both sides of the divide.
It was awful watching people's faces change as I explained what my crew and I were doing in town; some wanted nothing to do with us. Others were bursting to share their thoughts and feelings on what had happened — just not on camera. They were afraid of saying anything that might upset or anger anyone else in the community. And in a place where practically everyone is related through blood or marriage or both, that's nearly impossible.
We were fortunate that those involved with the case professionally — the RCMP, lawyers and a local journalist — were willing to speak. But finding people to talk to who were personally affected by the killing began to seem like an hopeless task. My crew and I visited the area multiple times with minimal luck. The wall of silence felt impenetrable.
A local perspective
It was only when I visited the island by myself last summer that I met a woman who wanted to be heard. Nicole Gionet grew up, had a family and worked her whole life on Isle Madame, and as she puts it, "it wasn't all roses."
Gionet is a survivor, and after a lifetime of keeping her mouth shut, she started a blog where she writes about domestic violence, sexual abuse and mental health. Gionet's story could fill another film, but she also had special insight into this story as the mother of Boudreau's best friend.
Gionet contends that certain fishermen on the island took advantage of Boudreau as a child, using him to poach lobster and "play tricks" on rival fishermen. She feels her son got caught up in this as well, and that eventually these fishermen sought to destroy the problem they had created.
After meeting Gionet, things started to fall into place, and I found others who were willing to speak. I am deeply grateful to all of them for their bravery and willingness to trust a stranger with their stories.
But as for "getting it right," even after weeks of shooting and months of editing, I feel this film is only scratching the surface. There are more complex layers to this story than we were able to show, from Boudreau's unaddressed mental health issues to threats he is rumoured to have made against his killers' families to who is rumoured to be responsible for sending Boudreau to poach from the fishermen's traps that fateful morning.
Despite these tragic events, Isle Madame has an incredible sense of community and is full of many warm, welcoming and resilient people. I hope to visit again one day — under happier circumstances.
Megan Wennberg is the writer/director of The Killing of Phillip Boudreau