By: Beze and Vanessa Gray
Our homeland is more than the reservation system forced onto my ancestors across our traditional territory. Land is sacred, and this is especially important to acknowledge when multinational companies carelessly contaminate the environment we all share through colonialism and toxic chemicals. Our family and community are Anishinabe people from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Treaty 29 territory located near Sarnia, ON. The Canadian government continues to use violence to inherently disconnect us from our land and it’s our responsibility to protect it using our traditional culture and language. Our culture and language survive through land based teachings.
Our teachings offer lessons of honesty, humility, and truth that connect our bodies to the land. We take what we need and offer tobacco to give back to the land to acknowledge when we take anything and to give thanks. Canada is established through resource extraction and land theft. When industry forced their way onto our territory to extract oil in the 1880s, the land was stolen through Canada’s Indian Act system that segregates us on reserve lands. Colonization takes on many destructive forms and acts like a virus endlessly taking from mother earth. Industry created an empire from our stolen land. Instead of using oil as we did once, oil quickly became the foundation of Canada’s national identity. The petrochemical industry on our Territory expanded and changed the relationship between our people and the land. These threats to our traditions and culture immediately created the apartheid state between settlers and indigenous people. This is clearly visible when the City of Sarnia enacts class violence through Victorian houses just down the road from our reserve that we were not allowed to leave from. The Canadian Justice system was created to protect colonial capitalism and white supremacy. The present day reserve boundaries of Aamjiwnaang are substantially smaller than our original territory. Our homeland is seen as an industrial resource, not a residential place where more than 800 people currently live. This racist notion is how companies justify putting an above ground pipelines so close to our homes.
Aamjiwnaang is completely surrounded by industry with over 60 facilities in the 25km radius. The highest polluting facilities are within 5km of the community. The first company to start operating a refinery was Imperial Oil. Canada’s Chemical Valley currently holds 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry . Accumulating pollution has been collecting and contaminating Aamjiwnaang for over 100 years. In our community everything is polluted, including the land, air, water, and people. We are the grandchildren of the generation who survived Canada’s attempted genocide. Our responsibility to the land is carried on from the strength of our intergenerational knowledge. Even when we grow up surrounded by industry, we will always find our way back to the land through our songs, drums and ceremony. The warning signs found along the creek in Aamjiwnaang were put up to keep us from exposing ourselves from the toxic chemicals that flow from industry into the water. Even though Canada tries to forget its violent history, we still experience the cumulative effects such as cancer and high numbers of stillbirths and miscarriages. There’s a constant stress of the emergency sirens of the community going off from spills or leaks.
Not only do we worry about our health and safety on the daily, but our medicines are exposed to the chemicals in the air. Healing is the most important part of our survival as land and water protectors. We need time on the land to rebuild and sustain our relationship with the land. This includes our seasonal responsibilities such as collecting food and medicines. Our Wiigwams teach us that we all have a role to play in sustaining our communities. In a time when everything can be made easier by new technologies, the land will always provide for our needs. Our traditional dip net fishing is made from cedar trees because it’s the lightest to carry and can last for generations, you can buy a metal net that can last with care but is more likely crushed or bent easily if left in the river. Our load isn’t a light one to carry, we pick up where our ancestors left us to move forward and hopefully thrive. The land is alive and deserves to be honored with ceremony.
Beze and VANESSA GrayVanessa Gray and Beze Gray are Anishinaabe siblings from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation located in Canada’s Chemical Valley. Co-founders of Aamjiwnaang & Sarina Against Pipelines.
Vanessa is a land defender and environmental justice researcher with the TRU at the University of Toronto.
Beze identifies as two spirited and studies Anishinaabe mowin and traditional land use with Meesiingw.