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City (lower-tier)
City of Sarnia
Sarnia skyline.JPG
Nickname(s): The Imperial City, Chemical Valley
Motto: Sarnia Semper
(Latin for "Sarnia Always")
Country  Canada
Province  Ontario
County Lambton
Settled 1830s
Incorporated 19 June 1856 (town)
Incorporated 7 May 1914 (city)
 • Land 164.71 km2 (63.59 sq mi)
 • Metro 799.87 km2 (308.83 sq mi)
Elevation 180.60 m (592.52 ft)
Population (2011)
 • City (lower-tier) 72,366
 • Metro 89,555
Postal code span N7S, N7T, N7X
Area code(s) 519, 226 and 548

Sarnia is a city in Southwestern Ontario, Canada, and had a 2011 population of 72,366. It is the largest city on Lake Huron and in Lambton County. Sarnia is located on the eastern bank of the junction between the Upper and Lower Great Lakes where Lake Huron flows into the St. Clair River, which forms the Canada-United States border, directly across from Port Huron, Michigan. The city's natural harbour first attracted the French explorer La Salle, who named the site "The Rapids" when he had horses and men pull his 45 tonnes (50 short tons; 44 long tons) barque "Le Griffon" up the almost four-knot current of the St. Clair River on 23 August 1679.

This was the first time anything other than a canoe or other oar-powered vessel had sailed into Lake Huron, and La Salle's voyage was thus germinal in the development of commercial shipping on the Great Lakes. Located in the natural harbour, the Sarnia port remains an important centre for lake freighters and oceangoing ships carrying cargoes of grain and petroleum products. The natural port and the salt caverns that exist in the surrounding areas, together with the oil discovered in nearby Oil Springs in 1858 led to the massive growth of the petroleum industry in this area. Because Oil Springs was the first place in Canada and North America to drill commercially for oil, the knowledge that was acquired there led to oil drillers from Sarnia travelling the world teaching other nations how to drill for oil.

The complex of refining and chemical companies is called Chemical Valley and located south of downtown Sarnia. While in 2011, the city had the highest level of particulates air pollution of any Canadian city, it has since dropped down to 30th. About 60 percent of the particulate matter, however, comes from the neighboring United States. Lake Huron is cooler than the air in summer and warmer than the air in winter; therefore, it moderates Sarnia's humid continental climate, which makes temperature extremes of hot and cold less evident. In the winter, Sarnia occasionally experiences lake-effect snow from Arctic air blowing across the warmer waters of Lake Huron and condensing to form snow squalls once over land.

Culturally, Sarnia is a large part of the artistic presence in Southern Ontario. The city's International Symphony Orchestra is renowned in the area and has won the Outstanding Community Orchestra Award given by the Detroit Music Awards in 2011. Michael Learned graced the stage of the Imperial Theatre for a 2010 production of Driving Miss Daisy. Sarnia Bayfest, which used to be the largest event in Sarnia annually, was a popular music festival that took place during the summer. In 2013, organizers cancelled the event because of money troubles but are taking an "indefinite hiatus" while planning for the future.


The name "Sarnia" is Latin for Guernsey, which is a British Channel Island. In 1829 Sir John Colborne, a former governor of Guernsey, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. In this capacity, he visited two small settlements in 1835 that had been laid out on the shores of Lake Huron. One of these, named "The Rapids," consisted then of 44 taxpayers, nine frame houses, four log houses, two brick dwellings, two taverns and three stores. The villagers wished to change its name but were unable to agree on an alternative. The English settlers favoured the name "Buenos Aires" and the Scottish "New Glasgow". Sir John Colborne suggested Port Sarnia. On 4 January 1836, the name was formally adopted by a vote of 26 to 16, and Colborne also named the nearby village Moore after British military hero Sir John Moore. Sarnia adopted the nickname "The Imperial City" on 7 May 1914 because of the visit of Canada's Governor General, H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, and his daughter Princess Patricia.


Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario sign - Le Griffon
Sign summarizing the voyage of Le Griffon, situated under the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia
Sarnia From Space
Sarnia from Space: taken by Chris Hadfield, the only astronaut from Sarnia, in December 2001

First Nations peoples have lived, hunted, and traveled across the area for at least 10,000 years, as shown by archaeological evidence on Walpole Island. These peoples were drawn from an amalgamation of Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potowatami clans, which formed the Three Fires Confederacy, also called the Council of Three Fires, in A.D. 796. These clans came together through common links in both language and culture, developing a self-sufficient society where tasks and responsibilities were equally shared among all members.

