Canada·First Person

Sunsets and smokestacks: finding beauty in the city that stole my father's health

Robyn Schleihauf’s dad loved Sarnia above all other places. But he also died from cancer due to exposure as a worker in the city’s Chemical Valley.

My dad is one of the many workers who found employment in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley

A man is silhouetted as the sun sets on a lake.
Robyn Schleihauf’s dad, Tom, said Lake Huron sunsets were the best in the world. (Submitted by Robyn Schleihauf)

This First Person column is the experience of Robyn Schleihauf, who lives in Dartmouth, N.S. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I grew up in the small city of Sarnia, Ont. Small is relative. In Nova Scotia, where I live now, a place like Sarnia with a population of 72,000 people would never be called "small," but in southern Ontario, where most of the population of Canada lives crowded along the border to the United States, Sarnia is small. 

But really what makes Sarnia small is how it feels to be there. 

"Whose daughter are you?" asked the bookstore clerk when they saw the last name on my points account. That isn't a big city question. 

Sarnia is beautiful. It's dotted with sandy beaches that run along the shoreline of Lake Huron. But its beauty is often punctuated by ugliness. Smokestacks line the St. Clair River, and the giant metal oil refineries and manufacturing plants that make up Chemical Valley churn out money and poison. 

My dad loved Sarnia. After work, he would take off his coveralls in the laundry room and immediately shower. People who worked in the oil refineries did this in the hopes that the asbestos fibres that clung to them wouldn't find their way into their family's lungs. Then Dad and I would hop in the car and swim in the lake before dinnertime, the sun still high as we bobbed in the waves.

A man sitting in a chair steadies a girl in a frock.
Schleihauf, pictured as a child, with her dad in Sarnia, Ont. (Submitted by Robyn Schleihauf)

Sunsets in Sarnia are particularly striking — oranges and pinks dance on the horizon as the sun dips into the lake for the evening. "Ten out of ten," my dad would say. He never gave another place a ten out of ten, 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'd said, smiling. "You just can't beat a Lake Huron sunset."  

My dad retired and he kept loving Sarnia. He went bowling and rode his dirt bike through trails with his friends. 

But then, Sarnia's ugliness reared up. In the emergency room, a doctor looked at an X-ray of my dad's lungs, looked frankly at my stricken parents and said, "There is something wrong with this town. This is a very sick town." 

My dad had mesothelioma, which is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. A lot of workers in Sarnia, including electricians like my dad, die of mesothelioma.

In Centennial Park, in Sarnia's downtown, there is an art installation called the Missing Worker Memorial. It is a striking monument — an outline of the silhouette of a person disappeared by Sarnia's Chemical Valley frames three figures of the family left behind. It honours workers who have been injured, become sick or died because of their jobs. 

A metal outline of a silhouette of a person frames three figures.
The Missing Worker Memorial in Sarnia, Ont., honours the people who died from an occupational disease or workplace injury. (Submitted by Robyn Schleihauf)

In 2013, over a decade after the memorial was erected, the park had to be closed for remediation when lead, asbestos and hydrocarbons were found in the ground there — right beside the memorial for workers who died from exposure to those same toxins. 

Even with its toxic reputation and reality, Sarnia is still loveable. It's where my family is. It houses the memories of my childhood: ice cream cones after soccer games, tobogganing at 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, nephews and cousins, where I watch their hockey games and get French fries with them under the Bluewater Bridge. 

But it's also the place where the brutal ugliness of Sarnia tore through my dad's body. 

Two smiling men, one older than the other, sit on patio couches.
Tom Schleihauf, left, with his grandson, Joel, who also works as an electrician in Sarnia, Ont. (Submitted by Robyn Schleihauf)

My brother and my nephew — unionized electricians themselves — watched stoically as dad's breath came and went in the sporadic staccato of death. Sarnia is where we watched in devastation as our dad left this community he loved and where he was loved, in a hospital partly built with the wealth created by Chemical Valley. 

Sarnia is where his funeral was so large that I couldn't see through the crowd to find my mom. 

Sarnia is full of complicated contradictions, beauty and ugliness, love and sorrow. In that way, Sarnia is just like any other place we call home. 

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Robyn Schleihauf

Freelance contributor

Robyn Schleihauf is a writer and a lawyer based in Dartmouth, N.S. She is working on a memoir about her recovery from addiction. She also enjoys teaching and is an associate professor of legal ethics at the Schulich School of Law.