An article written by one of our PSBC students on environmental racism and proposed legislation in Canada to tackle this issue.
What is Environmental Racism?
The term environmental racism was first introduced in the United States in 1982 by Reverend Benjamin Chavis Jr. in response to the civil rights movement and the disproportionate impact of hazardous facilities on African American communities.1 It has since evolved over the past several decades to include “the intentional siting of hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries in areas inhabited mainly by Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous peoples, Asians, migrant farm workers and low-income peoples”.2
Environmental racism is not so much about individual acts of racism as it is an extension of systemic racism or discrimination.3 Systemic racism is embedded in the laws, policies and institutions that govern our lives and it includes discrimination in environmental policymaking, the enforcement of regulations and laws, and the deliberate or unintentional targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries.4 It also extends to the lack of political power that affected communities have to fight back, as well as the lack of representation of Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities in mainstream environmental groups and on decision making boards.5
Environmental Racism in Canada
In Canada, the makeup of communities that bear the brunt of the distribution of environmental harm tends to differ from the United States. Whereas African American communities are often disproportionately affected by environmental impacts in the US, it is more common to find Indigenous communities identified as facing disproportionate environmental harm in Canada.[/note]Injustice, supra note 1. [/note]
Environmental racism and its effects are less studied and understood in Canada than in the United States where federal agencies have been obliged to assess the disproportionate distribution of environmental impacts since the 1990s. However, Canada is facing increased scrutiny with regards to environmental racism. For example, a 2020 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights concluded that:
“The prevalence of discrimination in Canadian laws and policies regarding the application of regulations on hazardous substances and wastes is clear. There exists a pattern in Canada whereby marginalized groups, and indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable in respect of other groups in Canada. A natural environment conducive to the highest attainable standard of health is not treated as a right; unfortunately, for many in Canada today, it is an elusive privilege.”6
A quick scan of the environmental landscape in Canada highlights the impact of environmental racism on Indigenous communities across the country. For example:
The well-known, long-standing water crisis and boil water advisories faced by many First Nations. As of October 25, there were still 43 long-term drinking water advisories in effect for 31 First Nations across Canada.7
For years the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ontario has dealt with the environmental impacts from “Chemical Valley”, Canada’s largest petrochemical complex. High rates of cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive health issues have been linked to these facilities.8
Over 90% of the residents of the Grassy Narrows First Nation near Kenora, Ontario, suffer from mercury poisoning. This is a result of mercury being dumped into the English-Wabigoon River system between 1962 and 1970. The effects of this pollution on Grassy Narrows residents are still ongoing.9
Effects of Environmental Racism
While climate change and its impacts are becoming increasingly significant for Canadians across the country, it is important to consider who is going to be impacted the most. It is well documented that environmental racism has a huge impact on human health.10 As mentioned, residents living near Chemical Valley in Ontario report increased rates of asthma and learning disabilities amongst a myriad of other significant health problems.11 There are also significant mental health impacts of people fearing the outdoors and the possibility of unreported incidents in their communities.12
However, these effects are not just related to human health. Indigenous relationships to land are so vital to their identity.13 Harms faced by pollution can seep into food supply, culture and even the words people use to communicate ideas and describe their world.14 Beze Gray, an Anishinaabe land/water protector from Aamjiwnaang First Nation spoke on how the pollution in Chemical Valley has impacted their food sovereignty. The nation is beginning to lose its traditional food sources due to the impacts of pollution in the area. This is also causing them to lose traditional words, as the pollution is wiping out elements of the environment that once surrounded them.15
These effects are significant to the relationship between the Canadian government and First Nations as reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples cannot be fully realized until the stake Indigenous peoples have in the fight against climate change through their connection to the land is fully realized.16
Environmental Racism Legislation
In early 2015, then New Democratic Party member of Nova Scotia’s legislative assembly, Lenore Zann, collaborated with Dr. Ingrid Waldron of Dalhousie University on the first environmental racism private members bill in Canada. The Environmental Racism Prevention Act (Bill 111) was introduced to the Nova Scotia legislature, but it never ended up being adopted as legislation.17
In February 2020, Zann, who is now a member of Parliament for the federal Liberal Party, revised Bill 111 and introduced it as a federal bill titled the National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act (Bill C-230).
