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When Ellen Page called out Canada — and Nova Scotia — over issues of environmental racism during her appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late show earlier this year, a lot of people (Colbert included) questioned the term’s meaning and impact on a community’s way of life.
As Page explained, environmental racism is a form of structural oppression that sees marginalized populations — particularly Canada’s Black and Indigenous communities — unevenly affected by the toxification of the land and threats to the environment, like climate change.
“It disproportionately affects people of colour,” said Page. “Whether it’s the disproportionate amount of landfills that are placed next to communities of people of colour in Nova Scotia, or whether it’s about a pulp mill.”
Although Page specifically called out Northern Pulp — the Nova Scotia paper-mill located in Pictou County — for decades of damage to Boat Harbour, the site of their effluent treatment facility since 1967 and an area traditionally used for hunting, fishing, and recreation by Pictou Landing First Nation, examples of the effects can be found throughout Atlantic Canada and all across the country. Industrial waste and softwood forestry issues at Eel Ground First Nation in New Brunswick. Industrial toxicity in Chemical Alley — a 15 square-mile area of Sarnia Ontario with over 60 chemical plants that surround Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Lennox Island First Nation sinking into the sea just off the northern tip of PEI. Newfoundland's Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric project and the effect on land around Inuit settlements nearby. The historic razing of Halifax’s Africville community. And these just a few of many.
In Nova Scotia, those examples have been captured by an interactive map (SEE BOTTOM OF STORY). The map, developed by the ENRICH Project — Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health — a collaborative, community-based effort to investigate the cause and effects of toxic industries in or near marginalized Nova Scotian communities, visually depicts the proximity of waste disposal sites and other poisonous industries to Indigenous and African Nova Scotian communities.
“Environmental racism is also about the lack of power. The lack of economic resources, political clout to resist the sighting of a dump in your community,” says Ingrid Waldron, Director of the ENRICH Project, associate professor at Dalhousie University, and author of ‘There’s something in the water: Environmental racism in Indigenous & Black communities.’
“If you put a dump in a wealthy white community, you know they'll band together, they will resist, they will be heard.”
Although the creation of policies at the government level is an essential part of efforts to challenge environmental racism, Waldron cautions that it’s important to consider who is creating those policies.
“The other part of environmental racism is exclusion,” she says. “The people who tend to be most impacted by environmental racism are not the people making decisions.”
A lack of alarm
In 2015 Waldron worked with Nova Scotia NDP MLA Lenore Zann to craft Bill 111: Environmental Racism Prevention Act, which was introduced in April of the same year but has yet to make it through the house. Zann reintroduced the Bill, now called Bill 31: Redressing Environmental Racism Act, again on Sept. 13, 2018.
While these efforts are necessary and she’s currently exploring options to introduce legislation federally, Waldron believes real change won’t likely come until there’s a change to who has power. And she is hopeful that young people, like the ones she teaches, will lead the way.
“When I think about the students I engage with, who are smart and bright, who have the critical analysis. My hope is in those students. They understand race and inequity. They understand the impacts on these communities,” she says.
Under Nova Scotia’s current Liberal government and even federally, there seems to be a real lack of alarm, says Waldron.
“They think it's something that's going to happen when they're gone and there's no sense of urgency. So where we see it [climate change] as a pressing issue, many see environmental activists as crazy, overzealous,” she says. “They see a problem that's not going to have a direct impact. That's why there is no outrage.”
“I don't know what the answer is. I know that we keep going.”
On Colbert, a ‘fired up” Page spoke similarly.
“This is something that’s happening. And it’s happening to the most marginalized people, and we need to be talking about it. It’s really serious. We’ve been told...that by 2030 — the world as we know it, that’s it. That’s it. If it was a movie...the urgency would be so severe, and instead, we have a media that’s barely talking about it.”