The issue of environmental racism has a long history in Canada. The Sydney Tar Ponds on Cape Breton Island, with over one hundred years of pollution from the steel mill and coke ovens leading to the highest cancer rates in Canada, were adjacent to the only neighbourhood of people of colour in industrial Cape Breton, on land stolen from the local Mi’kmaq First Nation. Grassy Narrows experienced unheard of levels of pollution from Reid Paper leading to mercury contamination and inter-generational health issues. Indigenous communities, marginalized peoples and people of colour continue to experience higher levels of exposure to toxic chemicals.
Documentation of this situation can be found in Ingrid Waldron’s book, “There’s something in the water,” also a documentary of the same name by Professor Waldron and actor Elliot Page. Situations like the pulp mill at Pictou and its intergenerational impact have been campaigns by the Green Party for years. Elizabeth May and Maude Barlow’s book, “Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal,” references this issue.
About Bill C-226
In the 43rd parliament, Elizabeth seconded former MP Lenore Zann’s Private Member’s Bill (PMB), Bill C-230: An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism. Bill C-230 died on the order paper when an election was called in August 2021. Elizabeth re-introduced the bill as her own PMB in the 44th parliament, building on the work of MP Zann and environmental justice advocates.
Elizabeth’s Bill is now C-226: An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice.
Short title: National Strategy Respecting Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Act.
The climate crisis, environmental degradation and social justice issues are inherently interconnected. Racialized people are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and pollution. They must be consulted, respected, and their voices amplified as Canada moves towards a more equitable and sustainable society for all Canadians. This is not a new issue, and Canada is late to act.
The United States, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has had a well-funded Environmental Justice Program (EJP) since 1994.
“For more than three decades, [The United States has] had active programs to confront environmental racism while the term is hardly well-understood in our country.” Elizabeth May.
The US EJP website has information on environmental laws, options to report violations of those laws, and regional offices sensitive to local information. A Canadian EJP could be modeled after the American example.
Examples of Environmental Racism
Examples of environmental racism can be found across Canada, and across decades. Some examples include, but are not limited to:
Kanehsatake (Kanehsatà:ke) – Quebec
Since 2018, media has reported the suspected impacts on the health of local citizens and the water table caused by the G&R Recycling dump on Mohawk land in Kanehsatake, Quebec.
In 2021, a coalition of Indigenous Land Defenders and settler activists released findings and data showing that the site contains multiple toxins, long-term threats to water and fauna and that the federal government has known about this since 2019.
In 2020, the government issued a directive requiring the facility to be cleaned up. While the government has promised to hold any guilty parties accountable, the toxic dumping continues.
A coalition of Green and NDP MPs, along with allied civil-society organizations, is asking for a long-term solution to the dumping problem in Kanehsatake.
For more information on advocacy being done by more than 100 environmental groups to help Kanehsatake, and for evidence of the toxicity in the area, visit:
Grassy Narrows First Nation and the Whitegog Independent Nations – Kenora, Ontario
There has been an everlasting mercury crisis in Grassy Narrows First Nation and the Whitegog Independent Nations. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, from 1963 to 1970, a pulp and paper mill released several tons of highly toxic mercury into the water, contaminating the English-Wabigoon River system, including the traditional fish and game they depended upon. Mercury is fat-soluble, which results in the bioaccumulation and bioamplification of mercury across the marine food chain, and ultimately onto the plates of Indigenous peoples. Over 58% of community members examined have or are suspected to have Minamata disease, a serious neurological (brain) disease resulting from mercury exposure.
Pictou Mill / Pictou Landing – Nova Scotia
Northern Pulp (also known as many other companies over 50 years) is in Nova Scotia. Since the 1960s, the mill dumped millions of gallons of effluent per day into Boat Harbour, formerly the site of fishing and hunting and recreation for Pictou Landing First Nation. It was finally shuttered in Jan 2020 after failing to comply with environmental regulations and present a viable future plan for effluent. Northern Pulp has now demanded $100M from the province, which it claims represents the losses it has incurred because of the closure of the pulp mill in Pictou County. Northern Pulp is now applying to reopen.
Aamjiwnaang First Nations – Sarnia, Ontario
The health of the Aamjiwnaang First Nations is being disproportionately affected by environmental hazards in Sarnia, Ontario. Sarnia is also known as “Chemical Valley” because about 40% of Canada’s chemical industry is found there. The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (2017) stated, “There is strong evidence that the pollution [here] is causing adverse health effects, which neither the federal nor provincial government have properly investigated.”
Lubicon First Nation Oil Sands – Alberta
The traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree covers approximately 10,000 square kilometres of low-lying trees, rivers, plains, and wetlands – what we call muskeg – in northern Alberta.
For three decades, this territory has undergone massive oil and gas development without the consent of the Lubicon people and without recognition of our Aboriginal rights, which are protected under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. (For a timeline of the Lubicon Cree’s land rights struggle, click here). Taken from article here.
Wet’suwet’en – Injunctions Against Indigenous Peoples – near Houston, BC
While Indigenous groups face ongoing challenges in accessing injunctions, courts are increasingly called upon to hear applications by industry proponents for injunctions to allow resource projects to proceed in the face of Indigenous opposition.
In a recent and highly publicized example, the BC Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink Ltd. an injunction restraining members of Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders and supporters from blockading a portion of their territory to prevent the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.
The defendants, members of Dark House of the Wet’suwet’en, argued that their actions were carried out in accordance with Wet’suwet’en law and responsibilities to their territory. However, the Court concluded that the blockade undermined the “rule of law” and amounted to “a repudiation of the mutual obligation of Aboriginal groups and the Crown to consult in good faith.”
The Site C dam – Peace River, BC
The Site C dam builds on and perpetuates BC’s history of sacrificing Indigenous lands for short-term profit. The Site C dam, downstream of the WAC Bennett Dam, capitalizes on the destruction of Treaty 8 territory and the ongoing infringement of treaty rights. It will also cause additional, irreversible impacts on the lands and rights of Indigenous Peoples in Treaty 8 on both sides of the Alberta-BC border.