Aamjiwnaang Cemetery

by: Hannah
contact: haplowr10@earlham.edu
13:05 Nov 1 2013 Aamjiwnaang Cemetery, ON, Canada

Aamjiwnaang Cemetery
Why should we work towards a Great Lakes Commons and how ?
Below is an account of my visit to the Aamjiwnaang cemetery.

This piece is a part of a Sociology/Anthropology class at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

***

We moved quietly and carefully as we stepped onto the pavement because the ground is sacred, filled with the bones of their ancestors. It has been said that some of these bones have been carbon dated to be over 5000 years old.

It is interesting that sometimes a statement like that can be hard to comprehend, a time so unfathomably long ago, the significance and importance blows right over our heads without being truly understood. But here in this ancient cemetery, you can feel it.

Among the scattered headstones, benches and flowers, you can feel a deep rooted stillness: an ancient presence that is so lacking in much of the world today that sometimes we have forgotten what it feels like.

However, like so much of Aamjiwnaang land, this silence and indescribable presence is broken by the dull hum of industry. Flanked on each side and barley separated by a thin chain link fence lie two major petrochemical corporations busily creating revenue in the background.

Our guide began to tell us the story of the Suncor short stack located on the perimeter of this ancient cemetery to our right. In 2010, expansion started on one of Suncor's largest ethanol refineries, despite local protest. While the goal of the plant was to remove sulfur from diesel fuel, an act deemed environmentally beneficial, the process was detrimental to the surrounding area including the cemetery. In particular, a sulfur burning stack located directly on the perimeter of the cemetery was built much lower than legal safety standards resulting in a highly toxic sulfuric rain that dispersed in the surrounding area.

Through local legal action and work with Ecojustice, the community was able to sue Suncor for $200,000 to $300,000 for their actions which were causing unnecessary harm to locals as well as the environment. They also managed to get an agreement with Suncor to rebuild this particular stack according to health and safety codes. However, Suncor was later given a direct order to ramp production back up to 100% without fixing the height of the short stack. The stack burned slowly in the distance as our guide talked, and it was evident that no progress on its reconstruction had been attempted since that lawsuit over 3 years ago.

The presence of industry in this setting illustrates the undeniable challenges that the Aamjiwnaang people have had with the pressure of industrialization. Since the first refining factory arrived in Sarnia over 150 years ago, cultural and economic complexities have infiltrated a traditional way of life. Our guide continues to speak, exactly on this train of thought. "Look around you" he says. "As we speak, three surveillance cameras are watching our every move from these facilities". He explains that this is where they bury the dead. They have traditional rituals to uphold and funeral rights to perform for the passing of their tribal members. Not only are the cameras watching them, giving the dead no peace, but our guide recounts an instance when workers mocked and mimicked their practices just beyond the fence during a funeral procession.

This, among many of the other stories our guide told us on our tour, moved me beyond words. At that moment all I could feel was the injustice bestowed on this community and anger towards the systems in which this was allowed to happen. But who is to blame? How can we appropriately address situations like this to keep them from repeating themselves? When looking at the whole picture, the cultural and economic complexities of the situation tends to blur the line of action. We are a part of, yet separated from, this system that drives these injustices, and no matter how much people say or do to fight them, these inhumane situations keep happening. Personally I was left with a deep disappointment for humanity. I simply cannot understand how people can be that cruel to one another and how these corporations seem to purposefully harm others for profit. How can they feel justified in their actions? And if the power lies in the hands of these corporations, is there any hope for the future?

But I have also noticed that when one zooms in rather than looking at the whole picture, when one reads, watches, listens, or shares a lived experience of environmental, cultural, or political injustice, the reactions are very much the same in all people. It is hard not to have an emotional reaction to something as poignant as the Aamjiwnaang cemetery next to Suncor's short stack and not see that something is wrong. It is simple, clear, and undeniable.
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