Toxic Colonialism

Reviewed by Warren Cariou

It is no accident that some of the most devastated and toxic environments in North America are located near Indigenous communities. The Fort McKay First Nation is a well-known example, situated in the midst of vast bitumen mining operations that affect the community members in myriad ways, compromising their health and interfering with their traditional harvesting practices. In Fort McKay, the proximity of environmental threat is shockingly visible since the surrounding bitumen mines have literally torn the earth apart. But in other locations, the environmental damage to Indigenous communities is more insidious. One example can be found by tracing the flow of bitumen from Fort McKay through pipelines stretching more than halfway across the continent to the Aamjiwnaang Anishinabek Nation. This community is located beside Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley,” which contains the highest concentration of chemical manufacturing plants in Canada. The people of Aamjiwnaang live with the constant threat of catastrophic spills and with many unanswered questions about long-term effects of lower-level exposures to petroleum-based chemicals. Sarah Marie Wiebe’s well-researched and penetrating analysis provides a long-overdue look at this neglected story of colonial violence and embodied Indigenous resistance. Based on extensive time spent in the community learning directly from Aamjiwnaang’s citizens and experiencing the community’s pollution crisis in an embodied and empathetic way, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the legacies of environmental racism in Canada today.

Wiebe examines Aamjiwnaang’s particular history of what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” through several different approaches, and the result is part academic study of colonial biopolitics, part intervention in Canadian public health policy, and part witnessing of embodied environmental damage. The different strands of argumentation do not always sit easily together, with the more abstract discussions of political theory in the opening chapters likely to turn off non-specialist readers. However, those who do persist will be rewarded with the nuanced and harrowing accounts of life in Aamjiwnaang presented in later chapters. The core of the study is Chapter 4, which presents many first-person narratives told by community members, reflecting on the people’s close proximity to the toxic petrochemicals that are processed and contained in their locale. To read these stories is to be brought face to face with the unequal distribution of environmental risk in Canada, and with the colonial underpinnings of that inequality. The stories often emphasize the sensory experience of toxic colonialism, giving us embodied perspectives on environmental threat. Community member Elle describes the airborne pollution by saying, “you can see it. You can smell it. It affects the breathing, your sense of smell . . . We’re always going to be sick people.” Another Aamjiwnaang citizen, Steve, describes the warning siren that sounds whenever a potentially dangerous leak has occurred: “[T]he sound wave hits you, hits me; I could feel it vibrating my entire body from the inside out.” Indeed, after toxic exposure, the body can be affected without any outward signs. A controversial 2005 study of Aamjiwnaang’s birth statistics showed a “rapid decline in the percentage of live male births” between 1993 and 2003, signalling what is potentially a major threat to the community’s long-term survival. The latter sections of Everyday Exposure examine the public health policy issues raised by this study and the Canadian government’s lack of response. Wiebe argues for “an experiential, affective, place-based approach to public policy,” and she provides the research in this book as a basis for such policy.

With the possibility of such insidious effects on reproduction and other long-term health problems, in addition to the threat of catastrophic industrial accidents nearby, it is no surprise that the Anishinabek of Aamjiwnaang carry a sense of alarm within themselves, becoming hypervigilant of what is happening in their own bodies, and wondering what dangerous symptoms might eventually become visible. The sense of intimate menace in the book is augmented by the inclusion of extraordinary photographs by Laurence Butet-Roch, which present uncanny juxtapositions of Chemical Valley smokestacks and Aamjiwnaang backyards. Despite the forbidding atmosphere, Butet-Roch’s photographs and Wiebe’s narrative also show that the people of Aamjiwnaang are far from being passive recipients of slow violence. Their efforts in citizen monitoring projects and political actions are presented here as empowered and even inspiring responses to their situation. In defending their land and their own bodies against petrocolonial incursion, these Anishinabek are following their traditional teachings, acting in the best interest of the coming generations.

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