This first-person column is the experience of Robyn Schleihauf, who lives in Dartmouth, NS. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, see the frequently asked questions.
I grew up in the small town of Sarnia, Ontario. Small is relative. In Nova Scotia, where I live now, a place like Sarnia with a population of 72,000 would never be called “small,” but in southern Ontario, where most of Canada’s population lives crammed along the border with the United States, Sarnia is small.
But what really makes Sarnia small is the feeling of being there.
“Whose daughter are you?” the bookstore clerk asked when he saw the last name on my points account. That’s not a big city thing.
Sarnia is beautiful. It is dotted with sandy beaches that stretch along the shoreline of Lake Huron. But her beauty is often marked by ugliness. Smokestacks line the St. Clair River, and the gigantic oil refineries and manufacturing plants that make up the Chemical Valley make money and poison.
My dad loved Sarnia. After work, she would take off her overalls in the laundry room and immediately shower. People who worked at oil refineries did this in the hope that the asbestos fibers that clung to them would not find their way into their families’ lungs. Then Dad and I would get in the car and swim in the lake before dinner time, the sun still up as we bobbed in the waves.
Sunsets in Sarnia are particularly striking: oranges and pinks dance on the horizon as the sun sinks into the lake in the evening. “Ten out of ten,” my dad would say. He never gave any other place a 10 out of 10, not even when we went to Australia and watched the sun sink behind the ocean teeming with life on the Great Barrier Reef. “9.5,” he had said, smiling. “There is nothing better than a sunset on Lake Huron.”
My dad retired and still loved Sarnia. He went bowling and rode his dirt bike on trails with his friends.
But then, the ugliness of Sarnia became apparent. In the emergency room, a doctor examined an X-ray of my father’s lungs, looked frankly at my grieving parents, and said, “Something’s wrong in this city. It’s a very sick city.”
My dad had mesothelioma, which is cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Many Sarnia workers, including electricians like my father, die of mesothelioma.
In Centennial Park in the center of Sarnia, there is an art installation called the Missing Worker Memorial. It is an astonishing monument: the outline of the silhouette of a missing person in the Chemical Valley of Sarnia frames three figures of the family left behind. Honor workers who have been injured, sick, or killed because of their work.
In 2013, more than a decade after the monument was erected, the park had to be closed for remediation when lead, asbestos and hydrocarbons were found in the soil there, right next to the monument to workers who died from exposure to those same toxins.
Even with her toxic reputation and reality, Sarnia is still adorable. It’s where my family is. It holds my childhood memories: ice cream cones after soccer games, sledding in the park where they found all those chemicals, and ice skating on the pond near my parents’ house. It’s where I spend time with my nieces and nephews and cousins, where I watch their hockey games and bring them fries under the Bluewater Bridge.
But it is also the place where the brutal ugliness of Sarnia tore at my father’s body.
My brother and nephew, union electricians themselves, watched stoically as Dad’s breathing came and went in the sporadic staccato of death. Sarnia is where we watched devastated as our father left this community he loved and where he was loved, in a hospital built partly with the wealth created by the Chemical Valley.
Sarnia is where her funeral was so big I couldn’t see through the crowd to find my mom.
Sarnia is full of complicated contradictions, beauty and ugliness, love and sadness. In that sense, Sarnia is like any other place we call home.
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