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Love, Lockridge Style

Prevent Cancer Now recognized Ada Lockridge for decades of cancer prevention work, for constantly seeking answers for important questions affecting her community, for inciting change in Sarnia’s industrial heart, and especially for her keen intellect, energy and spirit of love for humanity and the environment that underlies her actions.
Ada’s home is Aamjiwnaang First Nation, meaning “at the spawning stream.” It once covered lands bounded by the Flint and Maitland rivers, between Lakes Huron and Erie. The “Chippewa of Sarnia” now call home a 12.6 square kilometre property bordering the St. Clair River, in the thick of “Chemical Valley.”   Fish, once a sustaining food source, sport tumours and are not to be eaten. The web of life is immensely altered. When sirens sound, residents are to “shelter in place” to protect against the worst of air pollution from “releases.” According to Ada, too often the crisis has passed before the sirens have sounded. “When it is bad on the “stink scale” then check the air monitors!” Today there is an air monitoring station and Ontario government reports of air quality exceeding standards, even on Facebook – one fruit of her work. Ada’s questioning and advocacy has taken her to the heart of her community, region and province. 
Aamjiwnaang is surrounded by industries including Imperial Oil, Ineos Styrolution and Suncor to the north, Shell sites and Nova Chemicals to the south and east, Arlanexo and so on, on both sides of the St. Clair River. Sixty-two facilities are within 25 kilometres of Aamijiwnaang, emitting hundreds of thousands of tonnes of pollutants annually. Filling the horizon are smoke stacks and tank farms … and the river.

The impacts of pollutants in communities are indisputable. Chemicals called “endocrine disruptors” may interfere with normal actions of hormones, harming child development and fertility; causing chronic conditions such as cancer, and obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
In the midst of her sickened community, arose Ada Lockridge. Listen closely – she exudes the power of a solid, intelligent woman with clear vision and values.  She’ll tell you that she just asked questions. With Ron Plain as a partner in their work, they were among founders of the Aamjiwnaang Environment Committee. They heard the darndest things – complaints about stream contamination were met with the contention that it was fine for the kids to play in as long as they did not disturb sediment. Ada pursued answers to the point that researchers became interested. Some questions were answered, leading to more questions, a few solutions and today some improvements in communications, and jobs for residents.

Ada co-authored a 2005 scientific validation of the community’s perception that Aamjiwnaang was the epitome of the “vanishing male.” Rather than the normal roughly half-and-half ratio of boys and girls, in this exceptionally polluted area the proportion of male births fell to about 41% between 1994 and 2003, and fell further in the following five years to 35%.  The community awaits a follow-up study, but the children don’t lie – there are still about twice as many young girls as boys.   In 2007, Ecojustice published a report on pollution and health problems, including chronic diseases, reproductive problems, rashes, thyroid and kidney problems, … and fear of what the spills and odours mean for the future of their children, community and the environment.   In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that Sarnia had Canada’s most polluted air; this is not surprising since in 2009, about 60% of the 110 million kilograms of the industrial pollutants released into the regional air originated within 5 km of Aamjiwnaang.

 A 2013 study of mothers and infants in Aamjiwnaang found high levels of toxic metals (e.g. cadmium), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), hexachlorohexane and the insecticide DDT – chemicals including known carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors. The community members were not especially contaminated with pollutants from fish – in Aamjiwnaang, named for spawning grounds, they eat very little fish

Lambton had been carrying out a health study, but some concerning information wasn’t captured from public meetings. A child in the daycare had a grapefruit-sized tumour; youngsters were on puffers and even oxygen; there were many miscarriages and cancers; asthma and rashes; depression and behavioural problems; and more. Ada’s notes and observations were eventually included among the Lambton reports. Amjiwnaang information was swamped by other Lambton data, and now that health study has now been folded into the Ontario Health Study, diluting the small numbers of Aamjiwnaang participants into insignificance.  2013 found Shell in court for pollutant leaks. Of the $700,000 fine, initially only $200,000 went to Aamjiwnaang. On the front line, Ada had her heart set on air monitors, at twice the price. Now she sees elevated levels of carcinogens such as benzene, and particularly poor air quality when winds blow from the south. Air monitoring for the daycare, community centre and seniors’ centre are still on the “to do” list.
Does all life not all deserve clean air, water and food? The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms could be more explicit, but surely this is covered under S.7 right to life, liberty and security of the person. Ada and Ron were off to court. Ecojustice fought a Canadian Charter Challenge of Ontario’s ongoing approvals of yet more pollution releases, against both government and industry lawyers for half a decade. The case was discontinued in 2016, when the Ontario government committed to actions to address pollution problems, with monitoring, enforcement and community alerts.   Ada hopes that the province and industries follow through. Actions as simple as stopping leaks and repairing equipment can make a big difference to the environment, health of workers and neighbours, and even the bottom line.  Ada worries about aging structures such as the Imperial Oil tank farm – are those tanks still used? She is not told.

In the meantime, Ada still tracks and takes action according to her “stink scale,” making calls to keep her community as safe as possible. She worries about effects from combinations of chemicals, that are long term, passed down generations. Prevention is essential – no amount of money in fines or restitution, no monitoring of pollution, will undo sickness.  Ada still has her gear in her plastic bucket, one of the bucket brigade, to sample air during pollution releases or “events.”   “Suncor should hire me!” Ada says. Over the fence, she has been watching over the facility for years, and now she is trained as a security guard.   To this day, in Sarnia and elsewhere, pollution is still seen as the price of jobs; the smell of money. Ada doesn’t believe that her people, any people, much less the air, water, soil and myriad creatures – the environment cradling us all – should die for a living.

by Meg Sears
February 24, 2017