During the 1600s and 1700s, The Three Fires Confederacy controlled much of the area known as the hub of the Great Lakes, which included the Canadian shore where Sarnia is now located. During this time, it maintained relations with many of the First Nations, including Huron, Sioux, and Iroquois, as well as the countries of Great Britain and France. Their trading partners, the Huron, welcomed La Salle and the Griffon in 1679 after he sailed into Lake Huron. The Ontario Heritage Trust erected a sign under the Blue Water Bridge in commemoration of the voyage, as shown by the photo of the sign.

Because of this beginning of the incursion of Europeans into the area, the members of the Confederacy helped shape the development of North America throughout the 18th century, becoming a center of trade and culture. Great Britain supported this strengthening of the tribes in the area as a set of allies against the French and the Iroqouis. The people of the Three Fires Confederacy, however, sided with the French during the Seven Years' War and only made peace with Great Britain after the Treaty of Fort Niagara in 1764. It also fought on the side of the British during the War of 1812. The Three Fires Confederacy also broke several treaties with the United States prior to 1815, but finally signed the Treaty of Springwells in September of that year and ceased all hostilities directed at the United States. The Grand Council survived intact until the middle to late 19th century, when more modern political systems began to evolve.

After the War of 1812, the first Europeans in the area were French settlers loyal to the British Crown who moved north from Detroit. They successfully traded with the Three Fires Confederacy, which contributed to the growth of the area. After its foundation, Port Sarnia expanded throughout the 19th century; on 19 June 1856, the residents passed the Act to Incorporate the Town of Sarnia and the name Port Sarnia was officially changed to Sarnia effective 1 January 1857. The Act mentioned 1,000 inhabitants in three wards. The wealth of adjoining stands of timber, the discovery of oil in nearby Oil Springs in 1858 by James Miller Williams, and the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1858 and the Grand Trunk Railway in 1859 all stimulated Sarnia's growth. The rail lines were later linked directly to the United States by the opening of the St. Clair Tunnel under the St. Clair River at Sarnia in 1890, by the Grand Trunk Railway, which was the first railroad tunnel ever constructed under a river. The tunnel was an engineering marvel in its day, achieved through the development of original techniques for excavating in a compressed air environment.

Canada Steamship Lines formed in 1913 from many previous companies that plied the waters of the St. Clair River. One of these companies was Northwest Transportation Company of Sarnia, which was founded in 1870. By 20 April 1914, when the residents passed Act to Incorporate the City of Sarnia, the population had grown to 10,985 in six wards. Sarnia officially became a city as of 7 May 1914.

Sarnia Grain Elevator from Across the Bay
Sarnia's massive grain elevator
Two Lake Freighters Loading in Sarnia
Framed by the Blue Water Bridge, two lake freighters take on cargo in Sarnia Harbour

Sarnia's grain elevator, which is the sixth largest currently operating in Canada, was built after the dredging of Sarnia Harbour in 1927. Two short years later, grain shipments had become an important part of Sarnia's economy. The grain elevator rises above the harbour, and next to it is the slip for the numerous bulk carriers and other ships that are part of the shipping industry that includes vessels from all over the world. The waterway between Detroit and Sarnia is one of the world's busiest, as indicated by the average of 78,943,900 tonnes (87,020,800 short tons; 77,697,100 long tons) of shipping that annually travelled the river going in both directions during the period 1993–2002. Lake freighters and oceangoing ships, which are known as "salties," pass up and down the river at the rate of about one every seven minutes during the shipping season. During this same period, The Paul M. Tellier Tunnel, which was named after the retired president of CN in 2004, was bored and began operation in 1995. It accommodates double-stacked rail cars and is located next to the original tunnel, which has been sealed.

While there had been a petroleum industry in the Sarnia area since 1858, the establishment of Polymer Corporation in 1942 to manufacture synthetic rubber during World War II was a great success and began Sarnia's rise as a major petrochemical centre. Because of Sarnia's importance in this industry, it appeared on a United States Government list of possible Soviet targets as part of its Anti-Energy nuclear strike strategy during the Cold War.

