Arriving in Sarnia at night, an orange glow greets you and extends its embrace. It hovers permanently over the city. As you approach, it spreads beyond the pines, beyond the fields, over the road. You gaze upwards, wondering when you will reach its edge. It feels like entering a twilight zone. You are then met with a bouquet of strange scents. Rotten eggs, decaying onions, burning gasoline, and many more that don’t compare to anything you’ve ever smelled before.
Such a grisly welcome would turn away most visitors. But, in the heart of Canada’s Chemical Valley – an industrial complex of 46 petrochemical plants – rests a home and a haven for over 850 Anishinabek peoples: a 3000 acres patch of land where trees still reign tall and where the occasional deer and wild turkeys roam freely in the bushes. By continuously safeguarding this territory, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation prevents it from suffering a dismal fate, one where its value would rest in the money that can be made from its exploitation rather than the lives it spawns.
Most days in Aamjiwnaang go by quietly, as they do elsewhere in Canada. Workers tend to their jobs, kids go to school. Teenagers hang in basements playing video games, their younger siblings run around in the backyards. Meals are cooked and shared, stories told. Years pass. A grandfather turns fifty as his granddaughter graduates high school. Football championships are lost, baseball games won.
All these - the slumber parties, the bonfires, the family gatherings – take place in the looming shadows of chemical plants. Full of youthful imagination, children pretend that the smokestacks are cloudmakers. Worried parents sniff the air, hoping that no invisible substance glides by.
In 1985, a perchlorethylene “blob” poured into the St-Clair river, rendering the waterway an “Area of Concern”. In 1992, a benzene leak threatened the safety of infants resting at the daycare, then located directly across from a polymer plant. The next year, a toluene release forced residents to leave their home at the break of dawn. A decade later, a mercaptan leak led community members to the hospital with nausea, headaches, sore throats and swollen eyes.
These are but a few of the more serious releases that have happened in past decades. Everyday, toxic industrial compounds seep into the air, water and ground. No one is exactly sure of what the consequences of their gradual accumulation might be. A community health concern survey showed alarming rates of cancer and respiratory diseases, and scientific studies have correlated high levels of toxins with decreased male births.
Though a refuge, their surroundings also act as a constant reminder of what they’ve lost, of the atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous communities in the country, and of the enduring injustices they come up against. Behind each towering smokestack is a legacy of scorn; each wailing siren acts as an omen, warning us that we continue to disfigure and destroy the beautiful yet haunting landscape Aamjiwnaang residents call both prison and home.
Our Grandfathers Were Chiefs
Photos by Laurence Butet-Roch
Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Ontario