Environmental Justice: Racism and the Climate Crisis
Updated: Jun 11
Disclaimer: Hi my name is Anna and I am the author of this post, and I just wanted to clarify a few things before you start reading. I do not identify as a BIPOC, I am speaking from a position of privilege as a settler, someone who is white, and most importantly, as an ally, in the hopes of using my privilege to educate others about the environmental injustice occurring within Canada. I acknowledge the struggles faced by Indigenous and Black Canadians, specifically pollution and chemical exposure forced disproportionately into their communities. I am not speaking on behalf of Indigenous peoples or communities of colour, I am simply trying to share the information I have found and am trying to educate others on the concept of environmental racism and how prevalent of an issue it still is today.
Amidst a revolution calling for justice for Black victims of police brutality, it may feel right to put the climate crisis on hold and face the battle of systemic racism. However, the issues of racism and climate change are interconnected in many ways and drawing these parallels will help in shedding light on a manifestation of systemic racism: environmental racism.
Environmental justice sees that people are protected from climate change impacts to their health and environment and involved in policy decisions regarding climate change action, regardless of factors such as race or income (1). Currently there is still a fight for environmental justice, as the effects of the climate crisis are felt at disproportionate levels amongst different racial groups. The Fourth National Climate Assessment conducted in the United States revealed the inconsistencies of climate change effects across different communities. Communities occupied by people of colour tend to face more extreme environmental concerns in terms of health impacts and weather events, and were found to be excluded from plans to recover from extreme weather (2). Communities inhabited by African Americans experience more extreme pollution and the associated health risks, with over 1 million African Americans reporting that there is an oil or natural gas plant located within a half mile of their home (3).
Similar systematic problems are present within Canada. A multitude of First Nations communities face environmental racism through the placement of facilities that result in similar extreme pollution that African Americans are facing in the United States. An example of this is ‘Chemical Valley’ in Sarnia, Ontario, which has been named due to the large amounts of contaminants present within the St. Clair River, the source of water to the Aamjiwnaang Reserve (4). Home to 40% of Canada’s petrochemical plants that pollute the water and air resulting in “some of the most polluted air in Canada” according to the World Health Organization (5). This pollution has led to health issues, including increased asthma presence, with 40% of the population requiring an inhaler (4). Another case of negative environmental impact is the mercury contamination of the English-Wabigoon River system caused by the Dryden paper mill in Grassy Narrows, Ontario, which led to the economic destruction of the community through eliminating the primary source of income via fishing (4). The people of Grassy Narrows were ultimately given over $9 million as reparations by the Government of Canada, however, they continue to face barriers to accessing treatment centres for the poisoning, which continues to have intergenerational effects (4). There are also examples of water contamination in Black Tickle, Labrador, and Kashechewan Reserve in Ontario as well as countless of other cases of contamination of areas inhabited by First Nations peoples caused by the presence of industrial buildings. The Government of Canada has been working on lifting long-term drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities, check out the status of this action here.
Communities with people of colour in Canada have further been historically exposed to increased levels of environmental threats, specifically Black communities (6). One such community was Africville in Nova Scotia, which had been home to Black Canadians dating back to the 1700s. The community was destroyed in the 1960s to allow for the industrialization of the land, causing the forced displacement of many from their homes (7). The City of Halifax issued an apology in 2010, as well as $3 million that was used to build a museum where Africville was located (7). Secondly, residents of Lincolnville, a predominately Black community also located in Nova Scotia, have faced issues due to the presence of landfills since 1974 (7).
A study conducted in 2017 by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council indicated the lack of verbal or policy responses by the different levels of Canadian governments regarding the environmental issues faced by Black communities in Canada (7). Bill-111, the Environmental Racism Prevention Act was introduced to the Nova Scotia government in 2014 by MLA Lenore Zann, and while the bill ultimately didn’t pass, this was the first occurrence of a bill addressing environmental racism in North America (8). Introduced to the federal government earlier this year, again by Lenore Zann, was Bill C-230, a private member’s bill with the goal of creating a national plan to address environmental racism in Canada (8).
Ultimately, it is clear that the climate crisis and racism are not mutually exclusive, and has roots in Canada. The passing of a bill acknowledging environmental racism in Canada is monumental in the fight to protecting communities.
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