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Everyday Exposure - Personal Statement

A series of emotions drew me to the everyday circumstances in Aamjiwnaang, an Indigenous community located downstream from Canada’s “Chemical Valley”: first surprise, followed by disgust and then love. Academics often don’t talk about the latter, although there is an emergent body of literature on the place of affect/emotions related to the topic. Generally-speaking, even mentioning how one feels in relation to the research project makes many uncomfortable in a predominantly science-oriented, positivist research climate. As a graduate student, when I first began to study the lived-experiences in Aamjiwnaang, one faculty member even said to me: “Sarah, your work is so…emotional”. At first I was angered by this comment. I worried that it implied a lack of serious scholarship. Then I reflected a little. Indeed, this work is incredibly emotional. And why is that such a bad thing? If it wasn’t emotional, or if it wasn’t work that affected us on a profound level and if we weren’t passionate about the topics that we are curious about, then what would be the point in spending so much time and energy required to try to understand them better?

In response to this faculty member’s remarks, as I articulate fiercely in the book, this research is not only emotional, is it affective. People’s lives are affected by policies at all levels of government, ranging from the international arena to the intimate realm. This is why going forward academics must adopt a “sensing policy” lens. Understanding how citizens feel – how they sense, encounter and interact with the effects of policies – in these compromised environments is critical for improving policy outcomes. This work is simultaneously intellectual and intimate. It is equally rigorous and relational. Doing such in-depth, community engaged analysis would not be possible if it wasn’t for theoretical mentors as well as cultural advisors. This requires a kind of personal intimacy that continues to confuse the academy. As bell hooks reminds us, scholarship that orients itself towards questions of justice requires a “love ethic”. This love ethic writes itself throughout and informs the entire manuscript. Justice requires love and love must be supported by just policies.

I first became aware of the environmental health concerns in Aamjiwnaang after watching a CBC film, The Disappearing Male. The film surprised me. It highlights voices from the community expressing concern about a declining rate of male births as well as impacts to lands and waterways. Their location ensconced in Chemical Valley affects their entire way of life. Of course this is emotional. I asked myself: “how could this happen in Canada, that a First Nations community is completely surrounded by this petrochemical complex and they continue to voice concerns about their health”? Once I passed this initial state of surprise, I began to delve more deeply into the historical context, reviewing archival materials and conducting interviews with Aamjiwnaang residents as well as policy makers at all levels of government (local, provincial and federal). The ongoing neglect of policy makers to adequately respond to Aamjiwnaang’s environmental health concerns left me disgusted. Soon I asked myself: what could I do as a researcher to raise awareness about existing jurisdictional ambiguity and regulatory gaps for on-reserve environmental health?

This book seeks to shed light on the invisible policy problem of environmental injustice in Canada with the aim of contributing to a wider conversation about improved relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canadians. The more involved in the community I became, the more people’s stories began to move me. Early on in the research process, I was invited by the Youth Council to participate in a sweat. Facilitated by an elder, I entered the sweat with an open mind, unsure about exactly what was expected of me. I left the sweat knowing that if I wanted to be in a position to provide any kind of informed commentary about what life is like in Aamjiwnaang, I needed to spend some time there. A few months later, I relocated from Ottawa to Sarnia. Touched profoundly by many who shared their knowledge, stories and wisdom with me, I fell in love with the people and the place. I learned about Anishinabek culture, took language lessons and co-produced a documentary film. My time in Aamjiwnaang between 2010-2012 involved so many memories, filled with laughter, singing, dancing and crying. The stories shared with me throughout that time make a difficult topic spring with life. Investigating contemporary conditions of environmental injustice in Canada requires not just the intellectual comfort of the archives, classroom or library, it necessarily requires being intimate with community. From my vantage point as a scholar committed to improving how we see environmental justice from a prismatic lens, this undertaking is profoundly personal and affectionately political. Examining the effects of biopolitical policies in the colonial present is not enough to achieve justice. Working towards justice requires a new approach to research, one that both investigates ongoing injustices and respects everyday experiences and cultural traditions. Moving forward, acknowledging how Canada’s colonial history affects the present is a critical step in order to collaboratively experience, feel and see justice now and in the future.

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