Case Studies on ‘Chemical Valley’ (ON) and Fort Chipewyan (AB)

Environmental racism is a strategy for colonialism often mobilized by states that simultaneously pursue the growth of their economy and the genocide of particular racialized populations. In this blog I unpack the logistics of extractive industry in Fort Chipewyan (AB) and ‘Chemical Valley’ (ON) to argue that the Canadian state’s pursuit of economic growth combines with its dehumanization of Indigenous peoples to legitimize the aggrandizement of capital at the cost of Indigenous lives.  

Scholar Robert Bullard defines environmental racism as any policy or practice that affects or disadvantages individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color (Bullard) and identifies it as a global phenomenon:

“The systematic destruction of indigenous peoples’ land and sacred sites, the poisoning of Native Americans on reservations, Africans in the Niger Delta, African-Americans in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” Mexicans in the border towns, and Puerto Ricans on the island of Vieques all have their roots in economic exploitation, racial oppression, devaluation of human life and the natural environment, and corporate greed.”


Environmental racism is an efficient strategy of colonialism because its health consequences often hinders victims’ abilities to sustain formations of resistance and because professionals are often deterred from operating the health and educational services of these “sacrifice zones”. States and their private industry designate particular racialized communities as sacrificable collateral damage to withstand the landfills, hazardous waste treatment, and other toxic facilities needed to operate neoliberal aspirations (Bullard). Indeed, Canada’s designation of Indigenous populations as sacrificable to extractive industry operates within a historical state-sponsored effort of genocide.

Case Study no. 1: Fort Chipewyan

In its endeavour to sustain the neoliberal project of refining bitumen in northern Alberta, the Canadian state enables the operations of the Oil Sands which have the adverse effect of releasing toxins into the natural world that threaten the Indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan. During the extraction of bitumen from oil sands, large volumes of water are contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids, and salt, and this water eventually streams into the Athabasca River, Fort Chip’s primary water supply (Timoney). As a result, the natural resources of the affected area are contaminated with toxic chemicals, including the wildlife species that are consumed as traditional indigenous foods in Fort Chip. Figure 1 below captures the tumors, deformed spines, bulging eyes, and abnormal fins characterizing the contaminated fish of Lake Athabasca (Timoney):

Moose, duck, and muskrats have also been proven to carry high levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury and selenium (McLachlan). The serious health risks posed by consumption of these animals has forced many Indigenous persons to relinquish the felt experience of eating their traditional foods and turn to store-bought options that are low-quality and high in salt, sugar, and fats (McLachlan). Moreover, abnormally high cases of multiple cancers, lymphomas, leukemia, autoimmune diseases, and skin rashes (Timoney) as well as genetic damage, birth defects, and other childbearing complications (“Violence on the Land”) are rampant among the inhabitants of Fort Chip. The refusal of the state to address this injustice despite its highly publicized nature combined with its plans to triple production in the coming years (McLachlan; “Violence on the Land”) reveals that the Canadian state intends to fortify a scheme for capital aggrandizement that is mobilized by the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Case Study no. 2: Chemical Valley

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation community, located in Sarnia, ON has been called “one of the most singularly poisonous locations in North America” and is known as ‘Chemical Valley’ because it houses at least 60 refineries and chemical plants that produce synthetic rubbers and oil (“Violence on the Land”). The local air and water have been proven to be contaminated with neurotoxins, carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and respiratory irritants (“Violence on the Land”), and Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers has reported headaches, diabetes, thyroid issues, asthma, skin rashes, high cancer rates, and neurological, productive and developmental concerns as abnormally high in the area (Wiebe). Abnormal incidences of stillbirths and miscarriages as well as a drastic reduction in the birth rate of males have also been confirmed (“Violence on the Land”). As in the case of Fort Chip, the deadly effect of industry on the Indigenous community of Chemical Valley has been highly researched and published; yet, “this doesn’t seem to stop the companies, the states, or the Canadian government, which allow industry to operate. This violence is seen as an acceptable risk” (Violence on the Land”). Chemical Valley is thus another example of how Indigenous communities are deemed sacrificable by the state and private industry in the pursuit of neoliberal aspirations. 

“Chemical Valley”, ON (Source)

Indigenous Resistance and Solutions

Although Indigenous peoples in Canada experience a form of environmental racism that has fatal consequences and operates within a larger context of settler-colonial structures of power and oppression, Indigenous people have resisted and protested against such state-sponsored injustice since the beginning of the colonial project. For instance, Bagelman & Wiebe illuminate in their work how numerous embodied forms of resistance have been led by Indigenous women in Aaamjiwnaang “who do not simply wait but enact change”. They cite the following women-led embodied acts of resistance that have characterized the politics of ‘Chemical Valley’ in recent years: fasting; protesting the development of petroleum by chaining bodies to pipelines; and blocking the railway during the Idle No More movement (Bagelman & Wiebe). The Indigenous community in Fort Chip has likewise organized strategies for and movements of resistance; for example, Indigenous community members have been intimately involved in the collection, administration, and distribution of research, findings, and recommendations reported by investigations on the environmental degradation of Fort Chip (see the Timoney Report, for example, which was conducted under a methodology that combined Western and Indigenous scientific research methods). The communities of Chemical Valley and Fort Chip, then, resist and organize themselves against Canada’s tactics of elimination.

Protests by the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community (Source)

This blog has explored the manner in which state-sponsored environmental racism in Canada is mobilized to create pathways to economic development and operates within the ongoing attempt at colonization over and genocide of Indigenous peoples. For more information on the intersection between Indigeneity, the environment and capitalism, consult the following:

The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant

There’s something in the water: environmental racism in indigenous and black communities by Ingrid Waldron

Natural resource extraction and indigenous livelihoods: development challenges in an era of globalization by Emma Gilberthorpe

About the Author

I am a student of secondary education at the University of Alberta particularly interested in the experiences of intersectional identities in politics and history. In my writing and teaching, I focus on Indigenous relationships with capitalism, kyriarchal systems of power and oppression, identity (re)construction and negotiation in traditional culture and in diasporic and/or (post)colonial societies, and policy on refugee crises.