Environmental Racism in Canada – Past and Present


 |  Health/Lifestyle

In recent years, we have witnessed Indigenous leaders outraged with the Canadian government. We have seen BLM protests and the continual injustices experienced by Black people across North America. We have seen a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, racism has existed and continues to exist to this day, so it is essential to address this issue that profoundly affects minorities’ mental and physical health. This article addresses the important yet misunderstood concept of environmental racism, how it has influenced and continues to affect the health of Canadians to this day, and ways in which we can solve this complex issue. 

Environmental racism has impacted and continues to impact African American and Indigenous communities across Canada. Macdonald (2020) states that environmental racism is “a direct result of Canada’s historic and ongoing colonization.” But what exactly is environmental racism? As stated by Waldron (2020), “Environmental racism is the disproportionate proximity and greater exposure of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized communities to polluting industries and environmentally hazardous activities.” Environmental racism also includes: 

  1. The lack of political power these communities have to fight back against the placement of these industries in their communities.
  2. The implementation of policies that allow these harmful projects to be placed in these communities.
  3. The slow rates of cleanup of contaminants and pollutants in racialized communities.
  4. The lack of representation of Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities in mainstream environmental groups and on decision-making boards, commissions and regulatory bodies.

The term “Environmental Racism” was first coined with the 1987 United Church of Christ Commission in a racial justice report called “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” revealing that hazardous waste facilities were far more likely to be located in African American or Latino communities rather than white communities. The environmental justice movement later used the term “Environmental Racism” in their pursuits after this report and other related evidence-based studies surfaced to the public.

Environmental racism is not only a social justice issue, it is also an issue of human and public health. Indeed, the greater exposure of pollutants and environmentally hazardous activities to racialized communities can be linked to higher rates of disease within those populations. In the documentary film “There’s something in the water,” Ingrid Waldron (2019) states that one’s postal code in Canada can determine their health and wellbeing. Many evidence-based studies have revealed the correlations between environmental racism and rates of disease within those populations, some of which will be discussed further in this article. 

Across Canada, toxic dumps, polluting projects, risky pipelines, and tainted drinking water disproportionately hurt Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities. These same communities are also more likely to feel the impacts of climate change — and sooner — than predominantly white communities.”

Ingrid Waldron is a Canadian social scientist with specific interest and studies in Canadian environmental racism and its impact on human health. She is the author of the book “There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities” in which she explores the concept of environmental racism in Canada. This book was later adapted into a documentary film on Netflix, by the title “There’s Something in the Water.’ Waldron’s book and film delves into the topic of the real experiences of Indigenous and Black communities across Canada, with a specific focus of research on the legacy of Nova Scotian environmental racism. Waldron examines Nova Scotian Indigenous and Black communities’ resistance against the poisoning of their communities, and the inequality of power. 

Waldron also explores the topic of environmental racism using the settler colonialism theory. As stated by Fernwood Publishing“…Waldron unpacks how environmental racism operates as a mechanism of erasure enabled by the intersecting dynamics of white supremacy, power, state-sanctioned racial violence, neoliberalism and racial capitalism in white settler societies.” Waldron claims that the environmental justice movement in Nova Scotia fails to take race into consideration in both society and government at large, which disregards the specific environmental racism continuously experienced by Black and Indigenous people across Canada.

Below is a map revealing that waste disposals, thermal generating stations, and other toxic industries in Nova Scotia are very close to or located on Indigenous and African American communities across the province. A larger, interactive view of the image below can be found here

“In this map by the ENRICH Project, “W” s represent waste disposal facilities, “T” s represent thermal generating stations, and “O” s represent other toxic industries. Green dots represent First Nations communities, while blue dots represent African Nova Scotian communities. The pink-purple rings around each dot represent distance (see the legend for scale). The brown-beige polygons represent material deprivation” (Waldron, 2020). 

Historical and Modern Environmental Racism in Canada 

Africville was a former African American community located in Halifax, Nova Scotia from the year 1761-1965. Africville was created as a safe haven from anti-black racism experienced in Halifax. Throughout its history, Africville was known for experiencing the unwanted development of many environmental and social hazards: a fertilizer plant, slaughterhouse, tar factory, stone and coal crushing plant, cotton factory, prison, three systems of railway tracks, and an open dump. In addition, the city of Halifax collected taxes from Africville residents but did not provide public services in return, such as paved roads, sewers, or running water. Soon, houses in Africville were destroyed to proceed with the construction of a railroad. Several homeowners protested that they had not been compensated for the losses and that the trains posed a danger and polluted the village, but the protests were in vain. 

In the second half of the 19th century, the city placed undesirable facilities in Africville: slaughterhouses, prisons, human feces/sewage, open dumps, a fertilizer plant and an infectious disease hospital. In 1915 the City of Halifax declared that Africville “will always be an industrial district.” During the first half of the 20th century, municipal services such as public transportation, garbage collection, recreational facilities, and adequate police protection were non-existent in Africville. By 1970, the neighbourhood was destroyed, and it’s residents were forced to relocate to other white Halifax neighbourhoods. Many Africville residents believed anti-black racism was behind these decisions. 

