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In Their Backyard

Turning Indigenous Lands into Toxic Dumps for Canadian Industry

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Indigenous lifestyles are traditionally more linked to land and water than those of the Canadian population at large. Rural communities, especially in the north and west, still depend on country (wild) foods and forestry for livelihood and medicine. Many depend on the land for spirituality and for socio-cultural reasons. From this perspective, industrial pollution has a larger impact on Aboriginal communities.

The impact industrial development and pollution has on the wellbeing of Aboriginal peoples can be seen and measured scientifically as well as socially. Each year, the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI), a body of Environment Canada, reports accounts on each contaminant released by each processing plant and facility throughout the country. Until recently, such figures remained only on obscure governmental websites. When the NPRI completed its GoogleEarth maps in 2006, however, Dr. Laurie Hing Man Chan of the University of Northern British Columbia cross-referenced them with locations of Indigenous communities. His findings are consistent with global trends, showing pollution usually takes place on Indigenous land.

John Schertow (Ahni) of the Haudenosaunee community in Ontario examined Dr. Chan’s data and calculated that, according to a Treasury Board of Canada inventory on contaminated sites, there are 4,464 toxic sites within the treaty territories of Indigenous peoples in Canada. That, he explains, is an average of 1.5 sites for each of Canada’s 2,720 reserves (though in reality some reserves have upwards of a dozen sites).

In the most northern parts of the Northwest Territories, half a dozen industrial facilities have opened in the second half of the twentieth century. Each one is on or immediately adjacent to an Indigenous community. Whenever a new industrial project opens, it is forced to produce environmental assessment reports, but companies often underestimate their impacts or provide incomplete data. Polluting therefore takes place either without the community’s consent, or with incomplete knowledge, leading communities to sign misleading agreements with companies. Typically, this is the case in impoverished, rural areas, whose traditional lifestyles have been destroyed by previous industry.

State Repression

If the facility is built illegally, without any consent or consultation, the community often decides to seek legal help, but is made subject to lengthy and costly litigation. Usually this leads nowhere, or takes so long the corporations begin exploring and polluting before the courts have even seen the full case. Such development is banned by the federal courts, but is allowed to continue because some provincial mining acts give unrestricted extraction rights to anyone over a certain age. Where the government fails to protect communities from industrial exploitation, they are left to defend their people and lands on their own. Resistance often comes in the form of blockades and public awareness-raising campaigns. In cases like the Ardoch Sharbot of eastern Ontario, who attempted peacefully to halt exploration by the Frontenac Mining Corporation, the entire community was criminalized and its leaders were imprisoned.

To highlight the impacts, Dr. Chan listed specific contaminants and the distances between Aboriginal communities to the pollution source. He counted over 130 Indigenous communities living within fifty kilometres of a mercury-polluting facility. He also counted 150 living within the same distance of arsenic-polluting facilities, and the number for lead and cadmium exceeded three hundred.

These chemicals have been shown to cause a whole variety of human health problems, but research is still lacking to show their cumulative or synergic effects. Trying to do so is extremely difficult, says Dr. Michael Gilbertson of the University of Guelph. Having done various testing of contamination on the Aamjiwnaang reserve, near Sarnia, Ontario, he explained that, “testing the cumulative effect of even three substances, logistically, is a very complex thing to do.”

Connecting the Dots

Another obstacle to painting the larger picture is understanding the chemical tendencies of the various contaminants. PCBs for example, used in waxes and adhesives in the 1960s and 70s, travel and build up in colder climates. This means they impact northern communities more than those in warmer climates.

Many chemicals travel through waterways, by which Indigenous communities have historically settled. In June, 2008, Terry Milewski of the CBC reported that sixteen Canadian lakes have been proposed for “reclassification” as tailings dumps, meaning water-borne pollution is only anticipated to increase. This form of state cooperation with industry results in the exclusion of communities impacted both directly and indirectly. It also means massive – yet to a large degree unknown – consequences to environmental health, since such tailing dumps are rarely properly prevented from leaking into their surroundings.

