A "public awareness open house" in Aamjiwnaang First Nation (AFN) became a venue for residents to vent their frustration with industry after representatives from Enbridge Pipelines, Inc. failed to show up to their own event.
In the company's absence, activists unfurled banners and gave presentations on Enbridge's operations while residents took the floor to voice their concerns. A letter was circulated and endorsed by 27 community members rejecting a "free starter emergency kit" paid for by Enbridge, Suncor, Shell, Styrolutions, Lanxess, and other corporations with a local presence. The kits were devised and distributed by Aamjiwnaang's emergency planner.
The letter, delivered to Enbridge through an unmanned comment box, condemns the emergency kits as a "symbolic empty gesture" that is "at best suspicious and at worst insulting." It notes that "the root causes of contamination in our territory [are] not being addressed" and states, "We reject the suggestion that… our community members should be responsible for helping mitigate any damage caused by Enbridge Pipelines."
Aamjiwnaang, a First Nation with about 850 on-reserve residents in southern Ontario, is flanked on all sides by pipelines, oil storage facilities, refineries, and high-emitting petro-chemical processing facilities. This industrial region, commonly known as Canada's Chemical Valley, hosts 40 percent of Canada's petro-chemical sector and was the subject of a VICE documentary in 2013. In 2009, 60 percent of industrial pollutants from the valley were released within 5 km of the reserve.
In and around Aamjiwnaang, Enbridge owns pump stations, tank farms for oil storage, and a number of decades-old pipelines that bring conventional crude and diluted bitumen from Alberta's tar sands to Sarnia refineries. These include: Line 5, which lies exposed on the floor of the Great Lakes; Line 6B, which ruptured and spilled more than 3,300,000 litres of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan after Enbridge ignored a known defect; Line 7, which was controversially expanded with no notice to affected communities; and Line 9, which passes through the most populous part of Canada with a 90 percent risk of rupture and thousands of known defects.
Billing the event as an "opportunity to share important information, ask questions, and to update you on relevant company information," Enbridge appealed to residents with a free meal, child care, and transportation, face painting, and a visit from Olaf—the fictional snowman from Disney's Frozen. Olaf, ironically, is now being eyed by the US State Department as a potential star of public service announcements teaching kids about the perils of climate change.
Perhaps wary of this symbolism, Enbridge sent a mascot from Blue's Clues as its sole delegate instead of Olaf.
"It was kind of shabby. Blue's Clues fucking shows up but Enbridge can't?" said Vanessa Gray, an activist with Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP). "It was pretty rude."
"They think doing this—giving us food and giving us a bag of goodies or whatever—they think that's being a good neighbour," said Mike Plain, a community Elder, to the gathered crowd of about fifty residents.
"Trinkets," someone in the crowd suggested.
"Trinkets," Plain repeated. "This is the word. A long time ago they gave us whiskey and smallpox blankets. It's no different. It's no different from what they're doing today," he said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Wilson Plain Jr., emergency planner for AFN, said the kits were devised to encourage the "general preparedness" of community members for both natural and industrial disasters. "The kits are just a start to build your own," Plain Jr. said, "to suit your own family."
The kits included matches, flashlights, AM/FM radios, work gloves, hand warmers, water purification tablets, hand sanitizer, first aid kits, multi-tools, candles, and a plastic container.
"While useful in the event of being lost in the woods, the Starter Emergency Kits will not help community members mitigate the damage of Enbridge Pipeline's leaks or spills," said a press release issued by ASAP.
According to Enbridge's corporate social responsibility reports from 2009-2013, Enbridge pipelines have averaged 83 incidents and 1.88 million litres of spilled hydrocarbons each year. Transporting diluted bitumen from the tar sands poses additional risks. Bitumen sinks and becomes nearly impossible to clean up if spilled into moving water, while the carcinogenic chemicals used to make bitumen flow in pipelines—called condensate or diluent—can evaporate in the event of a spill and "may cause irritation, breathing failure, coma and death, without necessarily anywarning odour being sensed."
