The Imperial Oil Refinery in Sarnia is the oldest refinery in Canada. It is also the oldest operating refinery in the world.(footenote 1) Its story shows how colonialism and fossil fuel capitalism developed together here. The history of the refinery reveals how pollution became an important form of Canadian colonialism, disrespecting Indigenous sovereignty and disrupting land and bodies. This makes the people of Aamjiwnaang world experts on what it is like to live with fossil fuel capitalism.
This oldest refinery was built because settlers “discovered” an oil field nearby. Anishinaabe people had long known about, used, and respected the oil gum beds that bubbled to the surface south of Naadowewi-gichigami (Lake Huron) near Black Creek. After Anishinaabe people lost two million acres of land to the signing of the Huron Tract Purchase, the colonial government began to survey the area. The oil gum beds were mapped in the 1850-51 Canadian Geological Survey and soon attracted a rush of prospecting men to what is now Lambton County.(footnote 2)
This was the first commercial oil field in the world.
Excerpt from the 1850-51 Geological Survey of Canada referencing the oil beds.
It matters that the history of oil and extraction on this land is filled with “firsts” and “oldests:” the first commercial oil field, the first oil company, the first commercial oil well, the oldest refinery. This land, particularly around Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin (the Five Great Lakes) and the blue waters of the Gichigami-ziibi (the rivers that connect the Great Lakes) has been a crucial area for the building out of fossil-fuel capitalism and Canada’s approach to extraction and pollution. It is on this Land that oil was turned into a resource for extraction, that Ford Motors invented the automobile and created the industrialized factory system. This Land has endured the pollution of fossil fuel extraction longer than any other place on earth.
All of this was only possible because of the creation of the reserve system in Canada and the Removal Act in the United States. And so, Chemical Valley was made possible by the colonial processes that removed land from Anishinaabek governance and into settler colonial property. It was made possible by the pass system and the Indian Act which interfered with the the ways Anishinaabek people could care for the land, air, and water. The first oil field and the oldest refinery are part of this story. Colonial processes helped to turn the gum bed lands into properties owned by settlers, they created companies that treated land as an inanimate resource to be taken and profited from, and not a relation to be responsible to. The land was turned land into oil to be sold, into a substance that fueled a colonial economy and put harms into the world.
It is only with the continuing community, knowledge, stories, and relations of Aamjiwnaang that the story of this refinery can be properly told. Only by maintaining knowledge of the traditional relationship to the gum beds and the ongoing deep commitment to this land by Aamjiwnaang community, can the history of chemical valley and and future of this land be correctly understood.
To the best of our knowledge, this refinery is the oldest existing refinery, dating back to 1871. A refinery of similar age, but slightly older by a few months, recently shut down in Philadelphia after an explosion in June 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/massive-fire-philadelphia-refinery-1.5184869
Report of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1850-51, Printed by Order of the Legislative Assembly, 1852. This report describes the "oil springs." These reports were focused on identifying the mineral and geological features that could become economic resources. You can read the report here.