When looking at the overall picture of the effect of Canadian industry on the Indigenous population, dozens of examples come to mind that portray the environmental and human health devastation. Several are particularly noteworthy.

De Beers and Northern Development

In March 2008, De Beers opened Ontario’s first-ever diamond mine some ninety kilometres west of the First Nation of Attawapiskat, by James Bay. The project is adjacent to a handful of Indigenous communities whose soil shows toxic forms of mercury. The company’s by-line, “A Diamond is Forever,” may one day have to include the ending: “and so is its pollution.”

Extracting diamonds releases methylmercury, which builds up in microorganisms living in rivers and lakes. Such organisms are eaten by fish, which are then eaten by mammals. Each step in the food ladder increases the toxin’s concentration in a process called bioaccumulation. Methylmercury exposure is well known to cause birth defects, tremors and cerebral palsy. Other effects include developmental and learning disabilities, known collectively as Congenital Minamata Disease.

But not everyone sees the negatives. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) is an arms-length body of the government. Comprised of selected academics and high-level executives, this body includes representatives from such corporations as General Electric, a long-time polluter in Canada and abroad. NRTEE recently released a report, titled “Aboriginal Communities and Non-Renewable Resource Development.”

“There is every indication that diamond mining and the production of natural gas have opened a new era for resource development,” the report says, predicting that “long-term production of both commodities is likely.” NRTEE cites employment opportunities as the primary benefit to local communities. It does not mention, however, that these are normally short-term, insecure jobs, which, according to De Beers itself, will only benefit 375 people at the peak of production. Nor does it reveal that the processing facility and gravel strip the company is building will have an environmentally destructive impact on the community and the northern environment.

Previous industrial pollution has already impacted two of the local Aboriginal communities in the area, the Asubpeechoseewagong Netum Anishinaabek (Grassy Narrows) and the Wabauskang (Whitedog) First Nations. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Reed Paper and Pulp mill dumped more than 50,000 pounds of mercury into an upstream river. Dr. Leanne Simpson, a long-time advocate of Indigenous rights and a member of the Anishinaabe community, explains that “fish from the river system were a staple in the diet of community members, and consequently families have been dealing with the health impacts of this exposure for the past thirty years. Fishing represented a substantial component of the local economy, and so, when people could no longer eat the fish, they lost their sustenance, their economic security, and their way of life became threatened.”

Environmental groups have been collaborating with the locals to call for a moratorium on mineral exploration. “We demand that the province [of Ontario] begin rigorous monitoring of mercury levels in northern communities and the Boreal Forest and ensure that potential health and environmental impacts of methylmercury are analyzed prior to approving additional industrial operations,” a March press release by one coalition said. This joint force has been recently successful, as its David-and-Goliath battle fought off Montreal-based AbitibiBower from logging on the Native land.

The Lubicon Cree and Northern Alberta

Displacement is another common impact of industry development, usually coinciding with the disappearance of infrastructures required for community health. From water to sewage to healthcare, such deficiencies are exemplified in the case of the Lubicon Cree and the TransCanada pipeline in northern Alberta.

Located 450 kilometres north of Edmonton, the Lubicon Cree is a community of four hundred residing in Little Buffalo. In the early 1980s, the area began to see major changes, as their town witnessed the building of highways to accommodate northern industries. One of the principle effects was the contamination of the community’s natural water sources. A host of health problems was linked to this contamination, including miscarriages, skin and stomach problems.

Fort Chipewayn is situated on the shores of Lake Athabasca, downstream from the largest industrial project in Canada, the Tar Sands. This Native community has begun to demonstrate skyrocketing rates of cancer, which the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada are beginning to examine. The effects of the Tar Sands will be more visible in coming years, as development booms alongside pollution, thanks to emerging free-trade agreements with the U.S. and Mexico.

PCBs and the Akwesasne

Sitting at the intersection of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and the State of New York, is the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne. The community of 12,000 used to depend on St. Lawrence River fish until General Motors, ALCOA and Reynolds Metals opened three aluminum foundries upstream. Since then, cattle have consistently died from fluoride poisoning, and fish have shown high levels of PCBs.

