This past June, I graduated from my master’s degree in Canadian Studies at Carleton University. I was accompanied on stage by friends in my program who were also receiving their degrees. In the audience were my closest family members – father, brother, two aunts, and grandmother – and best friend; but there was an aching absence that day: my mother.
In September 2012, I started my graduate studies with a thesis proposal in one course and a research paper in the other. I wanted to explore local history, not Ottawa local, even though that was where I was living. No, I wanted to research my home town, Sarnia and Lambton County broadly, as well as the histories of Chemical Valley and the Aamjiwnaang (formerly the Chippewas of Sarnia-Lambton) Reservation.
One of my new acquaintances asked me where I was from. I told her, “Sarnia.” She recognized the name, “Oh, cancer alley?” she replied. She was, of course, referring to Sarnia’s high rates of environmental- and industrial-related cancers and illnesses.
Industrial histories are challenging because wounding is embedded in them from pollution and environmental abuses. Chemical Valley, because it is located on current and former Indigenous reservation territory, is an even more complicated story. The industrial complex originated with the founding of Imperial Oil over a century ago. By the 1960s, this area was the centre of petro-chemical and polymer plastic productions.
Sometime in mid-October 2012, I had a call from my mother. “It is just a small lump, nothing to worry about, the doctor’s are going to biopsy it soon.” She was so strong, so brave. “There’s nothing really going on here, just keep up your school work.” Suddenly, my articles about the impacts of Chemical Valley and its story were closer to home than I had ever dreamed. I pushed through. I channelled my emotions, compartmentalized, and I used the anger, frustration, and sorrow to finish my semester.
I enjoyed my winter holidays with my family. My mother had just started chemo-therapy. She lost her hair. She was exhausted easily, but one night she told me, “I lay in my bed, darling, and look at your diplomas on the wall and they just make me so proud. I love you, darling. Good night.”
In January, I returned to school and new courses. I had to pull away from my research into Chemical Valley, and so I turned to another era, the nineteenth century oil industry. I explored questions of lighting and colonial relations through kerosene and whale oil lamps.
In February, I got another difficult phone call. Her diagnosis was terminal. I went home the next day. The following days blurred together with the tears in my eyes. Eventually, at my mother’s suggestion, I returned to school. I dropped a course. I could have used one of those lamps as I stumbled my way through the darkness of dread and impending grief. The physical distance was cursed. I called. We talked. As time passed conversations became shorter. She was simply too tired.
For my major research paper, I needed to play to my strengths. I decided to delve further into an earlier question that interested me: how did the oil that Chemical Valley refined get there? Southern Ontario had been the home of the oil fields of the 19th century, but those were now too small and dry for the conglomeration of refining and production in the petro-chemical corridor.
Pipelines built in the 1950s provided the link between Alberta and Ontario. As I researched, I became more and more intrigued by the language used to promote and describe the perceived importance of these pipelines. As a student of Canadian Studies living in the nation’s capital, these narratives of tying the nation together caught my attention. A Canadian nationalist oil and gas pipeline system would run entirely east-west along the lines of the iconic national railway. The analogy helped to create a link between past, present, and future for the public and created coherence between the history of the nation and its current nationalist actions and desires.
My research was put on hold the following autumn. At the funeral, I spoke to my fellow mourners about how the past was over and gone, but that history was a means of giving life back by rekindling the stories and experiences of the dead. In history, we explore the complex lives of the generations of people before us, and do our best to understand these people in the context of the societies in which they lived. I swore to keep my mother’s memory alive through the retelling of her life, love, strength, and inspiration.
When these mega-projects came together – Chemical Valley and the pipelines that feed it – it was an era of confidence and hope with a willful blindness to the health, safety, and environmental concerns that we have come to acknowledge today. The legacy of these megaprojects has yet to be fully explored, but should include closer examinations of its embedded wounds and understandings of the personal, workers’, and social histories that have been subsumed by the role of the nation.
 For example: CBC “Dying for a Living,” and Exposing Chemical Valley
 Jessica Helps, “The Whale Oil Lamp: Illuminations and Reflections on a Mid-Nineteenth Century Commodity,” Stains, Stones and Stories: Unsettling Representations of Confederation, Volume 3, number 1, spring 2013, http://capstoneseminarseries.wordpress.com
Latest posts by Jessica Helps (see all)
- Embedded Wounds in the Histories of Pipelines and Petro-chemicals - November 10, 2014
This is a well-written and thoughtful post. This couldn’t have been easy to write and I appreciate you sharing it here.
Your research on nationalism and energy history is fascinating. I’m currently working on a project on the history of Canada’s post-war oil pipeline network and I see similar themes across the country: nationalism, railways, security, economic prosperity. I’m interested in how this rhetoric changed over time and how current pipeline projects attempt to deploy similar ideas.
Thank you very much! I would be interested to hear more about your research. I am hoping to continue working on the research I started in grad school in my spare time. I think that there are important narratives that I want to explore and understand further.
This is a really beautiful post and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing, Jessica, and for illustrating how many of us have a deeply personal connection to our research. So often we are encouraged to step back from our research, to obscure or hide any personal connection that we have to our research in the name of objectivity, but, perhaps, these personal connections are exactly what makes our research worthwhile and relevant.
Thank you Jessica! That was precisely something that I struggled with very deeply. I would like to continue to research and share the histories I have learned about my home town precisely because I am involved and passionate, but I worry very much about the inherent biases that makes, and in what ways does it sway my (educated) opinion about the information at hand.
What a tender and insightful piece, and a great tribute to/ for your mother.
I do hope you are continuing with your work.
Thank you very much! I hope, as well, that I will be able to continue with it. I am working full time and it has taken some time to adjust to the transition from my studies.