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The History of Canada  Is a History of Oil Illustration by Ashley Floréal.

The History of Canada Is a History of Oil

David Huebert reviews Sarah Marie Wiebe’s Everyday Exposure.

The street names of Sarnia tell the story of a meeting place between oil, Anishinabek culture, and settler colonialism—Tashmoo Avenue intersects Churchill Road, Indian Road crosses Confederation Street, Tecumseh Road cuts through Petrolia Line. Between Vidal Street and the St. Clair River, in the core of Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley,” barn-sized cylindrical storage tanks hunch under power lines, bordered by ten-foot-tall fences crowned with barbed wire. The white paint on the tanks is peeling, exposing great patches of rusting iron that look akin to open, infected wounds. Beneath the logos of Esso and Imperial Oil, signs on the fences read “No Trespassing Entry Prohibited.”

As Sarah Marie Wiebe explains in her new book, Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley, this is the centre of the Canadian petrochemical industry—sixty-two petrochemical refining facilities within twenty-five square kilometres. Forty percent of Canada’s chemical manufacturing takes place in this small enclave of southwestern Ontario, a place that “Bob,” one of Wiebe’s pseudonymous interviewees, characterizes as the very “heart” of Turtle Island. Spills and leaks are commonplace and the constant orange glow of the night sky is often punctuated by flaring as refineries burn tail gas and other excess product. Ecological crises occur with troubling regularity: a glob of perchlorethylene leaked into the St. Clair river in 1985; a benzene leak plumed through the sky and rained ash onto infants at the Aamjiwnaang daycare in 1992; a discharge of toluene caused an evacuation of Aamjiwnaang in 1993. In 2013, a mercaptan release “led community members to the hospital with nausea, headaches, sore throats and swollen eyes.” Every Monday at 12:30 pm, emergency sirens are tested, wailing through the area as a stark reminder of calamities past and future.

The Vidal Street refineries are a stone’s throw away from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, an Anishinabek community of about 850 surrounded by petrochemical processing plants. The residents of Aamjiwnaang, Wiebe’s book explains, live their daily lives amid noises “akin to the sound of jets taking off,” the “worst air quality in the country,” and prolonged exposure to chemicals like benzene, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide, a substance known to lead to “brainstem toxicity” and “cardiorespiratory arrest.” Physical health concerns in the area include “diabetes, thyroid issues, asthma, skin rashes, high cancer rates, neurological, reproductive, and developmental concerns, and a declining male birth rate, in addition to the loss of cultural practices.”

Aamjiwnaang First Nation community member Ada Lockridge—who has been involved in community activism and health studies and has partnered with the charitable law firm Ecojustice to challenge a violation of charter rights—affirms that the occurrence of mental and physical illness is disproportionately high in Aamjiwnaang. “We’re seeing a lot of cancers,” she says. “There’s a lot of depression and anxiety issues because of that.” For Lockridge, one key issue is getting proper environmental education into local schools: “The schools around here… don’t know what to do in a chemical emergency.”

Aamjiwnaang’s traditional burial ground, like the reserve itself, is bordered on all sides by processing facilities, where the regular rumble of giant machines makes elders worry that the spirits of the dead are trapped, unable to move on to the next world. Though Aamjiwnaang residents would be justifiably tempted to leave this place, as Lockridge puts it, “All my relatives are here. The cemetery is here. All my former loved ones are here.”

One thing you aren’t likely to hear about in the discourse surrounding Canada 150 is how neatly the history of this nation grafts onto the history of oil. The Anishinabek peoples in the area had long known about the black ooze that gurgled up from the gum beds in the region now known as Lambton County, and Anishinabek guides had shown the oil to settlers like John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. According to historian Gary May, oil became an official commodity after the chemist Thomas Sterry Hunt detailed the properties of Lambton crude in his 1849–50 Geological Survey. In the mid-nineteenth century, brothers Charles and Henry Tripp entered the Enniskillen swamp and attempted to make asphalt from the bitumen they found. Entrepreneur James Miller Williams was the first person to dig for oil in Lambton county, striking a well of crude at a depth of fifteen and a half metres in the summer of 1858, releasing a sulphurous rotten-egg reek into the forest. Making his discovery a full year before Edwin L. Drake’s famous find in Titusville, Pennsylvania, it was in the Enniskillen swamp that Williams became “the world’s first oil man.”

