Protesters in Sarnia are standing up to the powerful fracking lobby. Photo by Colin Graf.
On December 27th, First Nations protestors in Sarnia, Ontario, took to the streets once again to let Canadians know they don’t want to be the lab rats of the energy industry’s pollution experiments. While members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation have put up with spills of potentially toxic chemicals in their air and water for decades, they’re now scared of new threats—namely controversial changes to existing pipelines, and fracking.
Walking to the beat of drums and native singers, about 50 marchers paraded through part of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve carrying banners and signs, then followed a rural road that runs along the reserve’s boundary with an invisible, underground neighbour alongside—Enbridge’s Line 9. The company’s plan to reverse the flow of the pipeline to carry Alberta tar sands bitumen to a Montreal refinery is a fear the marchers carry along with them. “There’s a real risk this very old pipeline could rupture and spill this heavy bitumen into our area and next to our homes,” said Vanessa Gray, one of the women from Aamjwinaang who appears in the VICE Canada documentary on the Chemical Valley, and December’s “Toxic Tour” organizer.
While a helicopter surveyed them from above and Ontario Provincial Police closed roads in front of them, protestors passed the area where new developments are planned to process natural gas from oil shale deposits in the U.S., forced from the earth by the controversial process of fracking. Nova Chemicals plans to spend millions on its Sarnia-area plant to store natural gas from the American deposits in underground caverns, and process it. Shell Canada plans to build a new natural gas processing plant on the south side of the reserve in 2014 that will convert gas into as much as 400,000 gallons per day of super-cooled liquid that will be shipped out by Great Lakes tankers.
Living in the midst of oil and gas refineries and chemical plants is nothing new for the people of Aamjiwanang, who live smack dab in the middle of Canada’s Chemical Valley: a 15 square mile area home to 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry. Yet the new threat on the horizon is the possible arrival of actual fracking operations in an already crowded industrial landscape.
The Aamjiwnaang First Nation community has rallied in Sarnia. Photo by Colin Graf.
"We've had industry reps coming to Aamjiwnaang and talking about fracking. We won't stand by and see these companies come and destroy our land," said Gray. "We're standing in solidarity with the Elsiepogtog (New Brunswick First nation) and other communities that have stood up to fracking."
Several companies were sniffing around the Sarnia area in 2011 with hopes of fracking natural gas from shale gas deposits in the area, similar to those being mined in Pennsylvania and New York State. One of them, Calgary-based Mooncor Oil & Gas, had leases on over 20,000 acres of land south of Sarnia to explore for oil or gas at the time. Mooncor CEO Allen Lone said by email this week the company has no immediate plans to start work, as it is going through financial re-structuring. Although some of those leases have expired, the company will begin drilling when their finances are straightened out.
Meanwhile, the threat of fracking is still a real concern for the people of Aamjiwnaang. According to Vanessa Gray, this most recent Toxic Tour protest helps show the Idle No More movement among native people is still strong in Ontario. The protest took place one year after Aamjiwnaang members blockaded a rail line crossing the reserve for 13 days in support of Idle No More.
The spirit of defiance resonates in Gray’s voice as she adds, “This is our territory, this is our land, and there’s no consultation about new development. If we don’t say yes, they have no right to do it.”