Environmental racism is costing lives – and our governments need to act now
For more than 70 years, the victims of environmental racism have been neglected, but mounting evidence and community-based advocacy could help propel governmental action
When I first came across the term “environmental racism”, I was puzzled by the idea of how the environment and racism coincided to cause injustice. It seemed absurd that Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities would be subject to poor environmental conditions based on the colour of their skin, but the evidence adds up.
Take for example, the African Nova Scotian community of Africville, where a hazardous open dump runs through black neighbourhoods. And that’s not all. The Black community, which lacks basic amenities such as sewage, clean water, waste disposal and emergency services is also surrounded by an infectious disease hospital, a prison and a slaughterhouse – all because local authorities did not find appropriate locations that white residents would find acceptable.
Since the 20th century, Black community members have been treated as second class citizens in their own homes, and like many other communities, they continue to fight for their right to be free from the toxicities plaguing their homes, but their needs have only been met with empty promises.
Unfortunately, the story of Africville is just one of the many horrendous examples of environmental racism in Canada. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation, often referred to as Chemical Valley, is polluted with 60 petrochemical facilities. And the Grassy Narrows First Nation continues to deal with mercury poisoning due to contaminating pipelines.
Environmental racism is defined as the disproportionate siting of polluting industries, hazardous facilities, and other forms of environmental degradation in the vicinity of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. This practice may be intentional or unintentional but is often a result of systemic racism and other inequities.
Collectively, these toxic exposures amount to poor health outcomes. Research has revealed associations between proximity to hazardous chemicals and health conditions such as altered sexual development, breast and prostate cancer, neurological and learning disabilities, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Environmental racism also accounts for the exclusion of diverse perspectives in political decision-making, as well as poor urban planning, lack of recreational green spaces, inaccessibility of clean drinking water and much more within racialized communities.
In many ways, environmental racism perpetuates inequities through resource-related disparities that hinder opportunities for economic growth and development.
The proximity of hazardous sites to these communities makes them less profitable or desirable among potential investors or businesses, leading to poor job prospects and ultimately, making life unsustainable.
As a result, environmental racism directly and indirectly poses consequences for well-being including higher rates of suicide, addiction, fatalities, and mental illness.
Dr. Ingrid Waldron, McMaster professor in the Faculty of Humanities, HOPE Chair in Peace and Health and author of “There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities”, explained that the disproportionate placement of hazardous sites among communities of color also involves factors such as colonialism,socioeconomic status, and residence in rural regions.
“Communities that are low-income, poor, and racialized, and have been subjected to colonialism, tend to be more vulnerable [to environmental racism]. It’s much easier to engage in extraction and environmental racism over time when you have communities that [are] … seen as having less value, less worth and inferior.”, explained Dr. Waldron. “The other aspect of this issue is that [impacted communities] are in out of the way, isolated places … African Nova Scotians are very different in many ways from Black people in Toronto, Montreal, and other urban centres.”
Environmental racism is an oppressive form of structural violence hurting people across the country. Yet, the Canadian government, on multiple occasions, has refused to admit the problem, let alone address the long-standing crisis plaguing BIPOC communities.
“[Environmental racism] is a symbol of racism in this country. There [is] racism in the school system. There is racism in employment. There is racism in immigration … And Canada has a problem with admitting this issue.”, said Dr. Waldron when highlighting the importance of addressing environmental racism.
Dr. Waldron contributed to the development of Bill C-226, An Act Respecting the Development of a National Strategy to Assess, Prevent and Address Environmental Racism and To Advance Environmental Justice.
The federal bill is currently on track to complete the third reading in the House of Commons, where it has the potential to be considered for legislation. However, the federal government has been slow to make progress, with staggered activity on the bill.
As post-secondary students pursuing an education, we have the opportunity to use our privilege to effect positive change by listening to and amplifying the voices of BIPOC communities to support their fight against this injustice.
Whether it be sending a letter to your local MP to support Bill C-226 or volunteering with community organizations dedicated to addressing environmental racism, each of us has the power to contribute to this cause in different ways shared Dr. Waldron.
Despite the failures of our government to act on environmental racism, we can step up to support the dialogue and advocacy on this issue and build momentum to push the federal government to make some real progress on the systemic inequities that have repeatedly harmed and poisoned the souls, spirits, minds, and bodies of BIPOC communities.