Though PCBs have now been banned in Canada, they persist in the environment because of their inability to biodegrade. Today, the U.S. government’s Environmental Protection Agency warns that fish caught in the Great Lakes demonstrate dangerous levels of PCBs. Because PCBs travel large distances via waterways and the atmosphere, they can pollute far from their source. They can also dissolve in fats, meaning they can enter animal and human cells, affecting the genetic code.

A study released last year in the Journal of Environmental Research explains that, “because so many genes are affected the biological effects can be many and varied.”

Previous research also demonstrates PCBs increase blood fats, force the liver to produce abnormally high levels of fats, and lead to diabetes. This causes “an increase in cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure,” according to a 2004 study. Ultimately these effects can lead to heart disease and death.

Kahnawake, Toluene and Chemical Valley

Also located on the shores of the St. Lawrence is the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake. This community is undergoing an epidemic of a fairly rare and sometimes fatal connective-tissue disease called scleroderma. The disease itself doesn’t normally kill, but compromises the immune system, which then leads to heart, kidney, intestinal damage and, again, death.

Assessments by the Research for Health Project found the reserve also shows high levels of ischemic heart disease (i.e. blood flow is reduced to the heart). Both conditions were shown to reach epidemic levels as a result of exposure to industrial contaminants. Several studies released in the Journal of Current Opinions in Rheumatology show vinyl chloride as the acting agent. Incidentally, the nearby Safety-Kleen Inc. facility has been documented by Canada’s NPRI database to release the toxin.

The National Pollutant Release Inventory also showed the company released 5,000 kilograms of benzene and over 250,000 kilograms of toluene last year. The latter, used in paint thinners, glues and disinfectants, is known to lead to developmental and reproductive disorders. Because of its inability to dissolve in water, the human body can’t clear it out, and instead converts it into its toxic forms.

Chemical Valley

Toluene is also released by Intertape Polymer Group, whose processing plant is located on the border with Sarnia. Alongside fifteen other plants on the American side and 46 more on the Canadian side, the region makes up what is known as the Chemical Valley. Responsible for forty per cent of Canada’s chemical industry and contributing twenty per cent of Ontario’s pollution, Chemical Valley releases roughly six million kilograms of toxic-air pollutants per year. In the middle of this industrial complex are the city of Sarnia and the Indigenous community of Aamjiwnaang.

The University of Guelph’s Dr. Michael Gilbertson has been conducting research in the area for several years. Still, he recognizes that “there’s an enormous amount of work that needs to be done. At the moment, it’s being undertaken essentially on a volunteer basis.” “What we’re doing,” he continues, “is helping the Aamjiwnaang to try and do this work themselves.”

“To properly study the effects is a complex problem. There are all these possible sources of exposure,” Gilbertson says. “What we’re interested in is which chemical and which route of exposure was the one that really brought about what we’ve been observing.”

Referring to the high incidence of Congenital Minamata Disease, cerebral palsy and asbestos-induced illness in the region, Dr. Gilbertson tries to understand the science behind the pollution. “I actually answered the question about whether they had a normal sex ratio. That question really struck a cord with them, when they realized they were getting a disproportionate level of girls to boys.” Gilbertson believes that, “if we can bring [the exposure] under control, hopefully, we’ll not only be able to reverse but actually stop these effects.”

The Need to Fight

The successes of environmental, Indigenous and ally movements are essential, but are also unfortunately few and far between. They can also be misleading. While Grassy Narrows was able to fight off logging in the spring of 2008, it is still left to deal with mining upstream and the legacy of previous industrial pollution. Indigenous communities require long-term, dedicated support from researchers and activists, as the power of their successes rests with the unity of grassroots mobilizations against massive economic players.

The biggest problem is understanding the bigger picture. As allies, we must come to comprehend what Indigenous peoples have long known: unsustainable lifestyles lead to an uncertain future. We must also recognize that, as industry continues to colonize Indigenous land, both through appropriation and pollution, a strong anti-colonial stance must be taken in resistance. This means helping the communities fight at the grassroots, national and international levels – for the sake of our survival, the preservation of Indigenous life on this land, and the health of the planet as a whole.

This article appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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