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Council of Canadians in solidarity with Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Maude Barlow and Ron Plain

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow listens to Aamjiwnaang First Nation resident Ron Plain explain the impacts of the petro-chemical industry on local waterways.

The Council of Canadians stands in solidarity with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has stated, “The Aamjiwnaang First Nation is surrounded on three sides by toxic-belching industries and on the fourth by a Michigan coal plant. They are grappling with high levels of cancer, headaches, numbness and many other ailments that have brought them international attention in the last decade. Their water supply has been so contaminated by the petro-chemical industry that two girls are born for every boy. Under the obligation to protect – won with the United Nations recognition of the human right to water – governments must step in to ensure that third parties such as corporations or extractive industries aren’t destroying local water systems.”

There are 60 industrial facilities found within a 25 kilometre radius of Aamjiwnaang lands, located on the southern tip of Lake Huron. Approximately 40 per cent of Canada’s petro-chemical industry is clustered in the area, which is why it’s often referred to as Chemical Valley. The average life expectancy in the community is 55 years of age. Forty per cent of band members require an inhaler. A study conducted in 2004-05 found that 39 per cent of women in Aamjiwnaang had suffered through at least one stillbirth or miscarriage. Residents of Aamjiwnaang have been calling for more detailed research to further establish the connection between the pollutants and these health issues, but funding has not been forthcoming from the federal and provincial governments.

The petro-chemical industry also impacts the health and safety of workers and the residents of Sarnia. The cancer rate in the area is estimated to be 34 per cent higher than the provincial average, the lung cancer rate is 50 per cent higher, the mesothelioma rate five times higher and the asbestosis rate nine times higher. A study by Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith, formerly of Sarnia’s Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, found “an average 42 per cent increase in risk [to develop breast cancer] for women who work for 10 years in environments with high exposure to carcinogens and hormone disrupting chemicals.”

In May 2012, Barlow, water campaigner Emma Lui, organizer Mark Calzavara and members of our London chapter visited the Aamjiwnaang First Nation during our Great Lakes Need Great Friends speaking tour. Lui wrote, “While we were there, one of the flares at NOVA Chemicals was spewing black smoke. We could smell the fumes in the air and even taste them in our mouths. The black smoke, headed towards the Aamjiwnaang community and Sarnia, was a stark contrast to the beautiful blue sky dotted with white clouds.”

In December 2012, we expressed our solidarity with their blockade of CN rail lines near Sarnia. They were taking this action to pressure Prime Minister Stephen Harper to meet with Chief Theresa Spence, who was on hunger strike at that time. In March 2013, Lui and Calzavara participated in the ‘Toxic Tour’ in Sarnia and at Aamjiwnaang. The tour was organized by Aamjiwnaang & Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP) to highlight the impact of the petro-chemical industries on Indigenous peoples and workers. The tour included Imperial Oil, the Suncor and Shell refineries, and concluded at the Aamjiwnaang community centre.

And in October 2014, Calzavara highlighted findings in the annual report by the Environment Commissioner of Ontario. That report stated, “Despite decades of work fighting for government accountability and for an end to new air emission approvals, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation still faces a number of unknowns about their past and present exposure to toxic airborne chemicals. …Such a situation would be intolerable for any community, but in light of the particular historical context of this case, it is truly shameful.”

To watch a 30-minute Vice Media video on Chemical Valley, please click here.

Photo: Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow listens to Aamjiwnaang First Nation resident Ron Plain explain the impacts of the petro-chemical industry on local waterways.