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Political and Chemical Blowback

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Issue: 60 Section: Ideas Geography: Atlantic New Brunswick, Gagetown

May 7, 2009

Political and Chemical Blowback

How the Canadian government poisoned rural New Brunswick

by Megan Stewart

Author Chris Arsenault uses facts gleaned from Freedom of Information requests, primary-documents and interviews to condemn the Canadian government for its complicity in using chemicals against its own people at a concentration higher that the U.S. sprayed in Southeast Asia.

VANCOUVER–The term ‘blowback’ has two definitions. One is environmental, the other political; both come with a human cost. Blowback happens when chemicals sprayed in the air catch wind currents, blow back towards those doing the spraying and fall on homes, farms and people. Blowback also describes the unintended adverse results of a political action or situation. Chris Arsenault documents how these dual forms of blowback met in rural New Brunswick in his first book Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange and the War at Home.

Blowback documents the irresponsibility of the Canadian government as it pursued a decades-long campaign to spray small town and rural New Brunswick with more than a million litres of Agent Orange, considered one of the deadliest synthetic chemicals known to humankind.

From 1956 to 1984, the military and its private contractors showered more than 1.3 million litres of toxic defoliant on and around the Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, including the town of Enniskillen and its several hundred residents. The reason for spraying was simple: to defoliate trees and brush to make space for acres of training ground and shooting ranges at the base, writes Arsenault.

Arsenault is unabashedly critical of Canadian military neglect, which he describes as deliberate, and has choice words about the systemic defoliation at Gagetown:

…partially a story of inaction, ignorance incompetence and laziness: contract supervisors who didn’t follow safety labels; military personnel who buried improperly sealed barrels of toxin in random locations; aerial sprayers who missed their targets, destroying crops and swaths of land; and power companies who decided spraying dioxin was a cheaper way to clear brush from electrical lines than hiring workers with saws and axes.

Spraying was also used on the land because the topography and foliage simulated conditions in Vietnam. “Of all possible North American test sites,” Arsenault outlines, “it had the terrain most like Vietnam.”

Arsenault uses facts gleaned from Freedom of Information requests, primary sources and interviews to condemn the Canadian government for its complicity in using chemicals against its own people at a concentration higher than the US sprayed in Southeast Asia.

Agent Orange gained infamy when the US used it during the Vietnam War, resulting in serious health consequences for multiple generations of Vietnamese.

In his opening passages, Arsenault outlines similar consequences in New Brunswick, including a resident of Enniskillen who had 11 tumours removed from her body.

One of the most galling examples of private traumas endured by those spraying and being sprayed with the toxic defoliant is that of Ken Dobbie. As a teenager in 1966, he handled Agent Orange with his bare hands while on a six-week contract to strip the bush. Now suffering from a host of neurological and blood disorders, Dobbie told Arsenault, “We were told this stuff was safe enough to drink.” Dobbie is now a leading plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government.

In 115 pages, Arsenault has compiled a history of Agent Orange in Canada that includes both insight and humour. From the first internal memo to the NDP politician in the 1980s to the press exposés and to the largest class-action lawsuit in US history, Blowback is compelling reading for every Canadian who wants to know more about the wizard behind the curtain. The author's research unearths years of military paper trails and includes extensive interviews with past Gagetown military personnel, labourers contracted to spray, and rural New Brunswick residents.

With dozens of footnotes per chapter, the passages can seem textbook-like. The stories he relates about the individuals most impacted by spraying—like Paul and Cora Thompson, who can’t have children, and Marilyn Kissinger, whose brother and teenage friends died en masse—are haunting and unforgettable, but also underdeveloped. Arsenault seems to have established the trust of one-time Gagetown infantry and past Enniskillen residents. He does each one justice, but would do the reader a favour by indulging a narrative style to heighten memories, loss and sacrifice. However, he does corroborate first-person accounts with documented information, enhancing one through the use of the other.

