Environmental Racism in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Environmental Racism in Canada

Environmental racism is the disproportionate proximity and greater exposure of Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities to polluting industries and environmentally hazardous activities. In Canada, Indigenous and African Nova Scotian communities have been the most impacted by environmental racism. Examples of environmental racism in Nova Scotia include 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. A pipeline also runs through Wet'suwet'en First Nation in British Columbia, while in Ontario there is mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows First Nation and over 60 petrochemical facilities surrounding Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

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 (see legend for scale and “Details” for a definition of material deprivation).

What is Environmental Racism?

The legacy of environmental racism in Canada has disproportionately impacted Indigenous and African Nova Scotian communities. Environmental racism includes the following:

  • The disproportionate proximity and greater exposure of Indigenous, Black and racialized communities to contamination and pollution from industry and other environmentally hazardous activities.
  • The lack of political power these communities have to fight back against the placement of these industries in their communities.
  • The implementation of policies that allow these harmful projects to be placed in these communities.
  • The slow rates of cleanup of contaminants and pollutants in racialized communities.
  • The lack of representation of Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities in mainstream environmental groups and on decision-making boards, commissions and regulatory bodies.

Examples of Environmental Racism in Canada

Shelburne, Nova Scotia

The Morvan Road Landfill has been located in Shelburne, an African Nova Scotian community, since the 1940s. In early 2016, members of the community banded together to form the South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED). SEED is a non-profit organization that is addressing the social and health effects of the landfill. At the end of 2016, the landfill closed as a result of the community’s efforts.

Africville, Nova Scotia

Africville, a former African Nova Scotian community, has come to symbolize the harmful impacts of both gentrification and environmental racism. In 1965, the City of Halifax embarked on an urban renewal campaign. The campaign took property away from and displaced members of the Africville community. The area subsequently became the location of several environmental and social hazards. These hazards included a fertilizer plant, slaughterhouse, tar factory, stone and coal crushing plant, cotton factory, prison, three systems of railway tracks, and an open dump. Africville descendants fought back over the years. Most recently, in November 2016, up to 300 former residents and their descendants joined an application submitted to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. The application was for a class-action lawsuit against Halifax over the loss of their land. In 2018, a judge turned down the application. The judge ruled that the plaintiff had not “satisfied the requirements” to certify the class action, which prevented the case from proceeding.

Lincolnville, Nova Scotia

African Nova Scotians in Lincolnville have been near a first- and second-generation landfill since 1974 and 2006 respectively. The community has long been concerned about traces of carcinogens — including cadmium, phenol and toluene — being above acceptable limits in the community’s surface water and groundwater, from which residents drink. Through the Concerned Citizens of Lincolnville (later renamed the Lincolnville Reserve Land Voice Council), the community has voiced their concerns about the environmentally hazardous methods used to handle waste at the first-generation landfill. They launched the Save Lincolnville Campaign, a community-led initiative for the removal of the landfill. A broad-based coalition of community groups and individuals supported the initiative.

Pictou Landing First Nation

Starting in 1967, Northern Pulp mill began dumping effluent into Boat Harbour, Nova Scotia. Three of Pictou Landing First Nation’s reserves abut the harbour. The community began action against the federal government in 1986, but the government failed to address the issue. On 11 June 2014, Chief Andrea Paul and her First Nation government ordered a blockade of the road leading to the site of the effluent leak. Paul ordered the blockade after the province and Northern Pulp ignored her inquiries about how they planned to clean up the spill. After Paul and former Minister of Environment Randy Delorey signed an agreement to shut down the mill by 2020, the First Nation dismantled the blockade. In 2019, Premier Stephen McNeil announced he would shut the mill down for good. The Northern Pulp mill closed at the end of January 2020.

Sipekne’katik First Nation

In 2014, members of Sipekne’katik First Nation and other local Mi’kmaw water protectors began opposing a development by Alton Natural Gas Storage. The development was a brine discharge pipeline on unceded land near the Shubenacadie River in Nova Scotia. The project would allow natural gas to be stored in underground salt caverns near the Shubenacadie River. Sipekne’katik First Nation contends that they were not adequately consulted and never gave consent for the project. Since 2016, they have been appealing the decision by the province to grant industrial approval to the project. Twice, in 2017 and in 2020, Sipekne'katik First Nation took their appeal to Nova Scotia's highest court. In March 2020, they were successful in getting the court to overturn the industrial approval for the project and, therefore, won their case. The judge ordered the province to resume consultations with Sipekne'katik First Nation for 120 days or for a period of time agreed to by the province and the First Nation.

Grassy Narrows First Nation

Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation) is an Ojibwe First Nation and reserve located north of Kenora, Ontario. Between 1962 and 1970, Dryden Chemicals Ltd. dumped mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system. Dryden is located upstream from Grassy Narrows. The mercury poisoned fish in the river system, a primary source of food and income for the community. The Ontario provincial government subsequently advised the community to stop eating fish and, in 1970, closed their commercial fishery. The closure resulted in economic disaster. Within a year of the fishery closing, Grassy Narrows’ unemployment rate jumped from 5 per cent to 95 per cent. Although Dryden Chemicals Ltd. closed in 1976, concerns about the health effects of mercury contamination remain. In April 2020, the federal government committed to fully fund a care home in Grassy Narrows for those suffering from mercury poisoning. The government also agreed to provide the community with long-term funding for the operation and maintenance of the home.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Vallée de la chimie

Aamjiwnaang First Nation is located near Sarnia, Ontario’s “Chemical Valley.” The nation has long dealt with air pollution from industrial facilities in the area, such as oil refineries, power generating stations, and landfills. Chemical Valley is Canada’s largest petrochemical complex, grouping over 60 petrochemical facilities within a 25 km2 area. High rates of cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive health issues have been linked to these facilities. Many members of the community depended on fish from the St. Clair River, which flows through Chemical Valley. The river has been the receptor for 32 major spills and 300 minor ones between 1974 and 1986. These spills have contributed to approximately 10 tonnes of pollutants in the St. Clair River. The community has been advocating for improved air quality in the area and is working on improved industry environmental performance. Relationships have also been forged between the community, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, and the petroleum industry, which has resulted in environmental protection gains.

Wet'suwet'en First Nation

In British Columbia, the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation have voiced their opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The pipeline would transport liquefied natural gas from northeast BC to a terminal near the town of Kitimat. In December 2018, members of the Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en clans set up blockades near Smithers, BC, to prevent access to the pipeline construction site . In the years that followed, allies of Wet'suwet'en First Nation participated in mass demonstrations, sit-ins and blockades to support the leaders of the Indigenous nation who had never given their consent for the project to move forward.

Environmental Racism Legislation

In early 2015, Lenore Zann, then a New Democratic Party member of Nova Scotia’s legislative assembly, and Dalhousie University professor Dr. Ingrid Waldron collaborated on the first environmental racism private members bill in Canada. The bill was called the Environmental Racism Prevention Act (Bill 111). It was introduced in the Nova Scotia Legislature on 29 April 2015, but was never approved as legislation. In early 2020, Zann, now a member of Parliament for the federal Liberal Party, and Dr. Waldron revised Bill 111. Zann introduced it in the House of Commons on 26 February 2020 as a federal bill titled National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act (Bill C-230). On 24 March 2021, the bill passed its second reading and was referred to an environmental standing committee for further consideration. The bill must pass several other steps, including a third reading, before it becomes law (see also Act). The bill, however, has not seen progress since 2021.

Further Reading

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