Williams’ find led to a series of others in a corner of Enniskillen that would come to be known as “Oil Springs.” But within a few years those reserves had been drained and speculators were moving north to a more promising site called “Petrolia,” a fledgling community of haphazard shanties Christina Burr describes in her 2014 book Canada’s Victorian Oil Town. By 1866, Petrolia had become a bustling frontier town, its horizons peppered with three-pole derricks built from hastily hewn logs. Walkways ran thick with oil and teamsters hauled barrels sixteen kilometres north through a “canal” of mud in the deep bush. Their destination was the rail station in Wyoming, Ontario, where barrels of crude could be sold and shipped by train to refineries in the area. The county’s oil was renowned for its foul, distinctive, skunky odour. Oil-smellers roamed the area sniffing the ground for the trace of oil and marching around with “dowsing rods” made from willow branches, waiting for the mysteries of the earth to reveal themselves. To navigate the oil fields, workers used mucking poles to vault from log to log. Gushers boomed fifty feet into the sky, raining down on the fields and clogging nearby Black Creek, the oil sometimes sitting a full foot thick on the river’s ice for miles at a stretch. Speculators opened great chasms in the earth with rudimentary torpedoes made from nitroglycerine. Massive, uncontainable oil fires regularly burned for weeks at a time. The young town was nothing less than pandemonium.   

Petrolia was incorporated as a village on December 13, 1866. Canada became a nation on July 1, 1867. The confluence of the birth of the Canadian oil industry and the foundation of Canada would seem uncanny if it didn’t make so much sense: the township of Enniskillen, the heart of the Lambton oil boom, remains part of an ongoing land claim. The Anishinabek peoples of Aamjiwnaang, Walpole Island and Kettle Point argue that the land sold to prospectors during the Enniskillen oil boom was “held in trust” for them by the federal government. The land needed for the refineries around Aamjiwnaang was also purchased through what Lockridge calls “questionable land sales” that continue to be disputed. The history of Canada is the history of settler colonialism, slick with oil.

Wiebe’s book orbits around a governing set of data: a 2005 study of the birth rates in Aamjiwnaang that revealed a troubling “decline in male birth rates in the community.” The drop appears to be tied to longstanding exposure to petrochemicals. The author’s key term is “environmental reproductive justice,” a basic human right that, she argues, has been denied to citizens of Aamjiwnaang.

Wiebe provides a thorough history of Canadian policies on settler/Indigenous relations since confederation before telling the story of mid-twentieth-century land claims in Sarnia, where oil companies acquired Aamjiwnaang property through processes that “remain controversial to this day.” After outlining some of the many ways the current system has failed Indigenous communities, Wiebe suggests that “Indigenous law” can and should “coexist with legislative and common law systems” and that First Nations should have the autonomy to control their lived environments.

Wiebe’s policy suggestions are mostly theoretical and aspirational—rather than offering specific suggestions, Everyday Exposure advances a broad plea for a shift in how we think about policy and governmentality.  Advancing the thesis that Canadian policy-making should shift towards an affective, decolonial and place-based approach she calls “sensing policy,” Wiebe’s study weaves the local story of toxicity in Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang with a broader call for “ecological citizenship,” modelled on the resistance work undertaken by residents of Aamjiwnaang. When Lockridge and fellow activist Ron Plain went to court against Suncor through Ecojustice, Lockridge’s claims were discounted because she was not an “expert witness.” This is an example of precisely the policy impasse that Wiebe wants to rethink—local voices being silenced by the settler-colonial legal system because their knowledge doesn’t align with a Eurocentric notion of expertise.

Wiebe begins, ends and interrupts her own written text with stirring photo essays from Laurence Butet-Roch’s online photography project, “Our Grandfathers Were Chiefs”—photos of stark refinery scenery, eerie nighttime glow, children playing baseball in front of massive ladder-thatched spires at the Suncor facility. The author also includes poems from Aamjiwnaang community members and builds much of her analysis on interviews with locals.

While the Athabasca oil sands are the obvious centre of the Canadian oil industry, Everyday Exposure reveals a quieter site of toxicity, not so far from Canada’s national metropole, Toronto. Alerting readers to the ways invisible chemicals “penetrate” bodies at Aamjiwnaang raises broader questions about the nefariousness and insidiousness of the petrochemical industry in a region and a country founded on oil.

Growing up in Halifax, my own experience of everyday exposure took place through the Tufts Cove Generating Station and the now-closed Imperial Oil Refinery, both of which were located across the harbour, in Dartmouth. I recall driving with my father, as a child of ten or eleven, past the refinery at night. Though I had no idea what the place was, I was dazzled by its space-age towers and hissing smoke and blaring sodium lights.

The very fact that Halifax’s most toxic centres are located in its less charismatic sister city signals the all-too-common correlation between everyday exposure and racialized or marginalized communities. The generating stations and oil refineries sit safely across the harbour from Halifax’s affluent South End and rapidly gentrifying North End. The Tufts Cove Generating Station is located on the site of the former Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove, which was destroyed when a French Cargo ship full of munitions exploded in 1917, an incident now known as the Halifax Explosion. Rather than rebuilding Turtle Grove, the province allowed for the building of a power station.   

