Book Review: Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley. By Sarah Marie Wiebe. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017. xx, 260 p. Includes forward by James Tully, bibliographic references, photo essays, index, and appendices. ISBN 978-0-7748-3263-2 (hardcover), $95.00. ISBN 978-0-7748-32649-9 (softcover), $32.95.

Reviewed by Nadine R. Hoffman
Natural Resources, Energy & Environmental Law Librarian and History Librarian
Bennett Jones Law Library, University of Calgary
In CLLR 43:3

This revision of Sarah Marie Wiebe’s 2013 dissertation, Anatomy of Place: Ecological Citizenship in Canada’s Chemical Valley, is based on interviews conducted when the author resided with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, a community located within the city limits of Sarnia, Ontario. The interviews serve as community-based research to illustrate geopolitical policy, biopolitical assemblage, sensing policy, jurisdictional ambiguity, environmental reproductive justice, and power relations. Particularly startling are the statistics of high cancer rates, low male births, and high learning disabilities in Canada’s Chemical Valley. Pollution affects traditional and ceremonial ways and Elders indicate that the high cancer rates caused by environmental pollution lead to trapped spirits in the cemeteries. The constant environmental issues of spills, leaks, chemical releases, and accidents are portrayed in powerful photo essays and stories of normal daily life. Coupled with this is a description of the complex practice of reporting environmental hazards to the multiple levels of government responsible for the region.

The corporate phrase “no offsite impact” is used repeatedly in Everyday Exposure in relation to environmental incident reporting. However, “a close look at the citizen’s experiences of living in this sacrifice zone reveals the entwined impacts of this place on physical and cultural survival” (p 97). The book offers examples throughout of this impact: ever-present smokestacks on the horizon, children playing games involving scooping up mercury, and concerns over a chain reaction of plant res caused by lightning. In 1992 a chemical spill near the band office and daycare centre led to moving the daycare farther from the reserve boundaries to better protect the children. Despite the government blaming “lifestyle factors” such as smoking, drinking, home carpeting, wearing makeup, and using fabric softeners and cleaning products as the sole reason for wide-spread disease, the Aamjiwnaang people continue to collect air samples via “bucket brigades” and send these, at their own expense, to California for testing.

Wiebe provides a brief historical context and uses political theory to criticize governments of all jurisdictions for their lack of authority, responsibility, and action in responding to issues of environmental pollution (chemical, air, and noise) on reserve lands with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation as her primary case study. Her overview of Canadian Confederation includes a discussion of Aamjiwnaang’s treaty surrenders in the Sarnia area where ceded land is now within city limits. She describes how since World War I these lands have been industrialized with very limited consultation with band members. The author explains how the people are unable or unwilling to move away from their land, which is central to their being as opposed to simply being a place. The wampum belt, as a symbol of diplomacy and agreements between peoples, can perhaps represent a more positive perspective on future treaty relations in a decolonized Canada.

Wiebe calls out to our leaders to envision a way to accommodate Indigenous citizenship in Canada while distinguishing between environmental and ecological citizenship. Everyday Exposure provides a thorough analysis of the lack of health and environmental protections for First Nations peoples at all levels of government and identifies the need for government regulation to redress what have become complex reporting practices, a better understanding of cumulative environmental effects, and improved health services being administered by Health Canada. Wiebe finds that the moral authority of government is offset by the fiduciary duty of government found in the Constitutional division of powers and Indian Act responsibilities. Transborder environmental harm is described as part of a deterritorialized threat to rethinking policy, belonging, and justice.

This book includes a good overview of political theory as it relates to citizenship, colonialism, indigeneity, and feminism, while advocating for improving the way people think about and react to citizenship and policy between governments (federal, provincial, municipal, and First Nations) and calling for greater importance to be placed on health and environment issues. Wiebe advocates for Indigenous environmental justice through a biopolitical lens.

Everyday Exposure contains photo essays, poems and stories written by interview participants, appendices with birth ratios, health hazard information, over 17 pages of references, extensive explanatory notes, and an index. This title is recommended for libraries, law firms, and companies interested in the areas of environmental government policy as well as for policy makers, research organizations, and libraries with public policy programs focussing on Canadian environmental or Indigenous research agendas.

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