Environmental Racism: A Story of the Aamjiwnaang and Ontario’s “Chemical Valley”

‘Environmental Racism’ is often used to describe the way marginalised communities (i.e. Blacks and First Nations) are forced to live in spaces which are dangerous, polluted, or ecologically unstable.  This could include living in floodplains, near toxic landfills, or next to large-scale mining areas, nuclear power plants, and petro-chemical facilities.  In Canada, a perfect example of this can be found in Sarnia, Ontario.


Source: https://greatlakesenvironmentaljustice.wordpress.com/aamjiwnaang/

Over 40% of Canada’s petro-chemical refining and production occurs in Sarnia.  From here, refined oil, natural gas, and chemical products are sent into the U.S. and across the world, traveling via railroad and tankers through the Great Lakes.  Great quantities of corn are also grown here, and are used to produce ethylene co-products which are used in natural gas products.  Other countries send petrochemical products to Sarnia for further refining, to be used in many of the products we depend on – synthetic rubber, vinyl, and industry-grade plastics.[1]  Petro-chemicals even play a part in the ‘foods’ we eat, such as chewing gum!  Some of the synthetic materials found in gum are produced in Sarnia – including synthetic rubber compounds, petroleum wax, polyethylene, and synthetic paraffin wax.[2]


Source: www.greatlakesenvironmentaljustice.wordpress.com

The concentration of petro-chemical facilities in Sarnia’s chemical valley comes with some severe costs.  These costs include noxious odours, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment, increased volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, greenhouse gases, acid rain risks, land and water contamination, spills, and storage mishaps.[3] In Sarnia, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation carries the brunt of these costs.  Environmental racism is alive and well here!


Source: www.nationalobserver.com

Up to the late 1880s, Aamjiwnaang traditional territory covered a vast area of land around Lake Huron and Lake Erie.  Their population numbered over 15,000 people.  The French knew them as Ojibwe, while the British called them Chippewa.[4] War between the British and the French, cholera and smallpox took its toll, and by 1827 the Aamjiwnaang population was reduced to 440 in Ontario and 275 in Michigan. Their territory was reduced to around 25,000 acres.  Today, the Aamjiwnaang are primarily confined to a small parcel of land in the Sarnia area which is surrounded by petro-chemical facilities.  The community numbers around 800 people, although many members are living off-Reserve.


The Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia’s south end is sandwiched between two oil refineries, Suncor Energy in the foreground, and Shell Canada at top. Glenn Ogilvie. Source: http://www.thesarniajournal.ca

On Sunday, August 21, I had the opportunity to participate in the community’s annual ‘Toxic Tour’ and Aamjiwnaang Water Gathering event.  The community holds this event each year in order to educate others on what is happening here.  These are some of the pictures I took during the day:


A view of refineries located near the sacred burial grounds of the Aamjiwnaang.  Today, these facilities keep cameras and warning sirens in this space – even though the Aamjiwnaang believe it is disrespectful and dishonours their ancestors.  It is clear that the cultural needs of the community are not being recognised or considered!  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


This plaque memorialises the workers (mainly French) who lived in the Blue Water community.  These residents were relocated when it became clear the area was too dangerous for them to live in.  Residents of the Reserve did not receive this same help, and are forced to live here to this day, despite the fact they are living in the same conditions!  Interestingly, the back of this plaque contains the names of every Blue Water resident – even though they had not died, and only moved into Sarnia… Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


One of the many views the Aamjiwnaang ‘enjoy’ looking out from their Reserve borders.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


The old steel-workers plant and stack can be seen here.  The land this plant is built on has been proven to be stolen native land.  Despite this, the Aamjiwnaang are unable to reclaim this property.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


Shell facilities feature in the background, as seen from the Aamjiwnaang resource centre and past primary and pre-school located on the edge of the Reserve.  The school was moved when it was recognised that benzene emissions were causing many respiratory and asthma problems for the children.  Despite this move, Shell failed to report excessive emissions in 2013, and many of the Aamjiwnaang children were taken to hospital – where they were misdiagnosed with simple influenza.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


The Imperial Oil refineries can be seen here.  These facilities are the oldest in the area – Imperial Oil first established itself in the Sarnia area in 1880.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