On 1 January 1991, Sarnia and the neighbouring town of Clearwater (formerly Sarnia Township) were amalgamated as the new city of Sarnia-Clearwater. The amalgamation was originally slated to include the village of Point Edward, although that village's residents resisted and were eventually permitted to remain independent of the city. On 1 January 1992, the city reverted to the name Sarnia.

Sarnia's population experienced a continual growth from 1961 to 1991, with a 1991 population of 74,376. In 2001 the population had declined by approximately 3,000. Since 2001 Sarnia's population has been growing slowly, with a 2011 population count of 72,366. Despite these gains, an April 2010 report "Sarnia-Lambton's Labour Market" states: "Large petrochemical companies are the community's main economic drivers. Over the recent past, several plants have shutdown,[sic] and of those still in operation, increased automation and outsourcing has led to significantly fewer workers." These shutdowns and the resulting loss of jobs, and therefore population as workers search for employment elsewhere, will contribute to a general decline shown by one August 2011 study, which shows that the population will decline by 17% over the next twenty-five years. The Monteith-Brown study cited outlines a plan for restructuring the city based on hybrid zoning areas, which will bring work opportunities closer to the neighborhoods where people live. The City of Sarnia and Lambton County are also implementing an economic development plan with an emphasis on bio-industries and renewable energy.


Sarnia at Night from Space
Sarnia from Space, this time at night - Taken by Chris Hadfield, the only astronaut from Sarnia, who wanted to snap a photo of his hometown from the International Space Station. Before the flyover, Hadfield arranged with the citizens of Sarnia via Twitter and Facebook to turn on all their lights both inside and outside their homes.

Sarnia is located on the eastern shore of Lake Huron at its extreme southern point where it flows into the St. Clair River. Most of the surrounding area is flat, and the elevation ranges from 169 metres (554 ft) and 281 metres (922 ft) above sea level. The soil mostly comprises clay. Despite this high percentage of clay, the soil is remarkably rich for cultivation. Prior to the Ice Age, glaciers covered most of the area, as can be seen not only by the existence of the Great Lakes themselves but also of alluvial sand deposits, terminal moraines, and rich oil reserves. The entire area was submerged and plant and animal matter formed many layers of sediment as they settled after the waters receded. Sarnia is not part of the Canadian Shield and is located just beyond its southernmost reaches, 290 kilometres (180 mi) west of Toronto and 106 kilometres (66 mi) north of Detroit.


Wiltshire Park, Woodland, Oak Acres, Wees Beach, Oakwood Corners, Woodrow Shores, and Blackwell, are part of the North End of Sarnia, which begins immediately north of Ontario Highway 402 and terminates at the shore of Lake Huron. Coronation Park, Heritage Park, College Park, The Tree Streets, and Sherwood Village are some of the neighbourhoods south of the highway.

The village of Blue Water was built to house workers and their families in Chemical Valley during the construction of Polymer Corporation and at one point had nearly 3,000 residents. In 1961, all the residents were relocated, mostly to the North End, to make way for expansion of the chemical industry. The village was demolished, and all that remains now is an historical marker at the corner of Vidal Street and Huron Avenue. This neighbourhood was largely forgotten until historian Lorraine Williams penned two books about it and was instrumental in the dedication of the plaque.


Sarnia has a humid continental climate (Köppen climate classification Dfb). Winters are cold with a few short-lasting Arctic air masses that dip far enough south and bring with them daily high temperatures lower than −10 °C (14 °F). Sarnia, while not quite located in the southwestern Ontario snowbelt, sometimes receives large quantities of lake-effect snow. Sarnia averages 112.0 cm (44.1 in) of snow per year, while London averages 194.3 cm (76.5 in).

The lake creates a seasonal lag, and compared to the rest of Canada and inland Ontario, Sarnia has a noticeably longer warm period following summer. However, cooler temperatures tend to prevail for longer after winter. Lake Huron can also create large temperature differences within the city in spring and early summer, particularly on hot days in late May and early June. Finally, extreme temperatures, particularly lows, are rarely ever seen. Daily lows less than −10 °C (14 °F) are seen an average of 30 days a year, and less than −20 °C (−4 °F) two days a year. Summers are warm to hot and usually humid. Humidex readings can be very high at times from late May to late September. In fact, Sarnia has the second greatest number of high humidex days at or above 35 °C (95 °F) (with 23.16 days on average per year) and humidex days at or above 30 °C (86 °F) (with 61.20 days on average per year) in Canada, both after Windsor, Ontario. Thunderstorms can become quite severe from April to September. Destructive weather is very rare in the area but has occurred, such as the tornado event of 1953.

