The sound heard in the above video is the alarm that sounds over the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Reserve to warn of chemical spills and toxic releases. The tragic flaw in this warning system is that there is rarely any follow-up report: no announcement of what was released nor how much and where, not even an “all’s clear” signal. The alarm sounds at least once a week.
Aamjiwnaang — located just outside of the city of Sarnia in Southwestern Ontario — is a reserve of certain bands of Anishinaabe people, who are better known to some as the Chippewa or Ojibwa(y) of North America. Aamjiwnaang is also located in an area known as Chemical Valley. Home to 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry, the Chemical Valley region experiences some of the worst air pollution in Canada. The Aamjiwnaang Reserve, which is surrounded by industry on three sides, bears the brunt of this pollution. Another challenge faced by this community is the lack of legal protection from actions such a dumping of toxic chemicals within the reserve. This situation arises from the way in which environmental legislation is divided between the provincial and federal levels. Under current law, while provinces are responsible for most of the regulation of pollution within their borders, they have little to no power regarding environmental issues on a First Nations reserve. There is a huge risk for pollution of people’s bodies and the land on which they live that comes with being surrounded by petrochemical plants and related facilities. There are over 100 spills in Chemical Valley every single year — spills into the air and water. For generations, many of the First Nations people used the St. Clair River as an additional source of water, but it has now become a toxic chemical stew that cannot be used for human purposes. The constant repetition of chemical spills from the local industrial facilities are most likely a major factor in a number of health concerns for the inhabitants of Aamjiwnaang. Research has shown that toxins of the kind present in the water can cause eye and skin irritations, central nervous system disorders, and respiratory problems such as asthma. Many are known carcinogens that can cause leukemia and other cancers. They can affect blood and bone marrow, leading to anemia, bleeding, and immunosuppression, and can be corrosive to the digestive system, causing esophagitis and gastritis. However, the most notable health concern at Aamjiwnaang that might well be the result of pollution from surrounding industry is the change in ratio of male to female births. The male birth rate has lowered significantly due to effects that, while not entirely understood, have been associated in other locations with the kinds of toxins that occur as by-products of petrochemical facilities. A sad truth about the pollution at Aamjiwnaang is that it is but one chapter in a long story of discrimination and marginalization of First Peoples throughout Canadian history. Through various discriminatory government policies, Anishinaabek (plural of Anishinaabe) have been forced or tricked into giving up land for two centuries, with one result being the location of petrochemical industries all around, and even in between, many parts of the Reserve. The Canadian government created systems to facilitate the manipulation of First Nations peoples; the industries that moved onto Aamjiwnaang’s former land in turn took full advantage of that and continue to do so today, as they get away with violation after violation that is allowed to happen, it seems, only because it happens on the Reserve.
Despite the overwhelming shadow cast by Chemical Valley, there are people working to improve the situation. Two such people are Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge, Aamjiwnaang band members who are currently involved in a lawsuit against the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE) and Suncor Corporation. They are waging this lawsuit because they believe it is a basic human right to step outside one’s home and not breathe air harmful to one’s health. From a legal standpoint, their claim is that certain actions taken by Suncor and permitted by the MOE violate the rights of area residents — both on the Aamjiwnaang reserve and within the city of Sarnia — under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ron, Ada, and their Ecojustice legal team have a long road ahead of them, but their case is a strong voice with potentially transformative effects in this battle for environmental justice.
For another perspective on Aamjiwnaang’s circumstances, read this poem by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht: Life Out of Balance