For decades, life in Aamjiwnaang has been punctuated by regular emergency sirens and roadblocks, industrial fires, chemical leaks into the air and water, incessant false alarms, and shelter-in-place advisories that instruct residents to stay inside and seal their homes to prevent exposure to airborne toxins. Industrial pollution has degraded the health of the community, contributing to shortened life expectancies, chronic headaches, and elevated rates of miscarriage, asthma, high blood pressure, and cancer—to name only a few documented impacts.
A report issued by Ontario's Environmental Commissioner late 2014 reiterated the long-standing concerns of community members:
"The people of Aamjiwnaang suffer daily from the serious effects of the pollution that plagues their community. Under today's land use rules, it would be highly unlikely that this type of concentrated industrial development would occur in such close proximity to a residential community. Yet, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation suffers a daily assault on their ancestral lands as a result of this disturbing historical legacy, coupled with contemporary indifference."
In 2013, legal counsel for Aamjiwnaang testified to the National Energy Board of Canada that they were never consulted when Enbridge Line 9 was first built, violating both Canadian and international laws. Regardless, the NEB approved Enbridge's plans to retrofit the line. The open house Enbridge missed may have been considered by the company as a reasonable effort at Aboriginal consultation.
"We used the time and the space to do our own report on Enbridge," Gray noted. "It ended up being a really good community discussion… People really are armed now for when Enbridge does come—or if they ever come. They have the right materials."
During the open house, Wilson Plain Sr., a founding member of the Environment Committee, addressed the crowd about Enbridge's local role: "When we talk about cumulative effects, we're talking about Enbridge being a major source of that accumulation of pollution—whether it's a spill or whether it's pollutants in the air. They are the ones that are responsible." He explained that Enbridge pipelines feed the Suncor, Shell, and Nova refineries that are nearest to the Aamjiwnaang reservation.
"They are partners in producing the illnesses that come from pollution," Plain Sr. said. Reiterating that the community has long struggled to obtain funding for a comprehensive health study, he argued that "Enbridge should be a major contributor."
Half an hour before the open house was to commence, Enbridge called Aamjiwnaang's band office to postpone. A notice was posted to the door of the community centre where the event was to take place, noting that dinner would still be served. "They said they were not going to be able to come because they could not get access to their poster boards and all that material that they needed for handouts was locked in their Sarnia office," said Christine Rogers, an employee of AFN's Environment Committee.
Enbridge, Rogers said, told the band "there was a mysterious package that was delivered to the office and there were police involved who had locked the building down." Representatives of the Sarnia police department said there was no record of any such event, and Enbridge did not respond to multiple requests for comment. VICE reached out to the Ontario Provincial Police to see if their officers were dispatched to Enbridge's Sarnia offices, and will update this story as their comments are made available.
"In the wake of Enbridge's cancellation, Aamjiwnaang community members have been left with unanswered questions and zero information. And also tote bags," said ASAP's press release. "Enbridge has not been to the community for an open house since December 8, 2010."
"They don't seem to care," Mike Plain said to the crowd. "I think it's an elaborate, made up story that they could not be here. There's ways and means they could have sent a representative, there's ways and means they could have sent somebody to get their material to be here."
Plain attributed his late brother's cancer to benzene leaks from local industry and condemned industry's prioritization of profits-over-people. "It's cost-efficient, but you're making us lose our lives," he said.
Taking issue with Enbridge's mantra that the company is a " good neighbour," he said "you guys aren't being good neighbours by emitting these toxins to us. That's like a bully coming up and punching you in the face and not giving a rat's ass about it. That's what they're doing."
"They don't know why we revere the land that we live upon. They don't know why we revere the water that flows through here, or the air that we breathe," Plain said.
"You don't know one thing about us First Nations and you call yourself a good neighbour."
Follow Michael Toledano on Twitter.