Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Deborah Jackson, left, was cross-examined last week about an expert report she filed as part of a lawsuit being brought by Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain against the Ontario, Canada, Ministry of Environment and Suncor Energy Products Inc.

EC professor offers expert testimony in landmark Canadian court case

May 27, 2014

Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Deborah Jackson’s research on indigenous peoples from the Great Lakes region has led her to be called as an expert witness in a landmark Canadian court case.

Jackson was in Toronto last week being cross-examined on her expert report filed as part of a lawsuit being brought by Ada Lockridge and Ron Plain against the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE) and Suncor Energy Products Inc. Lockridge and Plain, two members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ontario, alleged in 2010 that the MOE’s decision to approve increased production at part of the Suncor refinery has added to the cumulative impact of pollution to the community.

Sarnia’s build-up of petrochemical plants has earned the region the nickname “Chemical Valley” due to the heavy build-up of petrochemical plants there.  The result, according to the World Health Organization, is that Sarnia has the highest level of polluting particulates of any Canadian city.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, similar to the United States’ Bill of Rights, says all Canadians have the right to life, liberty and security of person as well as equality under the law.  In their legal case, Lockridge and Plain allege that by allowing an increase in production at the facility at issue in this case without considering cumulative effects and without any notification to community members, the government has infringed on those guaranteed rights and freedoms.

Lawyers with the non-governmental charitable organization Ecojustice are representing Lockridge and Plain. Jackson caught the attention of those working on this case, as well as others studying the issue of pollution and health in Chemical Valley, after she wrote a research paper called “Shelter in place: a First Nation community in Canada’s Chemical Valley.” Her research was published in a 2010 issue of Interdisciplinary Environmental Review.

“I was happy to offer my assistance as an expert in this case,” Jackson says. “Not only am I an anthropologist whose research has focused on indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region, but I have also conducted field work in the Aamjiwnaang community specifically. It’s important to me that my research has some practical application, so I consider it a great opportunity to offer my assistance in this case, so that the results of my research will be before the court when it makes its decision.” 

“Shelter in place,” which means to stay indoors with windows tightly closed, is a phrase from a public service announcement used in the region in the event of a dangerous chemical emission. 

Jackson contends the local community with the greatest risk is Aamjiwnaang, whose 1,200-acre reserve has been impacted by many harmful pollutants. They include cancer-causing benzene, as well as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen, chemicals known to cause respiratory and cardiovascular health effects. Perhaps lending support to the question of environmental impact, Jackson says, is evidence of a skewed birth ratio — that is, during a recent 10-year period, birth records for the Aamjiwnaang band indicate only one boy born for every two girls. 

Yet, many living there are reluctant to leave for greener pastures. That’s where Jackson’s research could prove instrumental in the case. 

“My main point in the ‘Shelter in Place’ article is that it’s hard to make this move and that people don’t do it lightly,” she says. “People are very deeply connected to that piece of land. 

“To this day, despite increasing concerns about the pollution there, people of Aamjiwnaang have a connection not only with one another, but also with beings of the landscape, beings that have a sort of personhood, and therefore are part of the community.,” she says. “This community and this landscape are very important to them. That is, people have found shelter at Aamjiwnaang for many generations and that makes it very difficult to give up and leave that place.” 

Jackson, who earned her PhD. from the University of Michigan, has been conducting research for more than two decades in the Great Lakes region, mostly focused on indigenous peoples. She is the author of Our Elders Lived It: American Indian Identity in the City (Northern Illinois University Press, 2002).

In 2007, she made her first visit to the Aamjiwnaang reserve after looking for a new research topic to pursue during her sabbatical leave. In addition to the aforementionedarticle, she has also published an article on conditions at Aamjiwnaang titled “Scents of Place: The Dysplacement of a First Nations Community in Canada” (American Anthropologist, 2011). 

“The easy solution to the problem, some think, is for the government and industry to move the community and give them some land up north,” Jackson says. “But it’s not that easy from their perspective. 

“They have been there for many, many generations,” she says. “They didn’t come along and see this blank spot in the middle of Chemical Valley and say, ‘I know, let’s settle here.’ They were there first.” 

In 2012, Jackson received funding from a Canadian Studies Faculty Enrichment Grant and enhanced an existing course, “The Cultural Politics of Environment: Great Lakes Region.” Recently, she has taken students on research trips to major environmental “hot spots” along the St. Clair Channel between Michigan and southwest Ontario: Sarnia, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, and Windsor on the Canadian side; and Marine City and southwest Detroit on the U.S. side.

Jackson says that donating her time as an expert witness on this case presents an opportunity to contribute to an important endeavor that can help a court understand the full context when it makes its decision.

“No matter how the case turns out,” says Jackson, “I will feel as if I have been part of a strong effort. It’s exciting to participate in a process that raises important questions about individuals’ environmental health and the degree to which that is protected by law.” 

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and zimmebr@earlham.edu.

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