The Bill “requires the Minister of the Environment, in consultation with representatives of provincial and municipal governments, of Indigenous communities and of other affected communities, to develop a national strategy to promote efforts across Canada to redress the harm caused by environmental racism. It also provides for reporting requirements in relation to the strategy.”18
The content of the national strategy is also outlined in the bill and must include measures to:
Examine the link between race and environmental risk;
Collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards;
Collect information and statistics relating to negative health outcomes;
Assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province; and
Address possible amendments to federal laws, the involvement of community groups in environmental policy making, compensation and ongoing funding for affected communities, and access to clean air and water.19
Bill C-230 was introduced during the 1st session of the 43rd Parliament on February 26, 2020. It was placed on the order of precedence on February 27, 2020. Unfortunately, COVID-19 shut down the House of Commons for five weeks and the bill never made it to a second reading.20
The Bill was reinstated from the previous session on September 23, 2020 and had its second reading completed on March 24, 2021. It was referred to a committee, which presented its report along with amendments to the Act on June 22, 2021. The third reading was not reached before the end of the session due to the upcoming federal election.21
With a new session starting on November 22, there are calls on the House to reinstate the Bill once again. Four of the five major political parties in Canada have voiced their support for the bill and it reached an overwhelming majority vote after its second reading earlier this year.22
If the Bill is passed, it would not only be an opportunity for Canada to show its commitment to addressing environmental racism and reconciliation, but Canada would be one of the first countries in the world to require the government to develop a national strategy to tackle environmental racism.23 Although it is only one piece in the larger puzzle that is addressing reconciliation and climate change in this country, it is an important step in the right direction.
Ways to Help
One way that you can support the passing of Bill C-230 and have it reinstated in this session of Parliament is to call or send a tweet or email to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Environment, the Minister of Health, and MPs across the country to indicate why you support this bill and why Canada needs environmental racism legislation.
- Kaitlyn Mitchell & Zachary D’Onofrio, “Environmental Injustice and Racism in Canada: The First Step is Admitting We Have a Problem” (2016) 29 JELP 305 at 314 [Injustice].
- Beverly Jacobs, “Environmental Racism on Indigenous Lands and Territories” (20 May 2010), at 5, online (pdf): Canadian Political Science Association <https://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2010/Jacobs.pdf> [Jacobs].
- Dr. Elaine McDonald, “Environmental racism in Canada: What is it, what are the impacts and what can we do about it?” (last modified 18 September 2020), online: Ecojustice < https://ecojustice.ca/environmental-racism-in-canada/> [Ecojustice].
- Jacobs, supra note 2.
- Ingrid Waldron, “Environmental Racism in Canada” (last modified 16 April 2021), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia < https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/environmental-racism-in-canada> [Waldron].
- Paula Lombardi, “Bill c-230- A Time for Change” (26 July 2021), online: Siskinds: The Law Firm < https://www.siskinds.com/bill-c-230-a-time-for-change/> [Lombardi].
- “Ending long-term drinking water advisories” (last modified 28 October 2021), online: Government of Canada < https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1506514143353/1533317130660
- Ecojustice, supra note 3.
- Waldron, supra note 5.
- Ecojustice, supra note 3.
- Asha Kerr-Wilson, “Towards Reconciliation and Climate Justice” (21 June 2017), online: Citizens for Public Justice < https://cpj.ca/towards-reconciliation-and-climate-justice/> [Kerr-Wilson].
- Ecojustice, supra note 3.
- Kerr-Wilson, supra note 14.
- Ingrid R.G. Waldron, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities, (Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 2018) at 30.
- Bill C-230, An act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism, 1st Sess, 43rd Parl, 2020.
- LEGISinfo, “C-230 An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism” (last visited 2 December 2021), online: Parliament of Canada < https://www.parl.ca/LegisInfo/en/bill/43-1/c-230>.
- Lombardi, supra note 7.
- Angela Lee & Heather McLeod-Kilmurray, “Bill c-230 marks and important first step in addressing environmental racism in Canada” (27 April 2021), online: The Conversation < https://theconversation.com/bill-c-230-marks-an-important-first-step-in-addressing-environmental-racism-in-canada-158686>.