The Shell refinery, as seen from the Aamjiwnaang Reserve (marked by the painted wooden stakes).  Shell remains problematic for the community, due to inadequately announced spills and emission releases.  The Aamjiwnaang live in daily fear of hearing sirens announcing containment failures.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


Many of the containment tanks surrounding the Reserve are unmarked and/or outdated.  The materials being held here are not public knowledge.  Transparency remains a tantamount issue for the Aamjiwnaang community.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


The old school on the Aamjiwnaang Reserve, with the Shell Refinery in the background.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


The abandoned Welland Chemical facility, located on the Aamjiwnaang Reserve.  This company produced anhydrous aluminum chloride.  Workers there suffered high rates of cancers, due to improper storage and exposure to dangerous chemicals and asbestos.  High levels of copper, nickel, lead strontium, and cobalt can still be found in the foliage and water surrounding the area.[5]  In 1995, Welland closed its doors due to prolonged labour disputes.  They left behind a toxic landscape which remains contaminated and unusable.  A tailing pond in the rear of the property was filled weekly with goldfish, in order to show that no further cleanup was needed by Welland.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


Ankijig pond, located in the Aamjiwnaang Reserve.  This pond, like Talfourd Creek is being actively tested for high rates of mercury, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.  Vanessa Gray, a member of the community, has been testing local waterways with the help of organisations like Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians.[6]  The community has placed signs on the Reserve waterways warning residents of the health dangers from these contaminated waters.  Image Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


Members of the Toxic Tour 2016 participating in prayers and tobacco offerings to the water at Ankijig Pond.  Image Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.


Sign at the Aamjiwnaang community center, established in 1972.  Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.

The Aamjiwnaang Reserve is surrounded by more than 60 petro-chemical facilities.  Markers designating pipelines are too numerous to count.  Some of the better known companies include Imperial Oil, Dow Chemical, Shell, Suncor, NOVA, Praxair, Enbridge, and Bayer.   Community members live daily with the threat of sirens indicating spills and accidents.  The smell in the air is overwhelming, carrying overtones of rotten eggs and petroleum.  Carcinogenic benzene compounds in the air remain a constant threat to everyone.


Source: www.vice.com

Numerous studies over the past several decades have shown that the Aamjiwnaang suffer much higher than acceptable rates of cancers, respiratory ailments and reproductive disorders.  Women on the Reserve have a 39% miscarriage rate.  Community members remain unable to engage in traditional fishing and hunting activities, due to concerns over chemical contamination.  An extraordinary number of children and adults suffer from asthma.  Despite all of this, life in Sarnia is business as usual.  Chemical companies continue to jockey for new facilities and more space.  For more on these issues, check out  http://www.chatelaine.com/health/canadas-toxic-town/.

The needs and concerns of the Aamjiwnaang are largely ignored.  Environmental Racism continues to show its ugly face.  New efforts for petro-chemical growth now include Line 9 construction efforts.


Source: www.pinterest.com

As Canadians, we need to make some hard decisions!  Is the convenience of products such as chewing gum, foaming shaving cream and chapstick worth the harm on the environment and people they cause?  Do we really need to use our cars for that trip to the corner store?  Does the economic value of new tar sands pipelines, including Line 9, Keystone, and Northern Gateway overshadow the potential for environmental degradation and harm to marginalised communities? As long as we continue to use our resources without thought to what our actions will do to others, communities like the Aamjiwnaang will continue to suffer needlessly.  If this blog speaks to you at all, please take some time to learn about the issues surrounding Line 9 here in Ontario.  For more information, start by checking out this link:  http://www.stopline9-toronto.ca/index.php.


Source: www.rabble.ca

Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity, making the Invisible, Visible!


[1] https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/chemicals-chimiques.nsf/eng/bt01135.html

[2] http://nca.files.cms-plus.com/residentcourse/week1/rescoursewk1ch5agum.pdf

[3] https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/chemicals-chimiques.nsf/eng/bt01135.html

[4] http://www.aamjiwnaang.ca/history/

[5] https://archive.org/stream/phytotoxicologys2072vasiuoft#page/n3/mode/2up

[6] http://www.theobserver.ca/2015/07/28/vanessa-and-lindsay-gray-have-received-25000-for-their-study

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