Canada is late to act on environmental racism

Speaker: Ms. May

Time: 26/04/2022 18:03:36

Context: Debate

I am very honoured to stand here to present Bill C-226 at the first hour of its second reading.

I want to begin with a very heartfelt meegwetch and a recognition that we stand on the territory of the Algonquin Nation. It is their land.

I will take a moment to describe how we got to where we are today, because it is rare for a private member’s bill entering its first hour of second reading to have already had any parliamentary history at all, and this has a lot of parliamentary history.

I will start by saying that this bill received wide support under a different mover in the last Parliament as Bill C-230. It was moved by the then magnificent member of Parliament for Cumberland—Colchester, Lenore Zann.

Lenore was elected as a Liberal member of Parliament here, but she is quite a non-partisan individual. She also served with distinction in the legislature of Nova Scotia as a New Democrat MLA and has carried with her a concern for environmental racism for a long time. She did me the great honour in making this a non-partisan bill, and I am very honoured to have the hon. Chair of the environment committee as the seconder of this bill now. We wanted to make this a non-partisan effort from its very inception as Bill C-230.

Bill C-230, with the same title, is an act to address and assess environmental racism and move forward to environmental justice. It received support at second reading and actually got to committee. Amendments were made in the environment committee, and I adopted those amendments in Bill C-226 at first reading. So, what we have in front of us represents work already done by Parliament.

It is my deep hope and desire that all of us here, regardless of party, will find it in our hearts sometime in the near future to give this bill unanimous consent so that it can skip through stages that were already done, get it through and sent to the other place. It would then become law, and we can start working proactively to advance environmental justice. That is the hope with which I speak to members tonight.

I am grateful for the non-partisan support the bill already has, and members will hear that in the speeches that are coming up. We also know from a question that I put to the Prime Minister in question period that the government’s position is to support this bill, and so we feel optimistic that it will become law, but we would rather it was sooner than later.

I will now turn to the history. This is not a recent issue, and we are late to act. However, before I start on that, I need to dedicate this bill to the memory of a friend of mine: Clotilda Adessa Coward Douglas Yakimchuk. She was a magnificent woman, and a hero in the community. Her parents came from Barbados in the earlier part of the last century to work in the Sydney Steel Mill.

Clotilda was a proud Black woman. She was the first community activist with whom I ever worked on the issue of environmental racism. Clotilda Yakimchuk died just about a year ago today on April 15, 2021. She died of COVID. She was the first Black person to receive a nursing degree at nursing schools in Nova Scotia. She was the first Black woman to be the president of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Nova Scotia. She was aware of and fought against the pollution between the coke ovens of the Sydney Steel Mill, and the steel mill itself, and the high cancer rates in that community of Whitney Pier. When this bill becomes law, I hope people will remember that it is dedicated to the memory of Clotilda Yakimchuk.

One of the things I worked on in cleaning up the Sydney tar ponds with Clotilda is that we can recognize as a reality that toxic chemicals do not discriminate. They do not pay attention to the colour of our skin when they lodge in our body, when they pass through placenta to children, when they cause cancer and when they cause birth defects. They do not care the colour of one’s skin, but the public policy that puts indigenous peoples and communities of colour, who are far more frequently at risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals, does notice skin colour. It does notice when one is marginalized. It does notice whether one has money or not.

Therefore, it is absolutely the case in this country, with all of the evidence that we have of racism that cannot be denied. I know this bill makes people uncomfortable because, is there racism in Canada? Yes, there is. We just had a report today about the racism that repulses people as new recruits, out of our military. Every institution in our country experiences racism. Environmental racism is not something new.

Let me go through some of the history we have of that in this country. I am going to turn to books for a moment. The first book that really focused on this problem was in 1977 by one of Canada’s great journalists, Warner Troyer. The book is No Safe Place and it is the story of the contamination by the Dryden paper mill of the indigenous community at Grassy Narrows. We are still dealing with that mercury contamination.

Another book on the same topic of the mercury contamination of Grassy Narrows is A Poison Stronger than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community by Anastasia Shkilnyk. She was one of my constituents and, also in her memory, I bring this bill forward today.

In 2000, actually, I co-authored with Maude Barlow, who was then the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, the book Frederick Street: Life and death on Canada’s Love Canal, dealing with the issue that I mentioned and referenced. That is where Clotilda Yakimchuk and I first became friends. The contamination of the Sydney tar ponds led to the highest cancer rates in Canada. They were in industrial Cape Breton. The place that became the tar ponds was an estuary where the Mi’kmaq community had traditionally had summer fishing camps. The land was stolen, of course, and then became the worst pollution zone in Canada with the pollution from the coke ovens and the steel mill. In-between was a community called Whitney Pier, which was virtually entirely immigrant Canadians, including a lot of people from Ukraine. I mentioned Clotilda’s last name was Yakimchuk. Her husband Dan Yakimchuk was a steelworker from Ukraine. Whitney Pier is a melting-pot community. It is a fantastic place, but the cancer rates are through the roof. The land was stolen from the Mi’kmaq. They got the contamination too. So did the only Black community in Cape Breton. As Clotilda described it to me and that I had recorded in the book, it was impossible to find housing anywhere but in that community, so the racism was enforced. We did not have Jim Crow laws in Nova Scotia in the 1970s, but we might as well have because an experienced nurse who was Black, with her children having moved back from Grenada after her first husband passed away, could not get housing anywhere except in the most contaminated neighbourhoods. That is called environmental racism. That is what it is.

