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Tackling environmental racism in Canada

New legislation aims to address practice of disproportionately situating polluting industries and environmental hazards near Indigenous, Black and marginalized communities

Sarnia's 'chemical valley'
iStock/Dave McIntosh

After years of lobbying by advocates and affected communities, and multiple iterations, Canadian legislation aimed at addressing and preventing environmental racism has become law.

Bill C-226 — An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice — receieved royal assent on June 20 after a long journey through Parliament.

It is Canada’s first law focused on the longstanding practice of disproportionately situating polluting industries and environmental hazards near Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities.

It picks up on previous attempts to enact environmental racism legislation, including a private member’s bill introduced by Nova Scotia Liberal MP Lenore Zann in the House of Commons in 2020. There were also two private members' bills introduced in Nova Scotia -- one in 2015 (which went to second reading) and a second in 2021, which only made it as far as first reading.

Advocates say the legislation is long overdue and that Canada urgently needs a plan and accountability measures to address environmental racism and advance environmental justice. South of the border, the Environmental Protection Agency has had an environmental justice strategy since 1994. It defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

“We’re in a good place; there’s been a ton of work done,” says Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who introduced the legislation as a private member’s bill in 2021.

“This is the work of a lot of people for a long time.”

As laid out in the Act, the national strategy includes requirements to collect data on the location of environmental hazards and negative health outcomes in communities affected by environmental racism. It also requires an assessment of provincial environmental law enforcement and measures to address environmental racism in relation to funding and compensation for affected communities.

“The adequacy of the strategy and the resources applied to it and the approach that’s taken isn’t going to happen by magic,” says May, whose environmental racism work began more than 20 years ago.

In 2001, she conducted a 17-day hunger strike to protest the situating of industrial waste near a Black community and on former Mi’kmaq fishing grounds in Sydney, Cape Breton.

“Obviously, we want the law to have royal assent, but that isn’t the end of the story. In many ways, that’ll be the beginning.”

The story of environmental racism in this country has manifested in communities across the country. A 2020 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights identified “a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada.”

In Nova Scotia, a pulp mill’s effluent pond was situated in Pictou Landing First Nation’s backyard, polluting a crucial tidal estuary for the community. Elsewhere in the province, a landfill constructed near the African Nova Scotian community in Shelburne saw trash dumped and burned for nearly eight decades. The community continues to deal with water contamination issues and higher rates of cancer than white residents in other parts of town.

Advocates say Bill C-226 is a meaningful step towards addressing these kinds of injustices — especially as it calls for the engagement and consultation with those most affected by environmental racism.

“I would say that is the most important element of this piece of legislation,” says Victoria Watson, a staff lawyer at Ecojustice and member of the Oneida Nation.  

She says it highlights why addressing environmental racism has taken so long in Canada, compared to the US, which is the systemic and entrenched nature of environmental racism.

Addressing that means listening to those most affected.

“Having that breadth in how the legislation is implemented and really giving those voices the amplification that is required and the serious consideration needed is where I think this legislation could either be hugely impactful or have major shortcomings in its implementation,” Watson says.

Given the mistrust that exists in communities that have long experienced environmental racism, she says it’s important for the Act to be implemented in a way that addresses systemic issues while also responding to the immediate concerns of those experiencing environmental racism.

For communities across the country, the effects are ongoing. They include Aamjiwnaang First Nation in southwestern Ontario, which has long dealt with air quality issues from nearby industrial facilities in Sarnia’s “chemical valley.” This spring, some community members were hospitalized due to high benzene emissions from a nearby chemical plant, leading the community to declare a state of emergency—and prompting the federal government to intervene, citing a need to protect environmental justice.

Sean O’Shea, government relations and campaign specialist with Ecojustice, says the systemic nature of cases like these underscores the importance of a coordinated approach to environmental racism.

“We can’t have a situation where it's whack-a-mole, where after the pollution has been emitted or after the consequences have been experienced, the federal government steps in.”

But some say the bill lacks concrete commitments, especially in determining how exactly rights holders will be consulted — or how many resources will be allocated to fixing the problem.

“There's a good intention with this legislation to want to do something, but Canada doesn't commit to anything,” says Liam Smith, a Nova Scotia lawyer who works primarily with Indigenous clients and spoke at the Senate standing committee on the legislation.

“I think eventually what it comes down to is how much money it's going to cost.”

He says ultimately, environmental racism will not be solved by one bill.

“The reality is it’ll be a constellation of different pieces of legislation, policies, and societal awareness and education.”

Nonetheless, advocates say the bill is an important step.

When Ingrid Waldron, HOPE Chair in Peace and Health in the Global Peace and Social Justice program at McMaster University, first sat down in a Starbucks in Halifax in 2015 to discuss environmental racism concerns with then-MLA Lenore Zann, Waldron wasn’t even contemplating legislation.

“I was just thinking she’s a politician, maybe she can help.”

After nearly a decade of advocacy with partner organizations in Nova Scotia and across the country, Waldron is elated by the bill’s passing but says its effectiveness rests on the execution of the national environmental justice strategy and the extent to which communities are invited to be partners in developing solutions.

“That is what is going to…allow the bill to take root and to take action.”

Ultimately, she says whether the law brings about meaningful change depends on the ongoing vigilance of the groups and individuals who helped bring it to this point.

“I’m dizzy about what happened, but the work is beginning,” Waldron says.

“If we don't keep it up and ask the government to be serious in addressing and advancing this issue, once again, it just becomes a piece of paper with no action. We need to watch them to make sure they're actually acting on this.”