An Open Letter from Graduate Students regarding Vanessa Gray’s court case.
Vanessa Gray is a 23 year-old Anishinaabe’kwe from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located in Canada’s Chemical Valley, near Sarnia, Ontario. She has been working with community members to bring awareness to environmental racism and health issues resulting from her reserve’s toxic surroundings. She is an organizer with Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines (https://aamjiwnaangsolidarity.com/).
This past December Gray was arrested for shutting off a valve of Line 9 – an Enbridge pipeline carrying Alberta bitumen through her traditional territory. She had notified Enbridge about what she planned to do before she took this action. She was protecting her home and her community from the well documented, proven risks that pipelines and the fossil fuel industry pose. She now faces criminal charges of mischief over $5000 and mischief endangering the lives of others. This could mean 25 years to life in prison.
In a press release shortly after Vanessa’s arrest, she said, “It’s clear that tar sands projects represent an ongoing cultural and environmental genocide….I defend the land and water because it is sacred”. This perspective is what led the Economics for the Anthropocene (https://e4a-net.org/)–a group of scholars dedicated to rethinking economics, law, and governance in ways that take into account the wellbeing of people and ecosystems–to invite Vanessa to the project as a Community Scholar. She has contributed significantly to our project and taught us a great deal about Indigenous leadership on energy issues. As we have got to know Vanessa and learn about her story and the prison sentence she faces, we have been moved to support her.
Our support for Vanessa is based on three main factors. One is that Line 9 (along with Energy East and Northern Gateway) pose a significant threat to local ecosystems and human residents. Secondly, Line 9 constitutes a violation of the inherent, constitutional and international rights of Indigenous people. And thirdly, Gray had tried all the formal ways of having her voice heard, such as consultations and environmental assessment, and these efforts failed. When the threat is this large and the other options have been tried, direct action can be the only effective way to be heard.
Life in the “Chemical Valley”
The Line 9 pipeline was originally built in 1975 to carry natural gas; recently, this pipeline has been repurposed to carry corrosive, toxic, diluted bitumen from the tar sands, across Ontario, towards Montreal. Enbridge, the company which operates Line 9, has an extremely bad record of pipeline spills. The drinking water of millions of people across Ontario and Quebec could be affected in the case of a spill. Line 9 passes within 50km of 18 different First Nation communities and impacts the watersheds of several more.
The pipeline begins in Sarnia, near Vanessa’s community of Aamjiwnaang. This region is also called Canada’s Chemical Valley. It is called Chemical Valley due to having the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in Canada. Forty percent of Canada’s total annual petrochemical production, consisting of 63 refineries, takes place within a 50 kilometer radius of Aamjiwnaang. These refineries are responsible for self-reporting chemical spills and releases. No government agency keeps track of emissions rates or compounds that are released in this region. Chemicals regularly released into the air and water by the petrochemical refineries surrounding Aamjiwnaang include heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and many other compounds that linked with neurotoxicity, cancer, and/ or endocrine disruption, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and benzene.
The contamination of the land, air, and water of Aamjiwnaang has a severe and negative impact on the health and way of life of community members as well as local plant and animal populations. Vanessa’s community suffers abnormally high levels of asthma and rare cancers. Alarmingly, the birth ratio of female to male infants is 2:1, most likely as a result of hormonal imbalances caused by environmental contaminants. This is the reality faced by Vanessa and her community. This is the context in which Vanessa and many others have avidly opposed increased oil and gas development to this area.
Vanessa’s story is part of a bigger story of environmental activism and correcting injustice in Canada.
In her act of interference with Line 9, Gray joined a legacy of activists who confront injustice with decisive actions. Her action went beyond that of turning off a valve or stopping an industrial process; it was a symbolic gesture to show that when injustices are felt deeply within a community, actors within that community will rise up and disobey unjust laws in protection of the vulnerable and voiceless. Part of the democratic process is demanding to be heard when you are systematically silenced.
Indigenous communities throughout Canada have had their share of systematic injustice. Their traditional ways of living on the land have been severely disrupted by centuries of racist policies and unequal treatment. These communities have suffered no less than cultural genocide.
While many may see federal actions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as important steps in the right direction towards a just outcomes for First Nations communities, we still find elevated levels of poverty, environmental hazards, and disenfranchisement in these communities throughout the country. When the goal of sovereignty is fervently denied to First Nations communities, it is clear that “reconciliation” is not achieved.
Indigenous people throughout Canada, such as the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, have deep historic connections to their traditional lands. Within the cultural worldview of this community is a commitment to the health and flourishing of the land and the people who live on it. While “environmental justice” is a relatively new concept to the ears of most Canadians, this concept runs deep in the consciousness of those who have lived on the land for generations and have seen the consequences of toxic development on the health of land and people.
In the face systemic injustice and rampant disenfranchisement in the most vulnerable of our communities, society often relies on activist voices and actions. The actions of the fossil fuel industry may technically be legal according to Canadian law, but from Gray’s perspective, its impacts are simply unjust, disproportionate and unacceptable. Gray’s was an act of disobedience and defense. Charging her with “Mischief” is intended to diminish her cause and her symbolic action.
Non-violent actions that confront injustice are an essential part of the democratic process; land defense has been part of the indigenous experience for hundreds of years. It did not start, nor will it end, with Vanessa Gray.
Speaking out and taking action to protect the land is a cultural right.
We have entered a time in earth’s history – the Anthropocene – that is characterized by massive disruption in the ecological life support systems by human activity. This is also a time when we are slowly waking up from massive injustices of colonial exploitation of people and land. This is a time for honouring and empowering the heroic individuals who stand up and defend the rights and wellbeing of human communities and ecosystems. It is not a time to be treating such courageous and revolutionary people as criminals. Our future depends on people like Vanessa Gray.
We are co-presenting an event at McGill on September 27th in support of Vanessa. Please join us:
To learn more about the case and about how you can help Vanessa: http://line9shutdown.ca/the-case/
Please share this article far and wide!
Janica Anderzén , PhD Candidate, University of Vermont
James Arruda, MES, York University
Matthew Burke, PhD Candidate, McGill University
Caleb Gingrich, MSc Candidate, McGill University
Kesha Fevrier, PhD Student, York University
Jennifer Gobby, PhD Candidate, McGill University
Emery Hartley, MSc Candidate, McGill University
María A. Juncos, PhD Candidate, York University
Alia Karim, PhD Candidate, York University
Anna Kusmer, MSc Candidate, McGill University
Professor Patricia Perkins, York University
Sophia Sanniti, MES Candidate, York University
Romain Svartzman, PhD Candidate, McGill University