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Environmental Racism & Reconciliation

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


This week on the blog, we are talking about the environment and its relations with Indigenous peoples and current issues. Today’s post is about environmental racism.


“Environmental racism” is a term that was coined in the 80s by Black civil rights activist, Benjamin Chavis. [1] The term describes the observed and researched fact that “racialized communities and Indigenous people are disproportionately subjected to higher levels of environmental risk than other segments of society,” and “experience higher exposure to pollution, toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards and unequal access to human rights, such as clean drinking water.” [2]



Just like racism in general, environmental racism is a systemic, rather than individual, issue. [3] This means it’s “the result of institutional policies and practices,” not just of beliefs or actions of individual people. [4] Environmental racism is “embedded in the laws, policies and institutions that govern our lives,” and is a “direct result of Canada’s historic and ongoing colonization.” [5] It is not a new phenomenon. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) communities have been fighting against discriminatory policies “for hundreds of years to protect the air, land, water, species, and cultural connections to the land.” [6]


Environmental racism includes actions like “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 [these] communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership” in environmental decision-making. [7] It creates serious issues like undrinkable water and high levels of air pollution, which in turn leads to physical and mental health impacts like “increased rates of asthma, reproductive effects, learning disabilities, and cancer.” [8]


It has been clearly documented that environmental racism has “serious physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health effects,” and it is vital that its causes and consequences are dealt with, especially in this era of truth and reconciliation. [9]


Black and Indigenous communities have been the most impacted by environmental racism in Canada. [10] Canadian examples include oil sands in northern Alberta, “an open dump in Africville, landfills in Shelburne and Lincolnville, a pulp and paper mill in Pictou Landing First Nation, and a pipeline in Sipekne’katik First Nation,” as well as the pipeline that runs through Wet'suwet'en First Nation in British Columbia, mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows First Nation, and “over 60 petrochemical facilities surrounding Aamjiwnaang First Nation.” [11]


As environmental racism expert Ingrid Waldron has stated, when it comes to this issue, “people of colour and Indigenous people - we are not seen as worthy of protection in the same way that white people are.” [12] This sentiment has also been expressed by the United Nations, which has said that “marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular,” are “subject to conditions that would not be acceptable in respect of other groups in Canada.” [13]


Canadian law has done little to effectively address environmental racism. However, the private member’s bill, Bill C-226 (An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice), if passed, “would require the federal government to devise a national strategy to advance environmental justice, including a study of the ‘link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk,’ and other measures to eradicate environmental racism (including consideration of possible amendments to legislation, the involvement of affected groups, and compensation).” [14]


Additionally, the government bill, Bill S-5 (An Act to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999), if passed, “would amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to include a ‘right to a healthy environment’ for all Canadians,” which would provide “another way of holding governments accountable.” [15]


Since environmental racism is a systemic issue, passing more environmental legislation may not be the solution, unless the legislation is “remedial and takes into account the perspectives of racialized Canadians in the interest of substantive equality.” [16] Indigenous peoples must be part of decision-making, and have a seat at the table at every level. The inclusion of the Indigenous peoples, who are most affected by these policies, in discussions and decision-making, is necessary to ensure that any “proposed changes are effective and appropriate.” [17]


An issue like environmental racism doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is interrelated with issues such as colonialism, and must be addressed with consultation, negotiations, revitalization of Indigenous legal traditions, and reconciliation in mind.


Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG



[1] Dr. Elaine MacDonald, “Environmental racism in Canada: What is it, what are the impacts, and what can we do about it?” (1 September 2020), online: Ecojustice <https://ecojustice.ca/news/environmental-racism-in-canada/>.

[2] Aliénor Rougeot & Tori Cress, “Canada continues to fuel environmental racism by letting it fuel us” (8 August 2022), online: Canada’s National Observer <https://www.nationalobserver.com/2022/08/08/opinion/canada-continues-fuel-environmental-racism-letting-it-fuel-us>.

[3] Supra note 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Maya Venkataraman et al., “Environmental racism in Canada” (August 2022), online: National Library of Medicine <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9374073/>.

[10] Ingrid Waldron, “Environmental Racism in Canada” (16 April 2021), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/environmental-racism-in-canada>.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Megan O'Toole and Jillian Kestler-D'Amours, “Toxic legacy: The fight to end environmental racism in Canada” (8 December 2021), online: Al Jazeera <https://www.aljazeera.com/features/longform/2021/12/8/toxic-legacy-the-fight-to-end-environmental-racism-in-canada>.

[13] Supra note 9.

[14] Olivia Wawin, “Environmental Racism and the Struggle for Change in Canadian Law” (28 March 2022), online: McGill Journal of Law and Health <https://mjlh.mcgill.ca/2022/03/28/environmental-racism-and-the-struggle-for-change-in-canadian-law/>.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Supra note 9.


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1 Comment


mconroy
Mar 29, 2023

In addition to examples provided in the blog, another example of environmental racism is with respect to flood management infrastructure and hydro developments built without regard to impacts on Indigenous lands, including reserves. There are many examples in Manitoba and parts of Ontario, and a number of historic flooding claims both in the Specific Claims process and in the courts

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