Climate data for Sarnia (Chris Hadfield Airport), 1981–2010 normals, extremes 1926–present
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 18.9
Average high °C (°F) -1.2
Daily mean °C (°F) -4.8
Average low °C (°F) -8.3
Record low °C (°F) -28.9
Precipitation mm (inches) 51.5
Rainfall mm (inches) 22.9
Snowfall cm (inches) 31.0
Humidity 83.5 82.8 84.0 83.2 83.8 86.3 89.0 91.5 90.5 86.6 84.8 84.7 85.9
Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.2 mm) 15.0 11.9 12.9 14.0 12.6 10.9 10.9 10.4 11.4 12.2 13.7 14.2 150.0
Avg. rainy days (≥ 0.2 mm) 5.0 4.9 7.5 12.4 12.6 10.9 10.9 10.4 11.4 12.2 11.5 7.2 116.7
Avg. snowy days (≥ 0.2 cm) 11.3 8.4 7.0 2.4 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.19 3.0 9.0 41.4
Sunshine hours 81.7 100.3 139.9 185.2 236.6 266.3 299.1 254.3 191.3 151.2 87.6 67.4 2,060.9
Source: Environment Canada


Downtown Sarnia in late autumn
Historical populations
Year Pop. ±%
1841 610 —    
1871 2,929 +380.2%
1881 3,874 +32.3%
1891 6,692 +72.7%
1901 8,176 +22.2%
1911 9,947 +21.7%
1921 14,877 +49.6%
1931 18,191 +22.3%
1941 18,734 +3.0%
1951 34,697 +85.2%
1961 50,976 +46.9%
1971 57,644 +13.1%
1981 50,829 −11.8%
1991 74,167 +45.9%
1996 72,738 −1.9%
2001 70,876 −2.6%
2006 71,419 +0.8%
2011 72,366 +1.3%

Population figures reflect Sarnia's amalgamation with Clearwater in 1991.

In the 2011 Census, the City of Sarnia had a population of 72,366, an increase of 1.3% from the 2006 Census. With a land area of 164.71 km2 (63.59 sq mi), it had a population density of 439.354/km2 (1,137.92/sq mi) in 2011.

In 2011, Sarnia had an overwhelmingly white population; only 4.61% were visible minorities, and 3.93% were Aboriginal. In 2011, 87.92% of Sarnians called English their mother tongue, 2.65% listed French, 0.98% stated both of those languages, and 8.44% said another language was their mother tongue.

The median age in Sarnia is 44.8 which is older than the Canadian median of 40.6, indicative of Sarnia's aging population. According to the 2011 Census, Sarnia is predominately Christian as 28.46% of the population were Catholic, 12.4% were members of the United Church of Canada, 7.3% were Anglican, and 20.06% were of other Christian faiths, Muslim, or Jewish; 28.38% professed no religious preference or were atheists. The median income counting all persons 15 years old or older in Sarnia in 2010 was $29,196, while median family income was $76,523, both of which were slightly lower than average for Ontario, at $30,526 and $80,987, respectively. The cost of living in Sarnia, however, is significantly lower than it is in Ontario as a whole. The median value of a dwelling, for instance, is $179,266, compared to the $300,862 of Ontario as a whole.


Music, theatre, and arts

Celebration of Lights
One of the many displays in Sarnia's Celebration of Lights

Sarnia's musical and theatrical presence in Southern Ontario is significant. The International Symphony Orchestra plays at the Imperial Theatre for an annual season lasting from September to April. In addition to symphonic concerts, the Imperial Theatre offers year-round dramatic productions; Michael Learned played the lead in Driving Miss Daisy at the theatre in 2010. Former Max Webster frontman Kim Mitchell has returned to his hometown on occasion to play a concert, including his visit in 2008 for Sarnia's popular Ribfest, a competition where local amateur chefs share their recipes for barbecued ribs and compete against each other. Canadian composer and music educator Raymond Murray Schafer was born in Sarnia and developed his radical schizophonia techniques there.

