New legislation in Nova Scotia is a big step in the right direction

Last week, Bill 111, An Act to Address Environmental Racism, passed first reading in the Nova Scotia Legislature. The private member’s bill, introduced by MLA Lenore Zann, takes on what some say is a legacy of environmental racism in Nova Scotia. If the bill becomes law, Nova Scotia will create a committee to hold public meetings on environmental racism around the province and develop recommendations for government to prevent it in future.

If you’ve never heard of environmental racism, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Terms such as “environmental racism” and “environmental justice” are used to express the interconnectedness of environmental health, socio-economic conditions, and racialized discrimination. The origins of these concepts are commonly traced back to the early 1980s and community concerns at that time about the siting of toxic waste sites in predominantly black neighbourhoods in the southeastern United States. The environmental justice movement gained momentum when residents of the predominately black community of Warren County, North Carolina, took a stand against the construction of a landfill for toxic PCBs.

Their efforts to mobilize against the proposed dump lead to similar protests in other communities across the country. Soon thereafter, a national report found that racial demographics were the number one predictor of where hazardous waste facilities were located across the United States. Since then, strong empirical evidence in the U.S. has shown that non-white communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental risks, have less of a say in the development and implementation of environmental laws and regulations, and are less likely to have their voices heard on issues of environmental degradation.

While the term “environmental racism” remains unfamiliar to many Canadians, experiences across the country demonstrate it is a very real problem.

A prime example is Nova Scotia’s Africville – a community on the northern edge of the Halifax peninsula that was home to hundreds of descendants of African slaves. Residents of the tight-knit community fished, planted crops and worked odd jobs in the area until Halifax’s industrial boom led to a need for new dumping sites for waste from the growing city. Over time, facilities from dumps, to an infectious disease hospital, to an abattoir, were placed in and around Africville. Then, in the 1960s after decades of being used as a regional dumping ground, Africville was declared a slum and an eyesore. The community was bulldozed and its residents dispersed.

Though we have made significant strides since the 1960s, environmental racism remains a reality. Whereas Africville is an example of overtly racist policies, today many of the factors behind the disproportionate burden of exposure to environmental risks experienced by socially marginalized communities are systemic and historic in nature. We are excited that Nova Scotia is leading by example and hope that this bill is the first step in a public conversation that is long overdue in this country. And, we want to remember that this problem is bigger than Nova Scotia.

For several years I have been a part of the team of lawyers representing Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge, two members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, in their fight to protect the health of people living in one of Canada’s most polluted communities. The approximately 800 residents of Aamjiwnaang live next to industrial facilities that account for approximately 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry in an area commonly referred to as “Chemical Valley.” The facilities in Chemical Valley collectively emit tens of millions of kilograms of air pollutants each year. Residents of Aamjiwnaang have expressed concerns about health risks posed by pollution and its impact on their ability to hunt, fish or plant food. Ecojustice lawyers got involved in this case because we are convinced that this is not just an environmental problem but a human rights issue as well.

On a national scale, nothing illustrates Canada’s startling environmental inequities more clearly than the lack of access to clean drinking water in First Nations Communities. In the absence of a national water law, communities under federal jurisdiction, such as First Nations reservations, have virtually no legal protection of their drinking water. As of January 2015, drinking water advisories were in effect in 126 First Nation communities across Canada. In fact, according to a 2009 study by the United Nations, First Nations homes are 90 times more likely to be without safe drinking water than other Canadian homes.

Although the situation continues to be far from perfect, in the United States there is a significant body of literature and public awareness around issues of environmental justice and environmental racism. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order requiring federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies to address the disproportionate human health and environmental effects of their programs on minority and low-income populations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now coordinates environmental justice activities across government and gives mandatory consideration to issues of racism and justice when evaluating projects and permits and developing new regulations. This simply does not happen in Canada.

Canada can’t just import these measures from the U.S., given our unique demographics and history, but notions of environmental justice and racism must nonetheless be addressed in Canadian law. The proposed Act to Address Environmental Racism in Nova Scotia is a powerful step in that direction.

We believe that Canada needs to go further and recognize that everyone in this country – regardless of who they are or where they live – has a Charter right to a healthy environment. An even more basic step would be to admit that we, as a country, have a problem. Turning a blind eye to the links between race, socio-economic status, and environmental risks doesn’t make the issue any less real. The fact is, environmentally harmful activities take place in some communities more than others. We have to name that reality before we can begin to address it.

Photo: Nicole Bratt via Flickr