The Impact of Environmental Racism in Canada

Updated: Apr 15

by Marija Askovic, Research Officer Over the past few years, the world has changed in dramatic ways. Occurrences such as the rise of populism, longer and more frequent wildfire seasons in places such as Australia and California, higher geopolitical tensions between great power countries such as the U.S. and China, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the greater momentum surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement have profoundly shaped our world today. However, many communities have suffered injustices long before this chain of events unfolded, and one of the most overlooked issues is environmental racism.

What Constitutes Environmental Racism

There has been a major focus on racism and on environmental issues separately, and yet environmental racism is a concept which may not be familiar to many. However, the idea of environmental racism is not new. In 1982, the Black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis defined the concept of environmental racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.” This definition in particular addresses the systemic nature of racism and discrimination which persists in environmental decision-making processes today, and it is pertinent in reflecting on how to resolve the issue. Intersections Between Racism, Health and Environmental Issues In the spring of 2020, Canadian provinces and territories announced that only “essential services” were allowed to continue operations. The majority of industrial projects were deemed essential and were approved to continue. However, critics of this decision have pointed out that such projects bring hundreds if not thousands of transient workers across Canada to remote communities alongside Indigenous peoples, where they live in shared accommodations. Delisle argues that this puts Indigenous peoples at a higher risk of being infected with COVID-19 when they are already more vulnerable due to long-standing health inequities and a lack of access to healthcare. Furthermore, governments declared that it was safe for work to continue on industrial projects while environmental monitoring was considered unsafe. For example, the Alberta Energy Regulator gave the entire oil and gas industry a months-long break from several environmental monitoring activities, such as ground, surface water and wildlife monitoring. In the age of the climate crisis and of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be challenged to redefine what safety is, and we need to start thinking about whose safety is being considered in the environmental decision-making process. The well-being of humans and the environment are clearly interconnected; therefore, governments, businesses and civil society organizations must be mindful of the effects that their actions may have on ecosystems, the natural environment, and marginalized communities. For far too long, racism and environmental issues have been considered as being separate from one another when in fact, there is a lot of overlap between these issues. If we are truly committed to resolving the climate crisis, then we must acknowledge the role that racism and discrimination have played in perpetuating environmental injustices which persist to this day.

According to Larissa Crawford, the physical consequences of environment and climate change are inseparable from political and social implications and causes, and the causes of racial justice and inequities that we’re seeing in society are the same injustices in the systems that are impacting and destroying our earth. Moreover, Crawford adds that wherever she has travelled, she has observed that Indigenous communities have held notions of ancestry and teachings of walking a good path. Climate action and conservation efforts will not be sufficient unless community perspectives and Indigenous traditional knowledge are valued and play an active part in environmental decision-making.

History and Case Studies

In Ontario, there are two prominent examples of environmental racism: the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation, and the chemical contamination of Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Between 1962 and 1970, the company Dryden Ltd. dumped mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system, upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation. The consequences of the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation, both in terms of health and the economy, were devastating. The mercury poisoned the fish in the river system, which was an important source of food and income for the community, and the Ontario provincial government consequently made the decision to close their commercial fishery in 1970. Within a year of the fishery closing, the unemployment rate in Grassy Narrows First Nation jumped from 5% to 95%. Additionally, concerns about the health effects of the mercury contamination are still ever-present even after the closing of Dryden Chemicals Ltd. in 1976. The negative effects from pollution have a profound impact on both human health and the economy which can negatively impact communities over the course of many generations.

In Sarnia, Ontario, the approximately 800 residents of Aamjiwnaang First Nation live next to industrial facilities which account for 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry; the area is even referred to as Chemical Valley.” Specifically, more than 60 oil refineries and chemical plants have surrounded the area since the 1940s.

This type of situation would certainly not be considered acceptable in affluent, non-racialized neighbourhoods, while the location of polluting industries close to racialized communities is tolerated. The effects of the chemical contamination and widespread pollution within this community are profound. According to Ecojustice, members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation suffer from increased rates of asthma, reproductive effects, learning disabilities, and cancer, and they are losing access to important, traditional food sources. This in turn contributes to the overall social determinants of health in racialized communities where there are already major barriers in accessing essential services like healthcare and housing. Government Plans and Action There are some measures that the Canadian government has undertaken in order to ensure that this issue is being addressed. According to Lee and McLeod-Kilmurray, Bill C-230 which is a private member’s bill aiming to address environmental racism has passed second reading in a 182-153 vote, and is currently under discussion with the environment parliamentary committee before it returns to the House of Commons.

The bill would compel the Minister of the Environment to create a national strategy addressing environmental racism within two years, which would include taking actions such as making efforts to identify, document and monitor environmental racism, creating processes to increase the participation of Indigenous, racialized and other affected communities in environmental policy-making, providing reimbursement for harm due to environmental justice and ensuring access to clean drinking water. The implications for this bill passing would be tremendous since it would make Canada one of the first countries in the world requiring its government to create a national strategy to tackle environmental racism. As part of the bill, the government plans to collect data on the impact of siting a disproportionate number of polluting industries and landfills in close proximity to areas inhabited by racial minority communities.

This is an incredibly important first step, given that many community organizations have called for the federal government to collect disaggregated, race-based data in order to adequately address not only environmental racism, but also racism in general. The Liberal MP who initiated the bill and was interviewed mentioned that collecting specific data on the issue such as the location of environmental hazards and levels of health problems in those areas, will make the problem clearer and allow legislators to create policy recommendations which will address it.

Lee and McLeod-Kilmurray argue that the proposed changes outlined within the bill with regards to how the federal government deals with environmental racism would be a first step in a larger process and could set a precedent for more transformative change, such as a net-zero carbon emissions bill or potential amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Even though the potential enactment of Bill C-230 would mark tremendous progress towards achieving environmental justice, there is still more work to be done.

Community Perspectives

Many community organizations are also contributing important work in the path towards climate justice. Future Ancestors is an Indigenous and Black-owned, youth-led professional services organization which advances climate justice through the lens of anti-racism and ancestral accountability. Another organization working towards environmental justice is Green Ummah, a non-profit organization which seeks to create engagement with the environmental movement among the Canadian Muslim community. In a CBC news article, the Green Ummah organization co-founders were interviewed, and their members provided advice for a sustainable Ramadan. Specifically, their advice includes limiting the amount of water consumed during the wudhu purification process prior to praying, encouraging people to engage with nature by taking walks outside in parks, and giving out green gifts such as seed and garden kits for gardening.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that the burden of resolving climate change and justice issues should not fall solely upon communities, and that governments have a major role to play in removing systemic barriers and working towards climate justice.

While it is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities such as environmental racism, the pandemic has also provided a rare opportunity for self-reflection about the way in which we would like to move forward and improve the situation. Even though the situation may seem dire amid the more frequent wildfires around the world and the grim IPCC forecast of runaway climate change unless global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it is important to remain hopeful and to participate in meaningful climate action which engages various community perspectives. If we all take some time to actively self-reflect on our habits then create strategies to change them, it will be easier for us to collaborate in reaching our collective goal of ensuring a sustainable pandemic recovery and working towards climate justice.


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