What is Environmental Racism?
Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact that waste, pollution, and the climate crisis have on black people, Indigenous people, and other people of colour.
This happens when governments and corporations expose minority and low-income communities to known hazards such as: contaminated water, carcinogens, and other harmful pollutants through building of oil pipelines, toxic waste dumps, and polluting factories at a much higher rate than white, affluent communities all while avoiding to put environmental rules and regulations in place to protect minority communities.
“But we live in Canada…”
While the term “environmental racism” may be unfamiliar for Canadians, experiences in communities across the country prove that it is a very real and still ongoing issue.
One of the defining examples of environmental racism in Canada is Nova Scotia’s Africville. Africville was a tight-knight community on the northern edge of the Halifax peninsula that was home to hundreds of descendents of enslaved African folks. Residents worked together to fish, plant crops, and worked odd jobs to help their community thrive. This was until Halifax’s industrial boom led to a new need for dumping sites for the waste from the growing city. Over time, all the waste from hospitals, slaughterhouses, paint and oil, and all the garbage was dumped consistently in and around Africville until it was declared uninhabitable and the community was bulldozed forcing residents to disperse and find new communities.
“Well that doesn’t happen any more…”
Fast forward to modern day, Nova Scotia residents of minority communities are still facing the effects of environmental racism - lack of clean water from contamination due to years of dumping waste nearby and directly into main water sources causing devastating health effects for the surrounding residents.
When the local government of Shelbourne, NS was pushed to pass environmental laws to protect a Lincolnville community, some local politicians suggested that they would motion to reopen the dump instead.
Pictou Landing First Nation residents have lived for decades besides an industrial mill that has caused toxic wastewater to be dumped into their community causing them to experience respiratory issues and higher rates of cancer. Residents raised concerns to their local government about the mill’s ability to contain their waste and in 2014, a pipeline carrying waste from the mill spilled 47 litres of toxic material into the water and local wetland. Protests erupted after the spill and led to the provincial government to finally act and force the mill to build a new facility by January 31, 2020.
There are approximately 800 residents of Aamjiwnaang living next to industrial facilities that account for about 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry in an area commonly referred to as “Chemical Valley”. In 2011, the World Health Organization said that the people of Sarnia, ON breathe in some of the most polluted air in all of Canada. Residents have expressed concerns about the facilities collectively emitting tens of millions of kilograms of air pollutants each year resulting in negative effects on the communities ability to hunt, fish, plant food, and their access to clean, safe water.
Lack of safe drinking water
According to a study done by the United Nations in 2009, Indigenous homes in Canada are 90% more likely to be without clean, safe, drinking water than other Canadian homes. As of 2015, there were over 169 water advisories in the 126 First Nation Communities - 79 of the water advisories of them were in Ontario alone.
During the 2015 election, now elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate all long-term water advisories on First Nations by March 2021. As of February 15, 2020, 61 long-term drinking advisories are still in effect. 8 of those communities have had water advisories since before 1998.
These communities are only a few examples from hundreds that have experienced the impacts of environmental racism in Canada alone.
Water and air inequality in the United States
When we look at our neighbours in the United States, communities mainly of people of colour are 40% more likely to have unsafe drinking water and more than half of those who live close to waste facilities are people of colour. In the US, black residents are exposed to 50% more air pollution than white residents. Flint, Michigan for example, has not had clean drinking water since April 25, 2014.
Environmental racism around the world
On a global scale, environmental racism takes place in almost every corner of our world. In Brazil, we see Indigenous communities being pushed out by cattle ranchers, forest fires, and pollution as their leader continues to attempt to drive out these communities. In Mexico, the San Juanico disaster was caused & worsened by the proximity of a liquid propane gas plant. In China, the town of Guiyu is one of the largest e-waste recycling facilities where heaps of electronic waste and garbage are close to river banks and near-by water sources causing distressing levels of copper and lead in the drinking water.
To address environmental racism, we need our governments to recognize that all people deserve a right to a healthy environment and access to clean water. We need to address the links between socioeconomic status, race, and environment. We need to advocate for stronger environmental laws to protect our most vulnerable and vital communities. We need to keep protesting and standing with these communities when they face injustice and demand immediate, restorative action from our government.
To learn more about environmental racism check out these resources:
- There’s Something in the Water - Netflix
- Toxic Communities by Dorceta Taylor
- From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement By Luke W. Cole, Sheila R. Foster
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