From the 1950s to the 1980s, industries along the St. Lawrence River dumped chemicals into the water. These chemicals included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Insidious, carcinogenic and ubiquitous across industries, PCBs entered the water near the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne on the Canada-U.S. border, just south of Cornwall, Ont..
Day One: Part IV — Environment
Subsistence fishing was an important cultural and lifestyle activity of the community. By the 1980s, the fish being consumed by Akwesasne residents were found laced with PCBs. The community confronted a terrible choice: continue with their traditional lifestyle and face severe health consequences, or be uprooted from their traditional land and waters.
The contamination of the river and neighbouring waterways was so dangerous that there are still parts of Akwesasne where fish from these waters should not be consumed. Long after the polluting industries were closed down, the fish of the St. Lawrence continue to tell a story of environmental degradation and cultural uprooting.
And, there was another, equally dire problem.
“A 200 per cent greater concentration of PCBs was found in the breastmilk of women who continued consuming fish from the river. Here, contamination not only restricted the ability to fish, but also severed a link between mother and child by reducing her capacity to breastfeed safely,” wrote Western’s Chantelle Richmond, professor in the department of geography and environment, in a joint paper published in Health & Place, in 2014.
This was seven years before a research paper published in Environment International documented the discovery of microplastics in human placentas at a hospital in Rome, Italy. This was a distressing finding, but the fact is Indigenous communities with closer connections to land and water have experienced the devastating impact of environmental degradation and climate change in more intimate ways than other communities — and for a much longer time.
For Richmond, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and Environment, the path to saving the natural world lies in understanding Indigenous relations to the environment, and in greater recognition of Indigenous knowledge systems.
This is a holistic model that recognizes what Indigenous communities have long known and what the rest of the world is realizing now: the deterioration of the environment is also the demise of the community and often a blow to mental and physical health. At the Indigenous Health Lab in the Faculty of Social Science, Richmond and her team of researchers work on community-based projects that address major concerns about the environment and public health.
The research, as well as solutions to these concerns, are based on a consultative approach grounded in the knowledge and perspectives of communities.
“I am often called into communities, including my own (Biigtigong Anishinabe) who suggest an idea for research. It’s the community that informs my work and the work of my students,” said Richmond.
That collaborative approach, which places the views and perspectives of Indigenous people first, helps build learning spaces and active solutions to help communities deal with the environmental impact of climate change.
The same old perspective and the same old approaches are not working.
“We are trying to create spaces of learning that target climate change, food insecurity and all these big problems, in ways that actually encompass and build from Indigenous knowledge systems. This approach brings in the people who know best how to address these concerns,” says Richmond.
She offers the example of land-based learning or “bush” camps, which she wrote about in a co-authored paper published in Environment Research and Public Health in 2022. The camps emphasize reconnecting
the community with the land, and with one another, and promoting the idea among youth. There is also an emphasis on moving away from a worldview that sees the land as a resource to be exploited to a more balanced, respectful approach to the environment.
“The work that we do is about healing, restoring and responding to the needs of communities. We need to realize that the same old perspective and the same old approaches are not working.4 And that means sharing leadership and opening the forms of knowledge available to us,” says Richmond.
Sharing innovation to accelerate positive change
Predominantly using 3-D printing and readily available machines and materials, Pearce and his team have designed dozens, if not hundreds, of solar technology advancements and frugal biomedical innovations—all just a click away. (Learn more about frugal biomedical innovations.)
Pearce’s latest book, To Catch the Sun, which he has made available to people for free, shows step-by-step how to set up a photovoltaics system (solar cell panels) for their home or business.
“We’re starting to turn the wealth generation model on its head. The model used to be: If you wanted to make a product, the cheapest method was to manufacture at one location using low-wage labour and polluting fossil- fuel power to make and ship it all over the world,” says Pearce, the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at Western Engineering and the Ivey Business School. “Now, you can download a free design, make it yourself or send it to a local manufacturer.”
Pearce and the FAST research group have led countless studies showing consumers and companies save millions working this way, but the big bonus is open source pays huge dividends for the environment.
“The solution to our environmental challenges ultimately lies with people, and with restructuring the production system so local communities can find greater autonomy, both in economic terms and in their access to knowledge, technology and innovation,” says Pearce.
FAST team members are currently setting up a solar technology testing station north of campus, specifically agrivoltaics, to increase food production by protecting crops with partially transparent solar panels. The team is using open-source and 3-D-printed technologies to develop lower-cost, more sustainable wood-based racks for solar panels that will allow conventional farming and solar revenue at the same time.
“Canada could produce all of its electrical needs with no carbon emissions using less than one per cent of our farm area, all while making more food,” says Pearce.
Pearce and his team are also working with Kenyatta University in Nairobi to make calibration devices for light therapy beds to help jaundiced newborns, and with Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda to make operating tables for 1/100th of the cost of conventional systems.
“We believe work like ours is an excellent start, but what the world really needs now are citizens to get involved, adopt affordable, sustainable technologies and share. Using open-source technologies enables people to read, learn and get to work on their own,” says Pearce.