Lake Huron
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19 Lake Huron July 25, 2011 I decided upon Sarnia, Ontario, as the place to begin my trip around Lake Huron, primarily because it is the shortest drive from my home in central New York, and it is close to the U.S. border. Also, I discovered that it had a train station with a parking lot where I could leave my car, at no cost, “at my own risk.” Ideal. The risks seemed minimal. It’s about a six-­ hour drive to Sarnia from Ithaca, across the New York State Thruway, over the Lewiston-­ Queenston Bridge into Canada. It’s not exactly a picturesque drive, skirting the edges of Buffalo, St. Catherines, Hamilton, and Toronto, before turning west, until you get to the rural flatlands and rolling hills that separate Lake Erie from Huron and Georgian Bay to the north. When I needed gas, the station’s pumps would not take my credit card. I went to ask about the problem. “The machines won’t take American cards,” the clerk informed me. “You need to scan it inside.” “Don’t trust Americans, I see,” I joked. She laughed. “I don’t entirely blame you.” The truth, as I later learned, is that Canadians have the same problem at American pumps. So much for nafta. I arrived in Sarnia in the late afternoon, checked into a motel, and asked for directions to the train station. The clerk directed me to the other side of town. The ride over gave me a chance to check out the place. The city was deserted on a Sunday evening, as I drove by a leafy park running along the St. Clair River, part of the waterway system that connects Huron to Lake Erie. The river flows into shallow Lake St. Clair, which in turn empties into the Lake Huron 20 Detroit River, which once was one of the most polluted waterways in North America and still faces various ecological threats. Unfortunately for the residents of Sarnia, a major east–­ west highway runs through the city’s center, acting as an inconvenient and noisy divider between the northern and southern sides of town. Other than that, it’s quite an attractive city, with active businesses and stable neighborhoods. With a population of just over seventy thousand, Sarnia is the largest city on Lake Huron. As a general rule, I like Canadian cities. One of the most striking aspects of my travels through the Great Lakes borderlands is that Canadian cities, in general, seem to be in better shape than American ones. You just don’t see the boarded-­ up storefronts and distressed neighborhoods in Canada that are endemic to northern Ohio and eastern Michigan and New York’s Ontario shoreline. Canadians seem to take care of their cities. The French explorer La Salle named Sarnia “The Rapids,” due to its location on the river. But oil defines Sarnia as much as water does. Nearby Oil Springs was the location of the first commercial oil drilling operation in the United States and Canada. An oil complex still operating along the river is legacy to this past and was apparently once featured on the back of the Canadian ten dollar bill. Oil, of course, means chemicals, and Sarnia has a central place in what is known as Canada’s “chemical alley.” Although the chemical industry has declined here, there are still a number of facilities. As a result, Sarnia, while apparently prosperous, has the heaviest air pollution load of any city in Ontario. Each year, the twenty-­ three chemical plants nearby release a million kilograms of air pollutants. Sarnia (western tar sands operations excluded) is also one of the leading producers of greenhouse gases in Canada, representing 21 percent of Ontario’s total emissions. Bordering Sarnia is an Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve, and the health of the residents there has been severely affected by all of the chemical pollution. Live births of males are nearly half of those of live females, the lowest ratio recorded anywhere on earth, and a consequence consistent with heavy exposure to chemical toxins. Miscarriage and stillborn rates are exceptionally high. And Lake Huron 21 the problem isn’t confined to First Nations populations. Sarnia residents have higher rates for cardiovascular and respiratory disease than their neighbors in London, Ontario.1 Of course, you won’t find this information on the Sarnia Wikipedia page or city website. What you will find is that Michael Moore interviewed residents of the city for his 2002...