How Canada’s laws have failed to address environmental racism

Unlike the U.S., Canada still doesn’t collect much race-based data.
Illustration: Canva/The Resolve

In Canada, there is a severe lack of data on race. Historically, most of our government agencies and institutions have been reluctant or resistant to collecting race-based data. We’ve made some small strides as there’s been more interest in quantifying the experiences of racialized people amid our “racial reckoning,” but we still have far to go. 

We don’t need numbers to know that systemic racism is real. But more data would crystalize the extent of the problem. And without data, it’s difficult to evaluate if any progress is being made or not.

That’s true for everything that race intersects with, including the environment. On this front, there’s currently a private member’s bill under consideration in the Senate that, if passed into law, would be a starting point for more data collection on environmental racism, advocates say, as reported by Natasha Bulowski in Canada’s National Observer

Bill C-226 “would require the federal government to examine the links between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk.” The bill is being sponsored by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, and is based on a previous private member’s bill sponsored by former Liberal MP Lenore Zann. That bill, Bill C-230, was introduced to the House of Commons in February 2020 and, because of the election called in 2021 and the dissolving of Parliament, never made it to a third reading.

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Even if the bill passes, its impact, if any, remains to be seen.

Below, Angela Lee, an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law, discusses the limitations of environmental law, the link between environmental racism and capitalism, and what else needs to be done to address the problem.

Angela Lee

Angela Lee discusses the limitations of environmental law.

My name is Angela Lee. I have a doctorate in law from the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, where I specialized in environmental law.

A major problem that’s been identified with environmental law is that there’s often a significant degree of discretion involved. So while these laws enable or authorize ministers or other officials to develop regulations, they’re not necessarily obligated to act or to meet a certain minimum threshold. And so this perpetuates a system that ends up addressing symptoms in a reactive fashion, as opposed to targeting the root causes of environmental destruction, more proactively. 

Environmental law has had its successes, and it can’t be described as being entirely useless. But there is still a lot of progress that can and should be made on this front, especially in terms of the more deeply rooted systemic issues that are the underlying causes of environmental degradation that enables humans to continue to extract resources, continue to consume things, and continue to do things that serve our economy and its current state. 

It’s based on a certain set of assumptions about what needs to be protected and why and how this has to be done. So there are a variety of different things like anthropocentrism, extractive capitalism tied in with the fact that extractive industries have historically been a really significant part of Canada’s economy, growing appetites and consumption. 

And so there’s this overall obsession with ceaseless economic growth coupled with a strong belief in the ability of Western science and technology to solve all of these environmental problems that we’re facing, that limit the ability of the law to effect more fundamental transformative changes. 

And more recently, there was an interesting development. Bill C-230, was a proposed act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism. And so this was a private member’s bill that was brought by an MP that would compel the minister of environment to create a national strategy to address environmental racism. (Editor’s note: At the time this interview was recorded, the bill was at the report stage in the House of Commons. The bill did not become law.)

So it’s envisaged that the strategy to address environmental racism would include making efforts to identify, document and monitor environmental racism. Canada, unlike the U.S., doesn’t really collect data on environmental racism. And so through this bill, the federal government would have been obligated to collect more information and statistics about where environmental hazards are located, what the connections between variables like race, socioeconomic status, and environmental risks are, and also collect information about the negative health outcomes and communities that are affected by environmental racism. 

In addition to collecting this data, the national strategy would also help create processes to increase the participation of Indigenous, racialized and other affected communities in environmental policymaking, especially that which affects them in their communities. It would allow for providing redress for harm due to environmental injustice — providing compensation for people who have been negatively affected by these kinds of things. And it would also buttress the case for ensuring access to clean air and water.

It’s something that’s been a significant problem, especially in Indigenous communities on First Nations, reserves, and places like that. So there is not currently a piece of legislation that directly addresses environmental racism, but there are efforts to try to make this happen.

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