Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Chemical Valley or Death Valley?

Over the last two months, Canada and the US have celebrated Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, both festivals that have traditionally been used to push an uncritical narrative on the colonization of North America. In recent years, however, people have started to use these occasions to think a bit more skeptically about the situation, and acknowledge that the founding of these countries necessitated the taking of Native American and First Nations (Native Canadian) land.
What tends to be less examined is that this taking continues today in a host of ways, and has spread around the world to incorporate our entire globalized societal system. Every day our economic system takes resources away from people who have little, and redistributes them to people who already have a lot – through taxes, prisons, badly-paid jobs, corporate subsidies, and so on. The vast majority of people and nations are losing, while a small elite is cashing in.
Certain groups suffer the effects of this even more than the rest of us – visible minorities, such as black people in America, are much more likely to be imprisoned; women in developing countries are more likely to be working in sweatshops and electronics factories for a few cents an hour. But perhaps no-one continues to suffer quite as badly as the original victims of this system, the Native Americans of the US and the First Nations of Canada.
This fact recently came to the front of my attention when reading about the so-called ‘chemical valley’ in Southern Ontario, Canada. This is a strip of industrial settlements centred around the town of Sarnia, just over the US border to the north of Detroit. Sarnia has over sixty petro-chemical plants and oil refineries based around it, and the environment is, unsurprisingly, toxic. And right in the middle of it? A First Nations reserve. There is a First Nations cemetery lodged up right next to a chemical plant, a small group of trees among which the dead can rest, surrounded by examples of what was done to the land taken from them by the settlers of North America.
It’s not just that their land has been taken from them, built on, and polluted. Their health has also been damaged, and with it, their economic chances. Birth rates in the area are increasingly strange, with 67% of new born babies being girls and only 33% being boys. This abnormally high gender ratio will obviously have an impact on community relations in the years to come. However, the First Nations in the area are powerless to change things and resigned to their fate. When asked about the situation, one resident stated “seeing those facilities every day, it’s not a big deal and we’re so used to being abused . . . it’s too hard to think about it every day”.
Clearly, this is a case of environmental injustice, with the land of Native Canadians devalued, degraded, and destroyed for the benefit of a modern capitalist society. The First Nations have lost their land, their livelihoods, their self-reliance, and perhaps even their future. And all for what? An industrial consumer society that really only benefits the few at the expense of the many. At NRGLab and the Ana Shell Fund, we want to see situations like this reversed – we want to see environmental justice achieved, and the rights of all groups respected equally. Our aim is to find innovative solutions to the problems that situations like these throw up – if you have the skills and enthusiasm to help, let us know.
[ chemical plant, Chemical Valley, chemical valley Southern Ontario, colonization of North America, Columbus Day,  Death Valley, electronics factories, environmental injustice,  First Nations land, incorporate system, nrglab ]

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