Therefore, we have a history here. Looking at the books, the most important without a doubt, the 2018 publication of Dr. Ingrid Waldron’s book There’s Something In The Water Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities has changed the conversation in Canada. That was fortified a year later when Dr. Waldron co-produced the film, with the brilliant Nova Scotia actor Elliot Page. They introduced people to this concept. That is part of the history.

Let us look at where else people have done anything on environmental racism. I have been a bit shocked and perturbed, as has been my friend Lenore Zann, by some of the social media reaction to us tabling this legislation as if we are kind of weird lefties and we made it up because we just want to make racism a thing. No, this is empirically established. We know this is true.

In 1994, the U.S. government took action because it was clear on the evidence that if someone lived in a community of colour or an indigenous community they were far more likely to be exposed to levels of toxic contamination that imperilled their health, the health of their children, their family, their neighbourhood, their community and also other people who were not of colour but were people who were marginalized. Therefore, it has to do with a bunch of different issues such as, if people who have power or money, if they live in Shaughnessy or they live in Westmount, nobody opens a toxic-waste dump in their backyard. That is the reality. In Canada, as in the U.S., if people are marginalized, without economic power, a person of colour or indigenous that is where they might be much more likely to be exposed to toxic contamination. The U.S. recognized this and since 1994, my dear friends, the U.S. government, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has a program that is well resourced for environmental justice.

What does that justice look like? Putting the tools in the hands of marginalized people to fight for their own health, to make sure there is resources for epidemiologists, to make sure there is resources for toxicologists and to make sure that governments spend the money to clean up the mess. We are late in Canada. The U.S. took action. Again, hear me: the U.S. took action 28 years ago. This is not a new issue. We are late, so we need to get this bill passed.

We need to see environmental justice being championed in this country with a well-resourced program in environmental justice where we take our blinders off and say, yes, there is a thing. It is called environmental racism. We are not going to water it down and ignore it because it is still happening. It is happening today when they try to reopen the Pictou mill and reopen the contamination that so affected the people of Pictou Landing.

By the way, I see the minister of immigration in the room, so I am just going to give a shout-out to the hon. member for Central Nova for being the first federal member of Parliament from that area who was prepared to say this mill should close because the jobs are not worth the damage that has been done to boat harbour, the indigenous community of Pictou Landing and the neighbourhoods in Pictou, just to say that that is brave. They are still trying to open it again.

It is seen in Kanesatake where there is still illegal dumping of toxic chemicals in and around the community, the Mohawk community of Kanesatake. That should not be allowed. It would not happen in other communities.

We are looking still at Grassy Narrows and Sarnia, at the first nation of Aamjiwnaang. I invite colleagues from any party to go to Sarnia and visit the enclaves surrounded by petrochemical plants where the Aamjiwnaang first nation cemetery is. It is completely surrounded and the industry just got a two-year extension on cleaning up the sulphur dioxide from that refinery. That affect several cultural Canadians too, but in that community those toxic contaminants completely encircle Aamjiwnaang’s centre.

Look at the Lubicon and the oil sands that have contaminated the communities of Lubicon first nation now for long enough that we wrote about it in 2000 in Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal.

We do not need to look far. We do not need to look back at deep history, but we do need to be honest about the fact that this is a pressing issue and requires action. It is a terrible shame. I am sorry to say it because Liberal colleagues are supporting this bill, so I say it without malice. It is a shame the election was called when it was because this bill, having gotten a lot of support, died on the Order Paper, so we are starting again.

I would really love it to see the bill go to the second reading for the second time. I know that my friend, Lenore Zann, who is here in Ottawa today as a former member of Parliament would love it. We would really love it. I am sure other members of every party in this place would appreciate that we do not need to take it to committee again and study it again. We cannot make the same amendments because this bill includes the amendments the committee made last time.

Let us do something for environmental justice. Let us stand up and say there is a better way to deal with the right to a healthy environment that we actually do not have in this country, to make it real to have a right to a healthy environment, so that every citizen regardless of the colour of their skin or their economic status, and in the case of indigenous peoples, the double horror of having their land stolen and then filled with toxic chemicals. This is not something that any parliamentarian should feel comfortable allowing to continue, so I really beg this of all my colleagues, regardless of party.

Je comprends bien que c’est un enjeu difficile particulièrement parce qu’il est question de racisme ou d’inégalités et c’est une question de mots. J’exige que tout le monde appuie ce projet de loi émanant des députés.

I have, I think, 35 seconds left so I just want to say again that this bill will be from all of us. This is not Green Party legislation. I mean, I am completely supported by my colleague from Kitchener Centre, but we do not want to own this. Collectively, all of our hands are on this baby. This bill will matter. It matters for environmental justice. It matters for our future. It matters for who we are.