Decolonizing the environmental justice movement

Grassroots Indigenous organization seeks to increase public awareness of the oil industry’s environmental impact

“We’re all sharing a house that’s on fire and everyone’s looking at each other saying they didn’t start it,” said Vanessa Gray.

On Feb. 27, Gray’s voice resonated throughout a classroom in the Hall building of Concordia’s downtown campus, with attendees listening attentively in their seats. Gray is Anishinaabe kwe from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located outside of Sarnia, Ontario—also known as Canada’s Chemical Valley.

Gray founded the grassroots organization Aamjiwnaang & Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP) to increase public awareness of the issue in her hometown and to pressure the federal government to stop the perpetuation of the oil industry.

According to ASAP’s research, 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry takes place within a 50-kilometer radius of Aamjiwnaang, with over 60 oil refineries and chemical plants currently in operation. These refineries and plants are responsible for the contamination of the land, air and water of the community, which has severe negative impacts on their health and way of life. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, Sarnia’s air is the most polluted air in Canada. In a zine called Canada’s Toxic Chemical Valley, written by the Montreal contingent of Aamjiwnaang Solidarity, Gray said that 39 per cent of her community needs puffers to breathe properly. In the zine, it was also said that the animals who are living off the land in the area are mutated, and are not supposed to be hunted to eat.

Although the Chemical Valley case is extreme, it highlights the damaging effects that oil refineries and pipelines have on surrounding communities and on human life.

The organizer, land defender and educator spoke about her experience as an Indigenous woman in the environmental justice movement, most recently regarding the Wet’suwet’en situation, in relation to her work with Chemical Valley.

Gray said that for Indigenous peoples, having access to their own land, free of contaminants that come from pipelines, is all about survival. “But that is the greatest threat to the Canadian economy that we see today,” stated Gray.

The event was filled with non-Indigenous attendees asking Gray what they could do as allies to support the direct action Indigenous peoples across Canada are taking, in a show of solidarity with land defenders of Wet’suwet’en.

In response, Gray simply stated non-Indigenous folks shouldn’t’ be asking her what to do.

It’s your government that has the guns pointed at us,” said Gray.

Gray explained it’s not easy for her to do this work in educating non-Indigenous people, but she’s doing it for a reason—to lay out the situation, and to communicate that Indigenous people and settlers have different roles in this struggle.

“I’m handing a huge responsibility to you, now that you know,” said Gray. “I have my roles, and you have yours. Don’t try to make me the one to walk you through decolonization, because it means something different to me than it does to you.”

How settler allies can help support Wet’suwet’en land defenders

The facilitator of the event, Jen Gobby of Climate Justice Montreal said the Wet’suwet’en protests against the pipeline are the most powerful current example of climate activism in Canada. Gobby continued that this is the moment for non-Indigenous allies to support it in any way that they can.

Gobby said this could mean following the Unist’ot’en supporter protocols for solidarity action like sending resources, fundraising, raising awareness, and dismantling the colonial narrative of the local climate movement.

Juhi Sohani of Climate Justice Montreal added that the message coming from the front lines is clear: people need to be out there alongside the Indigenous land defenders, blocking infrastructure and taking as much direct action as possible.

Sohani said that talks, such as this one with Gray, are crucial. Sohani explained that every day, settlers should be learning as much as they can in order to hold themselves and the Canadian government accountable for the ongoing colonization and genocide of Indigenous people in this country.

“I think it’s really important for us as non-Indigenous people to feel guilty, and to grapple with that guilt because it’s really important that we come here and we feel uncomfortable,” said Sohani.

Sohani continued that through this, settlers can start to unpack the realization that they as settlers implicitly subscribe to capitalism and are benefitting from it in a multitude of ways because of the current way of life of the majority—and could ultimately put this knowledge to good use.

As Gray said, “we need to figure out a way to make this better for our future generations. We have to look seven generations ahead, because that’s what the lands need—is sustainability.”


Photo by Marissa Ramnanan


The Tropic of X demands you to open your eyes

Caridad Svich’s bold dreamscape shatters preconceptions

Stepping into the theatre feels personal. You are a guest in experiences that may or may not parallel your own. If one thing’s for certain, it is the fact that you are a tourist here, and the people on the stage will not let you forget that. They know you are watching them. You are a temporary voyeur, and they strive to make you uncomfortable.

Initially premiering in Germany in 2007, Montreal’s Centaur Theatre hosts The Tropic of X, written by Caridad Svich and directed by Sophie Gee. The play follows lovers Maura (Arlen Aguayo) and Mori (Braulio Elicer) “in a touristed wasteland at the end of the alphabet.” When people sweep things under the rug, this is where the crumbs go. Welcome to under the rug.

The characters stare back at you and snicker as you seat yourself. They sit, legs dangling, on a graffiti-covered wall. They judge you. Behind them are mountains of trash loosely stuffed into transparent plastic bags. All the waste is laid out for you to see. There is nowhere to hide here. The play charges forward with blatant and unabashed honesty.

The characters speak at you. They do not lean on props. They have themselves; their bodies and tongues have become their instruments. Their words are concise and ruthless. The protagonists, Maura and Mori, move about this world erratically, characterized by simulated mania and essential codependency. Together they swirl in an ever-evolving landscape littered with cultural leftovers so generously donated by the American Dream.

“The language of the colonizer creates the most complete and effective of prisons, the prison which controls thought and expression.”

The program quotes theatrologist, Marvin Carlson, who wrote about the play in his paper, Which Language Do They Want Me To Speak?. Carlson emphasizes that while the characters speak in “la lingua franca,” a bridge-language between two groups that do not share a mother tongue, their words do not belong to the Indigenous languages of the land they live on. Rather, they speak a pidgin of Spanish and English––languages imported and imposed by colonizers.

The Tropic of X confronts colonialism, capitalism and consumerism through aggressive poetry and whispered pillow talk. It’s mesmerizing. It’s romantic. And yet, it is impossible to forget that this is a love story about getting lost and sinking into a reality that eats you up and sucks the marrow from your bones.

This play demands your respect. It’s heavy, raw and impossible to preface because when you buy a ticket, you are paying to be screamed at. You are going to listen to a love story filled to the brim with disgust, broken promises, and disappointment so ingrained in society that it has become commonplace. The characters fight pernicious hopes that poison their minds with insidious notions of better tomorrows.

Svich creates a narrative that asks us to look at what we have done. They ask us to question problems that were never meant to be solved, that have been perpetuated since their origin. In a blog post about The Tropic of X  with Associate Artist Cristina Cugliandro, they write: “The play itself – how it is written – is an act of resistance.” Svich reminds us with every sharp word that this is not just a story.

This is today. This is yesterday. The Tropic of X is still bitterly relevant 13 years later.  



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Illustration by Sarah Gonzales, Courtesy of Erin Lindsay

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