Confronting the realities of environmental racism in Canada

When racism and the environment intersect, it’s our communities that suffer.
In the opening essay of a new series, journalist Denée Rudder reflects on some of the ways that environmental racism can affect our communities and neighbourhoods.

In Nova Scotia, my family has long had to confront the realities of environmental racism — even if we didn’t always have a name for it. Before I had even heard of the term, it was hard to miss the disparities between North Preston — a predominantly Black community home to my family — and neighbouring areas. 

My family’s ties to Nova Scotia go back at least 10 generations. My mom was born and raised there, and a lot of my family is still there, including my grandma as well as many of my aunts, uncles, great-grandparents, and cousins.

A few years ago, I visited my family in Nova Scotia for Christmas. After dinner at my grandma’s, a handful of us went for a drive, with my uncle behind the wheel, to look at all the holiday decorations and lights. 

Driving through North Preston, I noticed illegally dumped garbage and piles of trash everywhere; a stark reminder of the government’s neglect of this neighbourhood. I remember being shocked, but my family was unfazed. They said this is how it’s always been and that’s just the way it is.

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As we drove out of the community, my surroundings began to look very different: the streets were clear and well-maintained. It felt like another world. I wondered why there was such a drastic difference between the areas we were driving through.

Environmental racism is a term I learned of only recently, despite it being something my family, from one generation to the next, has experienced first-hand.

The documentary that really put everything into perspective for me was There’s Something in the Water, a film directed by Elliot Page and Ian Daniel, based on a book of the same name by Ingrid Waldron, about the effects of environmental racism in Indigenous and Black communities, particularly in Nova Scotia.

The film hit close to home. In the scene where playwright Louise Delisle drives through her community in Shelburne, it felt so familiar to my family’s neighbourhood in North Preston — the accents, the way the houses are constructed, how Delisle waved to everyone as one typically does in a small, tight-knit community.

Watching the film gave me a better understanding of what has happened — and what is happening — to our communities.

The term environmental racism was coined in 1982 by Benjamin Chavis, a U.S. civil rights leader.

It’s defined as “racial discrimination in environmental policymaking, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from the leadership of the ecology movements.”

Although environmental racism is not a new concept, there still seems to be a lack of awareness and understanding of how the environment and racism can intersect.

Environmental racism presents itself in many ways, including when policies are implemented to allow harmful projects to exist in marginalized communities. To make things worse, the clean-up rates of these harmful contaminants and pollutants in these communities are often slow. As a result, those in the community must suffer from the consequences, which could include being forced to relocate.

The people and communities who suffer most from the consequences are often left out of crucial conversations. They lack political power and representation in mainstream environmental groups and decision-making boards. 

But in order for there to be any meaningful change, we need to listen to the people who are directly impacted.

In the coming weeks, follow our new series as we take you throughout the country to hear from experts and people affected by environmental racism. 

The first-hand accounts include a look at the mining industry in Yukon; oil-sands contamination in Alberta; the hydro-flooding catastrophe in Manitoba; the air pollution affecting Indigenous communities in Chemical Valley, in Southern Ontario; and the impact of a dump adjacent to a historically Black community in Nova Scotia.

Collectively, they reveal the breadth of environmental racism in this country and the ongoing damage to the communities affected. While the scope of the problem is daunting, there are possible solutions and ways to take action.

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What you can do to learn more

Read: There’s Something In The Water (Fernwood Publishing) 
“Ingrid R. G. Waldron examines the legacy of environmental racism and its health impacts in Indigenous and Black communities in Canada, using Nova Scotia as a case study, and the grassroots resistance activities by Indigenous and Black communities against the pollution and poisoning of their communities.”

Watch: Environmental Racism in Nova Scotia (NB Media Co-op) 
A recorded panel discussion on environmental racism in Nova Scotia with Dr. Ingrid Waldron, Michelle Francis-Denny, Dorene Bernard and Louise Delisle.


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