Lead can drag vulnerable people down, through variously “lesser” positions of animateness, into the realms of the “vegetable” or the nonsentient. At the same time, it has already weighed on some bodies more than others.
Mel Y. Chen, Animacies
I keep thinking with and through the Lynnwood Ridge and about the way that when lead was discovered in the soil around those suburban Calgary homes, the state lept into action, holding Imperial Oil to task for not remediating properly when the land was transformed from refinery to residential development. For the longest time, reflecting on a moment so close to home (literally a 20 minute walk from my parents’ house in Ogden), my move has been to ask what the response to the Lynnwood Ridge might show us about spatial change and crisis. How do the parts shuffle in moments of rapid and dramatic change and what remains present, however imperceptible, that was meant to be eliminated? How do we account for the lead left in the soil after extraction?
But is the Lynnwood Ridge an exceptional example because of its visibility? The snap of action by the state and by Imperial Oil tangles with a dynamics of white visibility. The Ridge sits at the heart of oil country. You can sit and look over the Bow at the towers downtown, built in the boomtown lurches of the last century by companies looking to architecturally reflect a bigger score each decade. The Ridge marks a moment where the harm committed by extraction hits too close to home. It’s too visible and the oil industry can’t be seen to not take care of its own.
In contrast, a protester calls out Justin Trudeau for his non-response to the long mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows and Trudeau thanks the protester for her donation. Trudeau apologizes for his thanks, but only because he’s made visible by a covert recording. In other conversations, I hear Trudeau’s “gaffe” bracketed off. At least he’s not Scheer. At least she’s not Kenney. At least they’re not Ford. The constraining and enabling dynamics of spatial production at work. The uncontrollable vectors of economic intention. In what way was mercury donated to Grassy Narrows? Thank you for your donation, Imperial Oil. If the protester donated to Trudeau and the Liberal Party, it’s only because that exchange enabled her entry. A key into a lock.
The intimacies of extraction have a cost of entry tied to the uneven geographies of harm and those geographies depend on a set of visual economies that depend on invisibility and distance. Racial capitalism’s unseen dumps as a method of maintenance, looping back into bodies all the way up the animacy hierarchy even as fear redirects that feedback into hardened borders and panic over the foreign. Removed from the theatre of wronged whiteness, lead and mercury become agents of harm discursively unlinked from capital and the state even as it is still materially attached.
The agental blame carried by these heavy metals attaches to the same bodies they harm. For Chen, this results in a situation where the same Chinese workers blamed for the potential toxicness of the toys they produce are also poisoned by heavy metals. The most racist rhetorics of the Canadian media blame Indigenous communities for their own harm on the grounds that they could solve everything by assimilating. And, on the edge of an election, Albertans look to the options that best stabilize the extractive structures that hold their intimacies in place at whatever cost but their own.