Past, Present, Futures: Visualizing Chemical Valley Pollution and Colonialism Project Description

The Environmental Data Justice Lab's Indigenous -led project researching the history, operations, and pollution practices of Canada's oldest refinery.

The Imperial Oil Refinery in Chemical Valley is one of the oldest refineries in North America (built in 1871)  and played a leading role in starting industry growth around Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Today it remains one of the largest refineries in Chemical Valley and is responsible for  over 150 years of pollution. Despite this long history, we do not know much about Imperial Oil’s past and present operations and its impact on Aamjiwnaang’s environment. It is unsettling that Aamjiwnaang First Nation should live so close to Canada’s oldest oil refinery and know so little from the ministry of environment or the company itself about its past and present emissions and spills. While experts often share highly technical information that is hard to put to use, community members at Aamjiwnaang know well what it is like to live in Chemical Valley and its impacts on land, community, health.


In February 2017, Imperial Oil was responsible for a flaring incident that led to an provincial investigation. Events like show us that we have inadequate information about spills, flares, and other accidents/activities that occur on our traditional territories. Since its founding in 1871, Imperial Oil has been in control of what information is shared with Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Spill after spill, flare after flare, accident after accident: Imperial Oil — and its regulating bodies — have failed to adequate inform or protect. In particular, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has failed to acknowledge all levels of onsite and offsite impacts that Aamjiwnaang community members are subjected to. Often, the MOECC has even failed to alert Aamjiwnaang members about an incident. This research project seeks to to empower community members of Aamjiwnaang and surrounding communities, land defenders, environmentalists, and students by providing better information about Imperial Oil.


This project is researching the  Imperial Oil Refinery’s history, workings, emissions, and health impacts using publicly available information and share it back to Aamjiwnaang, so that community members can be in a better position to advocate. We are planning to  build a website, interactive information, including an app, that will help to make this research useful and accessible to the community. We hope to learn from Aamjiwnaang community members what information they want and how it is best designed so that it is meaningful and useful to the community. Moreover, our understanding of the Imperial Oil Refinery would be incomplete without the knowledge and stories of community members, who are experts in what it is like to live in Chemical Valley. While this project is importantly about Imperial Oil, and not a study of the  Aamjiwnaang community, it is vital to our project that we proceed with guidance and good relations with interested community be members. It is our hope that the project will both provide useful tools for the community, and also help to hold Imperial Oil responsible for harmful pollution. This research in a decolonial context with the purpose of making the information useful and responsible to community members through accessible materials, such as a website that functions as an education tool as well as printed versions of the research to share with community members. We want our research to also be of use to other frontline communities living near refineries and other polluting facilities, and thus  hope that share our way of doing research, App, and data visualization


This project has three parts, but a single goal: to empower community members to understand and ask questions about how the health of the community and environment is being impacted by Imperial Oil’s operations.


In Part One of the project, we have been collecting archival data about the history of Imperial Oil, its acquisition of land, and long history of pollution. We invite the insights and knowledge of  of community members in order to create a timeline of Imperial Oil’s activities on Anishnaabek territory that goes beyond what the official archives can tell us. This research includes creating a detailed understanding of the parts of the refinery and what people are looking at when they view the refinery.


In Part Two of the project, we are building an app that will connect the emissions that Imperial reports to the government with the known health effects that these chemicals cause. It is difficult to make sense of long lists of chemicals, and health research information can also be jargoned filled and hard to access.  We are proposing to building an app that uses Canadian government data for the Imperial Oil Refinery collected by the National Pollution Release Inventory and connecting it to peer reviewed medical research that shows the harms these chemicals are responsible for. We want this app to create an accessible way for community members to connect specific chemical pollutants with the health effects they are concerned about. While Aamjiwnaang First Nation has long wanted a health study that would document the harms that Chemical Valley has created, this app is not a study of the health of the Aamjiwnaang community.  Instead, we are using existing research to build an interactive app that shows that Imperial Oil can be held responsible for health even without having to do a such study. We hope to be guided by the community to make sure we build the app in a way that will be useful to them. As a project guided by Indigenous values, the making of this app needs to be responsible to the community.


For Part Three of the project, which has not yet begun, we would like to develop ways use a reporting app to documents spills and releases that would improve upon the existing inadquate system of reporting.  


Key Points


  1. We are working on Part 1 and 2 of the project now.  At present, we are gathering information from archives, Canadian government data, and scientific research in order to write-up accessible materials for Aamjiwnaang community members on Imperial Oil’s history, past and present emissions, and the health effects associated with those emissions.  
  2. We plan to continue to hold community events and find good ways of consulting with the community and the Environmental Community to build the online materials and apps to make sure they are meaningful and invite community members to participate in the project.  Being in good relation is a guiding obligation of the research.


  1. Our purpose is to empower community members to ask about and share environmental and health concerns connected to chemical valley.


The Technoscience Research Unit’s Environmental Data Justice Lab is an Indigenous-lead lab at the University of Toronto for social justice research about science and technology, with a focus on environmental justice and data justice. We are funded by a Connaught Global Challenge Award and SSHRC Insight Grant. The TRU can be reached at and

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