The war at home, Arsenault writes, is not for mere poetic effect or political rhetoric. No, the history of Agent Orange in Canada is about the war coming home and being waged against Canadians. What citizens finally realized, and what spurred them to mobilize, writes Arsenault, is that they have the justification and agency to blow back against the government and military that poisoned them.

Megan Stewart is a Vancouver-based journalist.

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Comments

Amount of chemicals use in CFB Ggetown.

Although much of what is said in the book is correct there is one gaping omission. When Chris was first doing his research the numbers 1.3 million litres that he quoted was as much as any of us knew about from the DND documents. However after the shock had worn off and we revisited the DND document we noticed that there were many years, 19 to be more exact, with no amounts of chemicals used listed in the totals column.

On further inspection we found that these were the years where dry chemicals were used instead of liquid most likely because of the drift accident in 1964. To make a long story short there was an additional 2,048,000 pounds of toxic chemicals used in the 1956 to 1984 period. There are more chemicals used such as the US spraying and Dow Chemicals tests which were conducted where we have no idea what was sprayed or how much, but the number in the book should read 3.3 million litres / pounds of toxic chemicals.

Correction on the amount of Chmicals used in CFB Gagetown

This book tells the Gagetown story like never before but although much of what is said in the book is correct there is one gaping omission. When Chris was first doing his research the numbers 1.3 million litres that he quoted was as much as any of us knew about from the DND documents. However after the shock had worn off and we revisited the DND document we noticed that there were many years, 19 to be more exact, with no amounts of chemicals used listed in the totals column.

On further inspection we found that these were the years where dry chemicals were used instead of liquid most likely because of the drift accident in 1964. To make a long story short there was an additional 2,048,000 pounds of toxic chemicals used in the 1956 to 1984 period. There are more chemicals used such as the US spraying and Dow Chemicals tests which were conducted where we have no idea what was sprayed or how much, but the number in the book should read 3.3 million litres / pounds of toxic chemicals.

The problems with contemporary history

Hi Ken,

Thanks for the comment. As I note in the book, this is not the final story on Agent Orange and more facts are continually coming out. I did not have documents on the dry chemicals.

The facts I use, in terms of spraying volumes, are taken from an article I wrote for THIS Magazine in 2006. That article was fact-checked by an external reviewer and then vetted by a lawyer. The article won wide-spread praise from Agent Orange victims and other writers, so I simply used the facts from that piece which had been checked.

My main concern in writing this is that someone from DND or Dow Chemical would accuse me of over-exaggerating the problem. Thus, throughout the book, when given the choice between two sets of numbers, I continually opted for the lower figures.

It wouldn't be accurate or fair to say that the numbers I site surronding the amounts of chemicals sprayed are wrong. I had a long discussion about this issue with faculty members at the University of British Columbia's History Department and they agree that this is not a case of me providing wrong data. It is a case of new information coming out, to which I did not have access.

If anything, as you point out, the situation is worse than I say. In retrospect, information on the dry chemicals would have been good but I did not have this information when writing. Since the beginning of April, I have been using information about dry chemicals in speeches and interviews.

Furthermore, in all the literature on this issue that I have read, I have never heard of wet and dry chemicals being lumped together in one large number (3.3 million litres/pounds) and I am not sure if this is the best way to present the data. This is a fairly minor crititique. But to be fair, I still haven't seen the raw calculations which led the Agent Orange Association of Canada to use this 3.3 million figure.

I am sure there are other important pieces of the puzzle that are not in the book, but that's par for the course when writing the history of a tragedy that is still unfolding.

These problems surrounding the inclusion of dry chemicals, along with a couple of other issues that some Agent Orange victims have complained about don't undermine the book's important conclusions. I am sure you'd agree on this final point, Ken. I appreciate the dialogue and, as we all know, this story is far from over.

More documents will invariably arise in the court case and we will likely find the situation continually gets worse as more information comes out. That being said, my conclusions and data are not incorrect. They are based on the information I had access to and on a topic like this, new info continually comes out.

cheers
chris

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