Place Politics: Ecological Citizenship in Canada’s Chemical Valley

by Sarah Wiebe

Entrance to Sarnia

I grew up in Belcarra, a bucolic village on the Burrard Inlet outside of Vancouver, on the Indian Arm of the Pacific Ocean. This place has multiple meanings, narratives and silent histories. As a graduate student, I began to revisit the relationship I had to the place where I was raised. As a teenager I spent several summers volunteering as a Beachkeeper in Belcarra Park, informing tourists about environmentally-friendly beach behaviour. The plight of Indigenous peoples in the area was never part of my training for this role.

Today, I recognize the privilege associated with the ability to consider this space my home. Reflection on privileged spaces, citizenship and marginalized narratives informs my interest in Indigenous issues, illuminates tensions between race and place in Canada, and cultivates my engagement with some of the silences within Canadian politics and public policy.

Across from reserve

Bodies guide us into space. How we experience, interpret, and understand space constitutes political place. My present doctoral research takes me to an Indigenous community located within Canada’s “Chemical Valley” at the tip of Lake Huron near Sarnia, Ontario. Adjacent to the highest concentration of petrochemical production in Canada, 62 heavy industrial facilities frame the landscape of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation on both sides of the Canadian-U.S. border. In an Ecojustice study, the community of approximately 850 Anishinaabek peoples living on reserve reported that 39 per cent of women miscarry, 40 per cent of band members require an inhaler, 23 per cent of children aged 5-16 have learning and behavioral problems, and male births are declining at an alarming rate. Their bodies are on the frontlines of this polluted hotspot.

House next to Suncor

Faced with concerns about reproductive, respiratory, and cancer-related illnesses, among others, citizens residing in this “sacrifice zone” bear the burden of challenging members of industry and government officials. Bodies on the frontlines become instrumentalized for collective action. Responses include biomonitoring, body-mapping, bucket brigades, protests, and calling in a 1-800 # after conducting a “sniff test”. What do these experiences tell us about the formation and expression of Canadian politics and citizenship? I refer to these kinds of actions, or practices, as forms of “ecological citizenship”, which reveal a fusion between governance of land and life. Using a policy ethnography and interpretive qualitative research methodology, there are three main components to the thesis project of political place: an analysis of time, space, and everyday life.

Imperial Oil at night

Time: First, through document analysis, archival research and interviews, I explore how this Indigenous community came to be surrounded by the Chemical Valley, and the governance of Indigenous bodies have, and continue to be tied to the nation-building policies and practices of the Canadian state through the regulation of its native citizens’ home and habitat. Space: Second, I analyze the legislative and policy framework for the multi-jurisdictional issue environmental health for Aamjiwnaang citizens, and the policy gaps or “policy spaces” for Indigenous environmental health. This includes an analysis of the community’s ongoing request for a health study to examine the impact of pollutants on human and ecological health. Everyday Life: Third, I examine citizen actions, practices of “ecological citizenship”, and assess the ways in which governance for health and ecological concerns are or are not assumed to be an individual responsibility. An analysis of time, space and everyday life constitutes an approach to examining “political place”.

Experience as a Research Assistant on several health projects for my supervisor at the University of Ottawa, Michael Orsini, inspires my vision to re-reframe the Indigenous health policy process through narrative-based research, engaging with multiple forms of knowledge, and transforming policy by social learning. Furthermore, engagement with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation is fostered through research assistance to Dayna Scott at York University, in collaboration with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Health and Environment Committee and the Aamjiwnaang Green Teens. The Green Teens is a group of young people within the community who use creative voices to bring awareness of everyday life in Aamjiwnaang, and take action to defend their culture and land.

It is my vision to work collaboratively with diverse policy sectors to raise the visibility of Indigenous health issues. The Centre for Environmental Health Equity offers a unique opportunity to address contemporary environmental health injustices through practical, interactive engagement. In my academic career, I seek to make academic thought relevant to both communities on the ground as well as the policy-making sphere. Through community-based participatory action research, liaison with decision-makers, and recognition of Indigenous knowledges, I believe that such intersubjective engagement will support access to the decision-making process, and open up space for groups seeking policy change.

Sarah Wiebe can be contacted via email: swieb103(at)

Photographs by Laurence Butet-Roch. 1-Sarnia at night, 2-Across from the reserve, 3-House next to Suncor, 4-Imperial Oil at night, 5-Siren.

Other links:

Calvert, Pamela (2008), Film, “The Beloved Community”

Aamjiwnaang First Nation Health and Environment Committee website