These kinds of industrial incursions are common across Canada. In Northern Alberta, oil sands run-off has fouled the Athabasca river and led to toxic living conditions for the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree in Fort Chipewyan. Northern Ontario’s Grassy Narrows First Nation has been living with contaminated water resources since the Dryden paper mill leaked ten tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon and English rivers through the 1960s, an environmental travesty the Ontario government finally pledged to clean up in June 2017. Facing an increase in Lake Melville’s methyl mercury levels caused by Nalcor Energy’s Muskrat Falls Generating Project, the Nunatsiavut of Labrador have refused to accept a compensation plan, opting instead to instigate a Harvard University study to monitor current and future mercury levels in Lake Melville’s fish supply.

In Nova Scotia, the ENRICH Project has developed an interactive map to show how toxic industries, waste disposal sites and thermal generating stations have been disproportionately located near Mi’kmaq and Black communities. Such projects not only draw attention to government and industry sloughing their waste onto marginalized communities, they also expose the insidious and often invisible effects of industrial waste—the banality of the toxic. While privileged, upwardly mobile urbanites rarely see, smell or directly encounter the detritus of their daily energy needs, underprivileged communities bear the burden of toxicity.

It’s easy to think of Chemical Valley as apocalyptic—even the name smacks of catastrophe. In an article for Vice, Patrick McGuire describes Sarnia as a “Blade Runner-esque dystopia” smelling like “a potent mix of gasoline, melting asphalt, and the occasional trace of rotten egg.” After spending two full days in Sarnia, including a walk-through of Chemical Valley and a tour of Aamjiwnaang, I didn’t notice any particularly strange or noxious smells. (Wiebe also emphasizes the “bouquet of strange scents” and the city’s “orange glow.”) While I’ve heard that some days the wind is stronger and the emissions are worse, describing Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang in dystopian terms can tend towards apathy or fetishism rather than addressing the realities of suffering and toxicity.

It’s important that this place is treated not as science fiction but as the heart of a traditional territory. The story of Aamjiwnaang is also a story of resilience and activism. Locals have begun to mobilize by tracking the residues of toxicity in their own lives, using techniques such as “body-mapping” and “biomonitoring”—watching their bodies for the effects of pollution, and marking on a body map the pollution-related injuries they suffer—and road blockades to, as Wiebe writes, “make their environment and home a better, safer place.” One local, Vanessa Gray, has protested at energy conferences in Sarnia and been charged for shutting off a valve on Enbridge’s controversial bitumen pipeline, Line 9. In August 2017, the environmental activist organization Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP) organized a “Water Gathering and Toxic Tour Event,” the latest in a series of events designed to build awareness about conditions in the community. On ASAP’s website,, residents can report a spill and receive updates on current ecological dangers in the area.

Though Aamjiwnaang is a singular site of concern, no place is safe from the insidious and omnipresent seepages of the petroleum industry. Releasing mercury into the St. Clair River, as Dow Chemical did for many years, is particularly bad for Aamjiwnaang, but good for no one. As James Tully writes in his foreword to Everyday Exposure, policy reconfiguration of the type Wiebe advocates is not optional: “the choice is change or self-destruction.”

The irrefutable, black-and-white logic of this statement becomes murkier when we consider Canada’s ongoing economic dependence on petroleum. Today, Canadian crude is mostly extracted in northern Alberta before being moved by pipeline to Eastern Canada where it’s refined and exported, mainly to the United States. In 2013, mining and oil and gas extraction made up about 8 percent of Canada’s nominal GDP. In 2014, for the fifth consecutive year, crude oil was Canada’s largest primary energy product, with 57.7 percent of Canada’s primary energy production heading to the US and other export markets. The energy sector accounts for about a quarter of a million jobs in Canada.

For workers in towns like Sarnia, though, hazardous conditions and bare-minimum safety maintenance often mean that although the money is good, the risk is greater—plant employees often die in their fifties from chemical exposure. An overlapping set of problems plagues oil sands labourers in Northern Alberta, many of whom are migrants from other parts of Canada. Beyond the standard dangers of working in the remote camps of the extraction industry, common struggles for oil sands workers include sexual and emotional isolation, drug use, boredom and mental health issues. The paycheque, however sizeable, doesn’t come cheap.    

Everyday Exposure doesn’t lay out a road map for how to transition into a post-petroleum world—Wiebe is more interested in a theoretical shift. Readers looking for more direct transitional solutions might look first to recent works such as After Oil (2015), a publication of the Petrocultures Research Group, or The Biobased Economy: Biofuels, Materials, and Chemicals in the Post-Oil Era (2010). As the authors of After Oil suggest, petroleum culture is so bound up with capitalism that it is difficult to conceive of true energy transition without a radical reformulation of national and international society. This may be part of the reason why Wiebe begins at the foundations, seeking to change the national culture of mind to make room for new ways of thinking.

Because who, in the end, prefers flaring and silos and constant rumbling and bleating forklifts to Carolinian forest, goldenrod, wild grasses, chirping warblers? Who prefers a toxic world?