National News

First Nations say they must not be left out of UN plastic treaty talks

By The Canadian Press

Published 2:43 PDT, Wed April 24, 2024

First Nations have one message for delegates gathered in Ottawa this week to negotiate a global plastic waste agreement: don't leave us out. 

Aamjiwnaang First Nation councillor Janelle Nahmabin says Indigenous Peoples are already on the front lines of dealing with the after-effects of plastic pollution.

Leaving them out of the conversation only makes that harder, she said through tears Wednesday alongside a panel of her peers. 

She knows first-hand what it is like to deal with such pollution, growing up in an Anishinaabe community near Sarnia, Ont., in what is nicknamed Canada's "chemical valley."

So does Carrie Plain, a 27-year-old whose brother died of leukemia at 13.

"We know that these (chemical) plants are causing cancer," said Plain, who serves on the community's youth council. 

"And yet, we just have to live with that."

Aamjiwnaang First Nation is surrounded by industrial facilities and has long pushed for greater monitoring and action to protect their air quality. 

Earlier this month, they said data showed elevated levels of benzene in their community.

The First Nation said last week that its employees began complaining of dizziness, nausea and headaches — telltale signs of exposure to the chemical. 

The band office is down the street from an INEOS Styrolution plant, which produces styrene for use in making plastic. 

It shuttered, along with other offices, so staff could keep away. Parents were told to close the windows of their homes to keep the air out. Kids were told to stay away from the community's baseball diamond.

Ontario's environment ministry issued a compliance order to the company that owns the plant.

It must develop a plan by April 26 to prevent, reduce and eliminate wastewater discharge of benzene. 

It must also implement procedures to notify the public when benzene concentrations in air exceed certain thresholds by May 3, and take action to prevent, decrease and eliminate other sources of benzene discharge by May 17.

INEOS Styrolution temporarily shut down its Sarnia facility for the week and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"As much as we've issued the order, which is the first step in resolving the matter, we'll continue to always be there to introduce any measures," provincial Environment Minister Andrea Khanjin said Wednesday.

"We need to make sure that particular company in question is accountable."

For neighbouring residents, billows of smoke, alarms signaling high levels of chemical pollution, evacuations and spills have become almost commonplace, Nahmabin said — but each crisis feels worse than the last. 

"It's been my whole life growing up as a child with a sign in my hand to stop development and stop industry," she said in an interview.

"That's how I grew up, and sadly, I have to raise my children the same way."

Data from Clear Air Sarnia and Area show levels of sulphur dioxide and benzene remain labelled as poor and moderate, respectively, more than one week after they sounded the alarm.

"We're in constant reaction mode," Nahmabin said.

But as international negotiators are working on the framework for a global agreement that would seek to end plastic waste by 2040, she wants First Nations people like her to be on the top of mind for decision-makers.

"We're a little late to the game with this being the fourth (meeting). It would have been great if efforts would have been made to include us from the very beginning," she said.

It's a disappointing fact, she said, noting her First Nation's leadership wants to work collaboratively with governments to create a healthier future for all. 

She told gathered delegates that like everyone else, Indigenous Peoples have a right to a healthy environment, and negotiations should include the duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substances.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Tuesday that the treaty will not be ambitious enough if it doesn't include some limits on plastic production.

– Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press 

With files from Allison Jones.

See more community news

  See All

See more international news

  See All
© 2024 Richmond Sentinel News Inc. All rights reserved. Designed by Intelli Management Group Inc.