The Sun Sets Red in Aamjiwnaang: Reflecting Upon the the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s Toxic Tour

A photo of the north-western border of the Aamjiwnaang native reserve, taken by Toban Black).

On Saturday, October 13th, I participated in a Toxic Tour in the community of Aamjiwnaang with tour leaders Vanessa and Beze Gray, members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The Toxic Tour program focuses on the Chemical Valley of Sarnia, Ontario. Vanessa and Beze, who have lived in Aamjiwnaang their entire lives, guided us around the community to highlight the extent to which their nation has been inundated with toxic chemical plants. The Chemical Valley is a petrochemical processing hub and terminal for numerous oil and gas pipelines. Vanessa and Beze explained the enduring and pervasive injustice that all levels of the Aamjiwnaang community face because of the Valley, from elders to children to unborn future generations that will inherit the chemicals that affected their ancestors. This injustice, sanctioned and perpetuated by large companies and the Canadian government, was elucidated by Vanessa and Beze as not merely an Aamjiwnaang problem but a Canadian problem. In their presentation, they talked of the responsibility of all peoples to combat the Chemical Valley’s threat to the natural environment and its violation of Indigenous and human rights to state-protected safety and health. 

As Vanessa and Beze called my tour group to the bus, I became cognizant of an expectation that I was not aware I even held until it was disproven: I realized that I expected my tour leader to be of an older generation. In reality, Vanessa and Beze are only a few years older than me, highlighting the contemporariness of the situation. My shock increased as I heard Vanessa and Beze recount their childhood memories of pulling frog bones out of toxic puddles and believing that the smoke released from chemical plants were actually clouds. Vanessa and Beze are only a few years older than me, yet our childhoods were so drastically different that the abnormality of theirs—because no child, or person at all, should be subjected to such a harmful environment—has directed them to a life of action. This action is signified by their involvement with Toxic Tours, which they created with no budget and built from the ground up. While Vanessa, Beze, and I all underwent the transformation from child to teenager to adult, both Vanessa and Beze also underwent the transformation from victim to agent of change as they began to understand the unfairness and inhumanity of their situation (“Skeletons in the Closet” 19). Just as I, a Filipina immigrant, experience racism in society through harsh and discriminatory comments, Vanessa and Beze also have to deal with racism at home: they face environmental racism wherein their community, denied of its inherent Indigenous rights to land and self-determination, is denied basic ecological rights such as access to clean air and natural resources. They, and the children of the Aamjiwnaang, experience this racism which permeates their home via chemical pollution in addition toracism outside of the home, which is driven by stories of Indigenous deficiency that present Indigenous people as lacking morals, culture, and restraint and thus affect society’s treatment of all Indigenous peoples (Justice 3). 

My past of climbing trees and midnight swims has left scars on my knees, but Beze’s past of crossing a bridge polluted by a chemical that is still unknown to them has left them unable to smell. My family’s past has left me, through genetic inheritance, with a certain kind of nose and shape of eyes, but Vanessa’s family’s past has also left her, through genetic inheritance, with chemicals in her body that do not belong there. While my scars and physical traits can be seen, the effects of the Chemical Valley on Beze’s sense of smell and Vanessa’s body are invisible, just as the chronic violence against Aamjiwnaang is invisible (“Skeletons in the Closet” 17). Because it is invisible, it becomes easily overlooked. It can be sanctioned by the state and allowed to stretch over generations and generations of families, seen, if ever, only in portions (chemical plant by chemical plant) so society never witnesses the horror of the full picture (an overshadowing body of chemical plants) (“Skeletons in the Closet” 17).

It is evident that the Chemical Valley is an example of the use of slow violence in settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a continuous process wherein land is appropriated by a group that stays and establishes new structures that naturalize their governance (Lowman and Barker 24-26). A settler society is most threatened by Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land, particularly because this relationship predates their own and thus gives them more claim over such land (Lowman and Barker 30). In trying to neutralize this threat, settler societies intend for the death of Indigenous peoples “as such”, meaning Indigenous peoples as the first peoples of the land with a history and cultural identity existing independent of and before the settlers’ arrival (Lowman and Barker 30). The result of this attempt can be seen in the gradual diminishing of the Aamjiwnaang community, evident through the higher rates of cancer and numerous other health risks in the area. 

However, settler societies can also work to eliminate this threat by attacking Indigenous peoples’ relationship with their land. In the case of the Aamjiwnaang, the settler society ignores the spiritual or cultural significance of certain spaces to Indigenous peoples by asserting their own spaces which are more focused on business and industry than culture (Lowman and Barker 32). This is exemplified by the overbearing presence of large chemical plants nearby or surrounding the Aamjiwnaang band office and burial ground. The significance of these spaces is disregarded, and thus they are seen as mere pieces of property that can be slotted next to other pieces of property without cultural or spiritual consequences. In doing this, the Indigenous peoples’ relationship to such spaces is disregarded and presented as unimportant. 

Furthermore, by generating so much pollution in the area, the chemical plants cause an obstacle in the relationship of the Aamjiwnaang people and their land. To ensure their safety, the members of the community cannot touch the natural water nor loiter on the grass in Centennial Park. These restrictions, made necessary by the existing toxic chemical plants, can also be seen as the Canadian the settler society’s attempt to interfere with and weaken Indigenous peoples’ relationship with their land.  

As the tour continued and I pondered these thoughts, there was one question that rung the loudest in my mind: What do I do? Or, more specifically, what can I do? Reading about an issue or an injustice online elicits an entirely different reaction from hearing and seeing directly the issue or injustice at hand. I believe that the distance from which one learns about the issue is often mirrored by the distance from which one interacts with it; when I learn about an issue online, I am compelled to raise awareness about it through social media, perhaps sign a petition, but rarely much more. However, when I witness the issue personally, as I did in Aamjiwnaang, I am compelled to make it personal, to engage with the community directly, participate in protests, or do anything more than sit in front of my computer and click a few buttons. 

I understand that perhaps this was a motive behind the Toxic Tours, to make the issue personal to people outside of the Aamjiwnaang community, so that more would be incentivized to join the fight against environmental racism. However, going further, I then asked myself: Why? Why would they want to accomplish this? It was then that I realized it is not simply because more voices speaking in defense of the rights of the Aamjiwnaang community would hold more sway on a sociopolitical level. Rather, as Vanessa asserted, it is because this issue is the responsibility of everyone. The Chemical Valley is negatively affecting fellow peoples, animals, and the land in which we all live; it is not the Aamjiwnaang’s issue but Canada’s issue.

When the tour and presentations reached their end, our tour group climbed back into our school bus and began the drive home. As I picked through my thoughts and emotions, trying to find order in the disorder of my indignance at injustice, admiration for resilience, and gratitude for learning the truth, my friend tapped me on the shoulder and urged me to look at the vivid sunset at our backs. “Someone told me once that pollution causes colourful sunsets,” she said. Indeed, the sky was painted pink and red from one side of the horizon to the other. I thought of how bittersweet it was that the Aamjiwnaang community might see sunsets as brilliant as this one each day while simultaneously living through the ugliness of pollution and industry, the same ugliness that can cause such beauty. I thought that it would be no question that an existence untainted by the ongoing fear of the next life-threatening spill or malfunction would be worth the cost of duller sunsets.

As the school bus rumbled its way back to campus, I realized that the sun sets red in Aamjiwnaang and though, like the community, it is vibrant and beautiful, underlying it is a story of hardship and hurt that cannot be left overlooked. The sun sets red in Aamjiwnaang, and it is a sight I will never forget. 

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