Environmental racism is ingrained into the colonial systems of Canada. This is a fact. And the reality of the colonial systems we have in place disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and other people of colour in a multitude of ways, at every level, in almost every space. That is the way colonial systems are designed.
Across Canada, toxic dumps, polluting projects, risky pipelines, and tainted drinking water disproportionately hurt Indigenous, Black and racialized communities. On top of that, these same communities are also more likely to feel the impacts of climate change — and sooner — than predominantly white communities.
This is environmental racism.
First coined by Benjamin Chavis, a Black civil rights leader from the United States in 1982, “environmental racism” is described 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.”
Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism, meaning it is the result of institutional policies and practices, rather than individual beliefs and actions. It is embedded in the laws, policies and institutions that govern our lives — and it has been since European settlers first colonized this land.
We can look to the case of Africville, a thriving Black community in Halifax in the 19th and 20th centuries, that was surrounded by facilities unwanted in other communities, such as an infectious diseases hospital, a prison, a dump and a slaughterhouse. Later designated as a “slum”, the community was displaced and their homes were demolished.
Another example is Grassy Narrows, which has been dealing with the devastating health impacts of mercury poisoning for generations, after the past owners of a pulp and paper mill dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury in the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s and '70s.
We can look to Sarnia, often referred to as “Chemical Valley” due to the amount of hazardous waste and petrochemical plants. Or we can look to the number of Indigenous communities still without access to clean drinking water.
This is a reality for Black, Indigenous and other racialized and marginalized groups in Canada who are disproportionately affected by toxic dumps, pipelines, and contaminated drinking water.
Environmental racism can also manifest in other ways, such as a lack of playgrounds, trees, walking paths or hiking trails, access to health-care centres, mental health supports, clean water, or soil for sustainable growing.
These conditions put marginalized communities at risk and make the land they are living on undesirable and unlivable. The very fact that the government chooses areas in which Black, Indigenous and systematically marginalized people live in for these sites is an example of environmental racism.
If we look at the plastics crisis it is no different. Racialized and marginalized communities are disproportionately exposed to toxic dumps and pollution, and forced to bear the burden of these hazardous conditions with less resources and government attention.
From production to decomposition, the plastics lifecycle emits greenhouse gases and significantly contributes to global warming. And both in Canada and around the world, waste often flows into the communities without the money or government support to protect themselves.
This is how it was designed.
As we’ve seen through the global waste trade, Western countries, including Canada, have been sending their waste to forgeign countries, mainly in Southeast Asia, to sort and dispose of. The burden of our trash is then put on these countries and communities to deal with.
Investigations into the communities receiving imported waste found “waste piled ten feet high, crops poisoned, and open plastic burning, which seriously affects people living nearby, as toxic gases releases into the air while plastic burns.”
With many countries now saying no to Western trash, exporting countries in North America and Europe are watching the waste pile up at home. Unsurprisingly, according to Greenpeace, news reports have shown that it piles up in less-wealthy, more at-risk communities. There, it becomes a public health problem.
The recycling system works to target the vulnerable — both around the world and around Canada.
If we want to start tackling the plastics crisis there is no way to do so without changing the amount of plastic that is produced.
The concept of endless consumption itself is a colonial practice that hurts people and the environment. According to Dr. Max Liboiron, author of Pollution is Colonialism, under the colonial perspective, the land and the earth have to assimilate and deal with our pollutants. Rather than us adapting to protect the environment and our future, we force the environment and wildlife to bear with it. We continue to pollute up until a threshold that is just below what the earth can take, despite the warnings and catastrophic outcomes we now face.
A recent global analysis has shown that.
In 2020, Nova Scotia MP Lenore Zann introduced the private member Bill C-230, “An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism.”
If passed, the bill would be the first legislation in Canada to require the federal government to collect statistical information on the location of environmental hazards across Canada, as well as the links between race, socioeconomic status and health outcomes.
This would be an important first step in addressing the lack of data on environmental racism throughout Canada. The bill required the government to compensate affected communities and ensure they are involved in future environmental policy-making, as well as requiring that these communities have access to safe drinking water and clean air, an issue that has long been ignored in Canada.
As UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak put it in a visit to Canada in 2019, “There exists a pattern in Canada where 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 elsewhere in Canada."
Bill C-230 died with the surprise federal election in the fall of 2021. But in early 2022, the Green party’s MP Elizabeth May reintroduced the bill as Bill C-226, “An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice,” which has completed its first reading at the House of Commons.
This bill is the necessary first step in addressing the systemic environmental racism plaguing Black, Indigenous and other marginalized groups throughout Canada. For too long have these communities been subject to conditions that would not be acceptable anywhere else in Canada.
But solutions should go deeper than Bill C-226.
As we stare down the climate crisis, it’s clear that things need to change. In fact, what is needed is a complete restructuring and rethinking of the colonial systems that got us here in the first place.
There needs to be action and infrastructure from governments and industry that supports these moves.
Without systemic changes that prioritize people and the environment over profit and tackle mass production and consumption, it is unclear how much progress can be made. This should be a top priority for Canada and the rest of the world.
Support the Canadian Coalition for Environmental & Climate Justice, ENRICH Project and The Heath and the Environment Adaptive Response Task Force (HEART) in their advocacy campaign calling for the Minister of the Environment to support Bill C-226 and address environmental racism. Tweet, Post, Email, Call. Learn more at this link.