There has been an everlasting mercury crisis in Grassy Narrows First Nation and the Whitegog Independent Nations. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, from 1963 to 1970, a pulp and paper mill released several tons of highly toxic mercury into the water, contaminating the English-Wabigoon River system, including the traditional fish and game they depended upon. Mercury is fat-soluble, which results in the bioaccumulation and bioamplification of mercury across the marine food chain, and ultimately onto the plates of Indigenous peoples. A 2017/2018 assessment of the soil and groundwater in these communities revealed that there were still elevated levels of mercury, meaning that for over 50 years, the community has not been remediated, and community members are still at risk of mercury exposure and poisoning. Mercury poisoning causes many health risks, especially to fetuses and children whose nervous systems are still extremely sensitive. Over 58% of community members examined have or are suspected to have Minamata disease, a serious neurological (brain) disease resulting from mercury exposure. Physical and mental health impacts related to mercury poisoning include tremors, headaches, neuromuscular effects, and memory loss. 

Overall, these communities continue to report delays in environmental remediation, lack of access to safe water and nutritious food, lack of funding, and inadequate political will to secure a dignified life for themselves and their future generations. By April 2020, the Canadian government committed to fully fund a care home in Grassy Narrows for individuals suffering from mercury poisoning. Long-term funding of the care home will also take place for its operation and maintenance. In 2017, Ontario announced $85 million to clean up the mercury contamination. On the other hand, an environmental health coordinator for Grassy Narrows First Nation by the name of Judy Da Silva says only a small number of residents receive the mercury disability fund, and that the disability fund must accommodate all residents for the trauma endured. 

The United Council of Human Rights (2020) further reveals a clear example of environmental racism against Indigenous communities in Alberta: “Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip) paint a disturbing picture of health impacts of the oil sands (i.e. tar sands) that were not properly investigated for years, despite increasing evidence of its health impacts on local communities. Fort Chip was repeatedly raised as having alarming health trends. The situation with the oil sands cannot be divorced from the troubling Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, strenuously opposed by many. Landfills, incinerators and other waste disposal sites are often closer to Indigenous reserves, for example, concerns relating to the Swan Hills hazardous waste Treatment Centre, which receives waste including highly toxic PCBs from around Canada for incineration.

The health of the Aamjiwnaang First Nations is being disproportionately affected by environmental hazards in Sarnia, Ontario. Sarnia is also known as “Chemical Valley” because about 40% of Canada’s chemical industry is found there. The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (2017) stated, “There is strong evidence that the pollution [here] is causing adverse health effects, which neither the federal nor provincial government have properly investigated.” After Ecojustice’s 2007 report on “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley,” Ontario’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change in 2016 mandated Industries in Sarnia to address leakages of the cancer-causing substance benzene and publicly report levels. Later In 2018, the Ministry implemented a policy that will significantly lower sulfur dioxide emissions. Although air pollution has decreased in this area, Ecojustice (2019) reveals that air quality is still very poor in this area, including double the amount of safe levels of benzene. Consequently, Sarnia is now a hot spot for Myeloid Leukemia, a type of cancer associated with benzene. Once again, Chemical Valley has a majority population of racialized peoples whose health are disproportionately and negatively affected. 

As you may know, there is an ongoing First-Nations water crisis. Many Indigenous communities experience water contamination often to a point where water-drinking advisories are set; 73% of First Nation’s water systems are at medium or high risk of contamination. In May of 2018, there were 174 drinking water advisories in over 100 First Nations communities. Some of these advisories date as far back as 1995, like the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, until in 2019, the government began constructing a new water treatment system. This means that for 22 years, this Indigenous community did not have safe drinking water. Similarly, the Neskantaga First Nations in Ontario today have been boiling their water for over 20 years under boiling water advisories due to unsafe levels of hydrocarbons contaminating their water from nearby industrial waste. 

The United Nations outlines that access to safe and adequate water is a basic human right, but unfortunately, many indigenous communities in Canada to this day suffer from water crises. The following from The Council of Canadians reveals governmental action: “In 2015, there were drinking water advisories in 126 First Nations. The Trudeau government committed to resolving them by March 2021, but they failed to provide all the funding required to meet that deadline. There are still advisories in 33 First Nation communities.”  

Environmental racism is not limited to rural areas of Canada. In Toronto, Ollevier & Tsang (2007) found that soil contamination, waste sites, and industrial land use disproportionately hurt areas of racialized communities.

To conclude, environmental racism is definitely not limited to the 1800s or 1900s. It is still happening today across Canada, and the health and wellbeing of Indigenous and Black Canadians are being disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. Ranging from higher rates of cancer as a result of polluting industries in Black communities to the everlasting water crises of Indigenous communities, we have witnessed how our fellow Canadians are suffering. The following are ways in which you can help solve environmental racism: 

  1. Contact your local member of parliament, mayor, or other local representatives in your community. Urge them to address the Indigenous water crisis in parliament, for example. 
  2. Donate to environmental justice organizations. Please donate to reliable and influential Canadian environmental organizations. The following organizations invest in environmental racism research and/or environmental testing/sampling: environmental justiceenvironmental defense Canada, and ecojustice. Ecojustice, for example, is known for influencing Canadian climate policy and environmental racism policy through their strong research and investments into environmental racism projects and follow-ups with environmental sampling and testing. They do so to see if an industrial factory, for example, is complying with the safe levels of a certain contaminant and/or remediation. If you are unable to donate, please share their articles and blogs with people you know. 

Spreading awareness about environmental issues, like environmental racism, is so important. The power of our knowledge and actions have led to social justice movements and ultimately the development of policy at the federal level. The first step is always education. And the next step, is Action.