These same communities are also more likely to feel the impacts of climate change ⸺ and sooner ⸺ than predominantly white communities.
Pollution in Aamjiwnaang Nation is one example. The ongoing First Nations water crisis is another. And there are more.
In Nova Scotia, the community of Africville, once home to descendants of enslaved peoples, was used as a regional dumping ground for decades, then bulldozed in the 1960s. In Grassy Narrows, decades of court battles and finger-pointing means mercury pollution of the English-Wabigoon river system that happened in the 60s may never be cleaned up. Today, a staggering 90 per cent of residents have mercury poisoning.
In Toronto, researchers found soil contamination, waste sites, industrial land use, and more disproportionately hurt areas that are home to racialized communities, recent immigrants, and people with low incomes.
The term for this toxic pattern is environmental racism. It’s a direct result of Canada’s historic and ongoing colonization. It impacts communities and people from coast to coast to coast. And it needs to stop.
Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism, rather than individual racism. That means it is the result of institutional policies and practices, rather than individual beliefs and actions.
Systemic racism is embedded in the laws, policies and institutions that govern our lives ⸺ and it has been since European settlers first colonized this land.
The 1885 Head Tax, the 1923 Exclusion Act, and the Indian Act are all examples of racist Canadian legislation. In B.C., UN special rapporteur on the environment and human rights David Boyd notes that the maximum penalties for dumping garbage or waste on Crown land range from $2,000 to $1,000,000. Meanwhile, the maximum penalty for dumping garbage or waste on “Indian Reserves” is only $100.
After visiting Canada in 2019, Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes wrote: “I observed a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples.”
Environmental racism’s systemic nature means that everything that goes into a particular decision ⸺ lobbying, laws, who gets to have a say ⸺ might be legal. But the results can and do disproportionately hurt BIPOC communities. They destroy peoples’ health, wreck natural environments, and threaten cultures.
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge the mainstream environmental movement’s complicity in upholding environmental racism. In his original definition, Chavis listed “the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements” as an example of environmental racism. This shortcoming has hindered the movement’s ability to achieve justice for all.
Environmental organizations ⸺ including Ecojustice ⸺ can and must do better to acknowledge their past and commit to an anti-racist framework going forward.
This content was originally published here.