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Jul 02, 2021
I had the opportunity to explore a new industrial landscape recently and when I say new, I mean new to me. Have you ever been to Sarnia in south-west Ontario?
All That Glitters (the image above) is an industrial composite based on the fascinating “chemical valley” in Sarnia. I'd actually been in the area briefly a couple of years ago as I crossed the border from Port Huron in Michigan. As we drove across the Blue Water Bridge I was dumbfounded by the sight of what looked like a thousand smoke stacks in the distance. Absolutely riveting! I was completely mesmerised by the place, especially as there are now so few sights like that in Canada or many other western countries.
Sarnia has over sixty chemical plants and refineries in one area, almost like a town in itself. Something of this scale is a remarkable feat but the sight of it is like something out of an old sci-fi film or even a fantastical computer game. However, in this case, it’s reality. As rare, bewildering and enticing a sight as it is (well, to people like me…) it is a place where pollution is high and with a population of just 73,000 people, you can guess that the city and the population are heavily dependent on these industries, even with recent job losses. These are by no means minor problems, or the only ones, and they're issues the city and its residents continue to grapple with.
In contrast to this, Sarnia is perched on the edge of Lake Huron and the St Clair River, which gives it some beautiful lake views. Lots of boats too! This image - Ingrained - shows the massive grain elevator building you can also see by the water.
I recently posted a pic from Sarnia a social media platform, showing leisure boats with some of the smoke stacks in the background as an example of the contrasts in the area on a social and economic level. Someone responded listing all the bad things about Sarnia. Fair enough, but I aim to show that this is the life of many people over generations and the ugly and the negative don’t invalidate their existence. We take the good with the bad and work towards continual improvement, however that may look at the time. For me, how these places are even designed and constructed is something I can’t begin to understand, but I can appreciate the talents of the people who did exactly that, as well as the people who keep them running.
I’m a big fan of the history of industrialisation and the rise of labour representation and I wouldn’t paint it as a pretty picture (though there is a lot of fantastic artwork and literature around this). But, it’s a lived experience and we have to look at all sides. I come from a city that thrived as a major international port in the 18th to early 20th centuries, and experienced even more serious social and economic challenges than it already had when it went into decline. Much of the development and heritage of the city is based upon the transatlantic slave trade, and that’s something the city is still coming to terms with. This is life, warts and all.
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