In Canada’s Chemical Valley, a tour sheds light on tragic toxicity

Community News & Features Oct 25, 2019 at 3:40 pm
Over 200 participants walked off the heart of the “Chemical Valley” with a banner to express their support to Aamjiwnaang First Nations.                                                      (Photos: Y. Cabana)

Over 200 participants walked off the heart of the “Chemical Valley” with a banner to express their support to Aamjiwnaang First Nations. (Photos: Y. Cabana)

By Ysh Cabana
The Philippine Reporter

SARNIA, ON–For five years now, the Gray siblings, Vanessa and Beze have been fighting environmental racism.

In their First Nations home called Aamjiwnaang, they have been leading an annual “Toxic Tour” near the shores of St.Clair River, southwest of Ontario to acquaint people from outside the Sarnia area with what is called Chemical Valley, where 40 percent of Canada’s petrochemical industry surrounds a 25 kilometer radius of the reserve.

DSC_0009“It is very unjust and unfair,” says Beze Gray. “To the right that’s the U.S. That’s America.  Our people used to be on both sides of this waterway. This used to be the homeland of the whole of Treaty 29 people.”

“Invasive borders were put to our communities that were not originally there. These waters used to be our highways to do trading and go hunting between Lake Huron, Lake Erie and all connecting the Great Lakes. It is actually part of our migration story.”

The industrial complex goes back to early 1800s, when oil was “discovered” just south of Sarnia. “It was actually a cow that stepped into a puddle of oil,” says Beze. “So they built the first refinery on what’s called Oil Springs and named the communities there around oil.”

The smokestack-filled skyline used to be an iconic image of the city printed on the back of an old $10 bill. The chemicals produced there went into gasoline, feedstock, plastics, automotive parts, and even chewing gum.

Aamjiwnaang community elder Mike Plain

Aamjiwnaang community elder Mike Plain

With a modern community centre and a handsome band council building with a roof designed in the shape of a teepee, Aamjiwnaang lies right in the middle of the industrial complex. Giants such as Shell Canada sits to the south, Suncor Energy to the west, Dow and Nova Chemicals to the east, Enbridge to the northeast, and Imperial Oil to the North. The industry employs more than 4,500 people in the area.

“In every which way we were completely surrounded right now. And that little feeling of being unsafe or exposed is how we feel all the time,” says Vanessa Gray.

People live in their worst fears as warnings have long bedeviled the city with occasional text alerts and emergency sirens from across these facilities, on top of regular gas leaks. Today, the indigenous community is disproportionately affected by the cancer-causing emissions, she says. Children grow up with reduced sense of smell. Women have a higher rate of miscarriage and there is a lower life expectancy than the general population.

Lindsay Beze Gray and Vanessa Gray.

Lindsay Beze Gray and Vanessa Gray.

In June 2019, Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, reported preliminary findings that Aamjiwnaang offers a clear picture of discrimination, since Indigenous homes and kindergartens are a stone’s throw away from the chemical industry.
“The condition of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia is deeply unsettling,” said Tuncak, calling its peoples’ exposure to toxins “an ongoing tragedy, a legacy of land use planning that would not be allowable today.”

The municipal council of Sarnia was forced to declared climate emergency the same month.

Despite the bitter air, the bus and walking tour demonstrate the community’s perseverance. The Grays announced a new tool to aid their cause: a new mobile app called the Pollution Reporter that connects those with known health harms based on peer-reviewed medical literature. It records people’s physical reactions if there’s a bad odour or taste in the air.

The app is focused on Imperial Oil – the largest and oldest refinery operating in Sarnia known to have health effects from lead, mercury and benzene  – to start, but plans are to expand to others.

The Grays hope to create a database that could be used to convince the government to take action or as evidence in court cases.

“To live so close to even one company would be alarming but the concentration of self reporting companies is overwhelming.”

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Along the way, community members told their experiences of environmental racism--being poisoned by chemicals and having no appropriate hospital treatment.

Along the way, community members told their experiences of environmental racism–being poisoned by chemicals and having no appropriate hospital treatment.