The intersection of global climate change and long-standing structural racism remains largely unaddressed in Canadian public discourse. African-American civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis coined the term environmental racism in the 1980s as part of the environmental justice movement to directly address this phenomenon. Environmental racism refers to environmental practices, policies and regulations (or lack thereof) that disproportionately disadvantage groups of people based on their race. The racist nature of certain policies is evaluated by their unequal effects; therefore, it is possible that a policy may have unintentionally racist consequences.
Canada’s self-portrayal as a global leader in diversity and sustainable development has continually masked the extent to which environmental racism is interwoven into the very fabric of Canadian institutions. This is not a recent phenomenon, but a longstanding artifact of Canada’s discriminatory colonial foundations. Understandably, the present consequences of environmental racism are the devastating disproportionate effects of climate change and pollution on communities of black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC).
History of Canadian Environmental Racism
The heavier burden of environmental insecurity and unequal health outcomes felt by BIPOC communities is not coincidental – it is by design. Since early colonization, European settlers forcibly appropriated Indigenous lands and their resources in order to expand their territory and build the Canada Pacific Railways. This was made possible by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) created in 1873 to control Indigenous people and force them to relocate to reserves in the name of development. The coercive and extensive policing on BIPOC communities developed racist profiling and criminalization of racialized groups seen as national threats to justify invasive practices that violate their safety, privacy and human rights.
This long history of police brutality and abuse is still prevalent as much as the recent criticism of the RCMP for their inaction against white supremacists’ hate crimes against the Sipekne’katik fishermen, which are part of Mi’kmaq band in Nova Scotia and Middle West Pubnico. Despite the Supreme Court’s 1999 Marshall ruling allowing a free license for Mi’kmaq fishermen to operate in off-season, angry mobs have ransacked several First Nations properties and destroyed Indigenous lobsters storage facilities. Far from being an isolated incident, these hate crimes are part of larger systemic violence against communities of colour who remain unprotected by the laws and its authorities.
The absence of environmental justice in legislative institutions is complicit in sustaining environmental racism in Canada. The most clear example of racism through legislation is found in the Indian Act which differentiates the rights of non-Indigenous and Indigenous Canadians. In the Act, Indigenous people are encompassed under one homogenous group despite their cultural diversity. The Indian Act also created the prohibition of any gatherings (including political organization) by Indigenous people, and under Section 141 “Indians” were not allowed to hire lawyers and legal counsel, which shows the active effort to prevent Indigenous populations from fighting for their human rights legally and politically. However, Indigenous communities have not given up on their rights to protest against the government’s violation of their rights, such as the protest of the Nisga’a Land Committee and the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia to keep their territorial rights. Despite the amendment of Section 141 in 1951, the rights of legal representation and political manifestations are still challenged and undermined, which can be seen with the recent state’s violence against anti- Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline protest led by the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Squamish First Nations.
Effects of Environmental Racism in Canada
Environmental racism is one of the most subtle forms of discrimination in Canada because its determinants are correlated with structural poverty, access to health care, lack of education, and political suppression of BIPOC people. For instance, the rapid increase in temperature in the Arctic due to climate change has threatened the Nunavut First Nations food supply, storage, and security. The Inuits rely heavily on fishing and hunting wildlife to sustain themselves, but the extreme weather conditions and the thawing permafrost have contributed to an increase of mercury in northern lakes and of other contaminants that poison their food chain. First Nations are among the lowest contributors to green gas emission, yet they are among the most vulnerable and unprotected groups from the changing climate. Across Canada, 80% of people facing food poverty are Indigenous communities. The costs of healthy food supplies imported from southern parts of Canada to help these communities have increased due to the extreme changing climate that affects transportation and food production.
Moreover, it is hard to ignore the strong correlation between exposure to pollution and the lack of environmental regulation where non-white people live. According to leading environmental politics professor Dr. Ingrid Waldron, Indigenous and racialized communities are found to be disproportionately exposed to pollution and contamination from industrial plants and other environmentally hazardous activities. In Nova Scotia, 90% of the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations living near the Wabigoon river are suffering from mercury poisoning stemming from the Reed Paper mill and the Canso Chemicals property. The negative effects of water and land contamination are experienced across Canada, such as in Sarnia, Ontario, the site of several chemical plants and oil refineries, also known as the Chemical Valley, where multiple waves of illnesses and cancers have been reported in the Aamjiwnaang First Nations reserve.
Gender Inequality and Climate Change
There is evidence that the RCMP appears more as threats than as protectors for Indigenous people. In addition to unlawful surveillance and profiling, studies have shown that Indigenous people are disproportionately arrested and killed at the hands of the police. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has underlined the correlation between resource exploitation on First Nations reserves and increased violence on Indigenous women and femmes, which can be seen in the manifestation of abuse against Indigenous women in Manitoba and British Columbia labour camps. Furthermore, data have shown that women and more particularly women of colour are more vulnerable to the climate crisis. A spike in temperature in highly polluted and toxic areas where racialized communities live can cause an increase in negative health outcomes (such as cancers, asthma, high blood pressure) which in turn exposes children to higher risks of birth defects.
Indigenous women have been at the forefront of the environmental justice resistance and have highlighted that the climate crisis is not independent from the socio-economic structure, an idea also echoed by the eco-feminism movement. Gender biases and institutional racism go hand in hand when it comes to unequal distribution of environmental protection and disparities of income. This means that the discrimination by the government against people of colour will disproportionately disadvantage them in terms of health benefits, education, housing and income, which will give them less power to protect themselves from environmental risks. Living in this vicious poverty trap makes Indigenous people more vulnerable to industries that want to exploit their lands and resources.
It is not surprising to see racial inequity in environmental policies when there is a clear lack of diversity at the decision-making level and of BIPOC expertise in the Canadian political institutions. While introducing law is not sufficient to offset the long-term negative impacts of environmental racism on BIPOC communities, it is a necessary initiative to regulate environmental pollution and contamination, as well as bring awareness to the notion of equity in the environmental movement. In this regard, Ecojustice has fought to update the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to include the protection of BIPOC communities and adapt solutions to respond to the needs of these communities. But there are still many examples of how environmental racism is still embedded in Canadian legislation. In British Columbia, for example, dumping waste and littering on Crown land is penalized with a maximum of CAN $1,000,000, whereas on “Indian Reserves” dumping is only sanctioned to a maximum of CAN $100.
The climate justice movement has so far failed to link the long history of state repression and colonisation to recognize Indigenous people as agents of environmental conservation rather than just victims. The origins of their vulnerability to the climate crisis can be reframed as a societal problem caused by colonialism, structural poverty producing-system and systemic violence. This context is not unique to Canada, around the world, there has been a lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous expertise when it comes to environmental protection. While Indigenous groups comprise merely 5% of the total global population, they are responsible for the protection of 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.
The environmental justice movement needs to recognize that environmental racism is another form of systemic violence not divorced from the structural inequalities present in Canada. This inequity will be further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they are ways to move forward, based on an interdisciplinary approach such as including environmental racism and the need for restitution in national education and history, incorporating BIPOC people in the legislative and political decision-making board and developing cooperation at the national, provincial and territorial level to address environmental health inequalities.
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