The Sarnia Bayfest (which was preceded by the "Festival by the Bay") was an annual concert festival that features big-name rock and country bands, typically during the second or third weekend of July. Musicians and groups such as Aerosmith, KISS, Keith Urban, Jon Bon Jovi and Rascal Flatts have played at the event. The year 2013 would have marked the fifteenth anniversary of Bayfest, but financial problems caused the event's cancellation. Organizers stated that it is "not the end" and that they planned on coming back on solid financial footing sometime in the future. As of December 2013, intent was announced to merge with the International Powerboat Festival for a joint event in 2015.

Besides the single museum in Sarnia proper, six other museums in the local area document Sarnia's history, including its legacy as the home of the North American Oil Industry. Gallery Lambton offers 12 annual art exhibitions. In 2012 the Judith and Norman Alex Art Gallery opened. It is an international Category A art gallery, featuring exhibitions of Canadian art history, including paintings from the Group of Seven.

During the Christmas season, the city of Sarnia presents the annual "Celebration of Lights" in Centennial Park. The event, a Festival of Lights, was created in 1984 by Dr. Wills Rawana and a committee funded by the retail chain Hudson's Bay, and the national telecommunications company Telus. From modest beginnings the event has garnered numerous awards as it has grown, including second place in the 2002 Canadian Government's Canada WinterLights competition. The Celebration was incorporated in its national prizewinning year and is now run by a voluntary Board of Directors.


Canatara Park
Canatara Park
Germain Park in Spring
Germain Park Community Gardens in Spring
Germain Park F-86 Sabre
Germain Park, Canadair Sabre, in Golden Hawks paint scheme

There are over 100 parks in Sarnia, the largest being Canatara Park, which covers over 200 acres along the shore of Lake Huron. Canatara is an Ojibwe word that means Blue Water. The park was opened 24 May 1933. Within the park is Lake Chipican, a haven for 280 different species of birds on their migration routes. The park also maintains a Children's Animal Farm as part of Sarnia's commitment to wildlife. The annual "Christmas on the Farm" weekend event held at the Farm in early December is a popular community event enjoyed by families. Canatara Park is one of the first parks in southern Ontario to feature an outdoor fitness equipment installation.

The largest recreational park in Sarnia is Germain Park, which incorporates five baseball diamonds, four soccer fields, an outdoor pool, and the Community Gardens. As a memorial to Canadian aviators who gave their lives in World War II, one of the remaining Canadair Sabres in Canada is on display in the park.

Centennial Park was opened on Dominion Day in 1967, as part of Canada's centenary celebrations. The City of Sarnia decided in 2013 to close much of Centennial Park, after the discovery of toxic lead and asbestos in the soil.

Sarnia has one remaining museum within its city limits, "Stones 'N Bones", which houses over 6,000 exhibits. The collection includes rocks, artifacts, fossils, and bones from all over the world. A previous museum, the Discovery House Museum, has been converted into a hospice. This historic house, built between 1869 and 1875, is recognized as a testament to Victorian Era construction.

The city's sandy fresh water beaches are a popular tourist attraction, while the sheltered harbour houses marinas for recreational sailing. Since 1925, the 400 km (250 mi) Mackinac race from Sarnia/Port Huron to Mackinac Island at the north end of the lake has been the highlight of the sailing season, drawing more than 3,000 sailors each year.

Sarnia's fresh-cut fries are another popular tourist attraction, and thousands of visitors annually visit the chip trucks parked under the Blue Water Bridge. Niagara-based cookbook author and food e-magazine publisher Lynn Ogryzlo visited the chip trucks in August 2012 and stated "I was blown away by Sarnia," not only by the city's waterfront, where the chip trucks are located, but also by the chip trucks themselves. She also published an article in her e-magazine, The Ontario Table, recognizing the outstanding quality of the fresh-cut fries. Guelph-based travel writer Pat Brennan also recognized the quality of Sarnia's fries in his 2007 piece "Sarnia Boasts Best Fries in the World." In 2012, Sarnia officials even created a special detour to reach the chip trucks during a period of construction. Realizing the popularity of Sarnia's chip trucks, the Ontario Medical Association includes them in a campaign to have fries and other junk food labelled for being dangerous in the same manner as cigarettes.

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