Nova Scotia’s legacy of environmental racism

‘Environmental racism has been here for a long time — it’s built in the system.’
Africville, Nova Scotia. Photo: Ross Dunn/Flickr

When Black settlers arrived in Halifax in the mid-19th century, they faced overt racism. The community they created, which became known as Africville, did not receive the same care as other neighbourhoods in Halifax. The city placed dangerous services in and around Africville that it wouldn’t dare place near white communities, including a dump and an incinerator that contaminated the water wells and resulted in high cancer rates.

Residents of Africville eventually had no choice but to relocate, either because the toxic industries made staying untenable or because they were forcibly removed to make way for development. One tactic the city used to displace the inhabitants, for example, was bulldozing their houses when they weren’t home, or while they were in the hospital.

Below, Corey Beals, a deputy fire chief in Halifax, talks about Africville and Nova Scotia’s legacy of environmental racism.

Corey Beals

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Corey Beals talks about the history of environmental racism in Black communities in Nova Scotia.

My official name is Cortonio Tyrone Beals, also known as Corey. Environmental racism has been here for a long time — it’s built in the system. They tried to be hidden, very covert with it, but it is very, very clear in our communities when we have been exposed to environmental racism.

One example would be Africville. When you look at how the city dump was located adjacent to the historic Black community of Africville, and when you look at the tar ponds in Cape Breton and Whitney Pier, again, were located within the Black community.

The unfortunate spins to these types of plants is there’s a double whammy — on one side of it, the community benefits significantly because it boosts the economy, because of employment, it gives people jobs. 

But the downfall is the risk and the exposure that members in the community have to bear with. That’s one of the payoffs the communities have to deal with. If you don’t want the plants there, then you have to find a way to sustain your livelihood. And that typically tends to force people to move out. 

And that’s where we get migration. One of the issues that we have in our local, Black and Indigenous communities, is when there’s no infrastructure development within those communities, people need to leave in order to sustain a livelihood, and you are stigmatized by the community that you live in. And when you look at environmental racism, these communities are exposed to unwanted environmental disasters, for no other reason other than because we didn’t back then have the willpower, nor the political strength to be able to fight it.

Now we’re suffering from it. Some people have suffered health-wise. There are people who have health issues associated with environmental racism. Communities are stigmatized because of it, and property values are lowered. And over and above all of that, it’s just another way to hold back, forward progress. 

In our community, they typically talk about racism in general — you’re only doing this because we’re Black. You’re only putting this plant here because it’s in our community and we’re Black. But no one used the term environmental racism back in the day because they didn’t understand what environmental racism was all about. Now, it’s no longer a taboo. It is no longer an unknown. It’s a well known form of racism. It’s out there clear as day, when you look around and see where all of these cancer-causing plants are located — they’re located in communities that don’t have the power, the strength and the support to be able to fight against them.

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What you can do to learn more

Read: A Love Letter to Africville (Fernwood Publishing) 
“Much has been written about the struggles of the Africville community, who have been hurt, discriminated against and dispossessed for so long — but Africville is so much more than just the pain. This book recasts the historical narrative to help former residents heal by emphasizing the beautiful and positive aspects of Africville.”

Watch: Remember Africville (National Film Board) 
“Former residents, their descendants and some of the decision-makers, speak out and, with the help of archival photographs and films, tell the story of that painful relocation.”

Listen: The Last Man in Africville (Canadaland Commons) 
“Africville was one of Canada’s oldest Black settlements, a proud community of more than 400 people. And then the City of Halifax decided to utterly obliterate it. There was one man who simply refused to leave. Eddie Carvery may not have been the best man for the job. But for half a century, he has never stopped fighting for his home.”


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