Peter Gorrie
Environment Reporter

In the backyard of a comfortable Markham house the vegetable garden is watered by rain collected in two recycled 450-litre black plastic barrels.
Down in the finished basement, the floor is insulated and the furnace is a new high-efficiency model. The many windows, too, are high-tech energy savers.
On the wide driveway out front, two four-cylinder cars have replaced six-cylinder models.
In short, the occupants of this suburban home would win high praise from environmentalists for their efforts to save energy and contend with issues like climate change. And none of this would be a big deal – except for one detail.
The home is owned by Kaushik Vyas, 43, whose family is Indian. Vyas was born and raised in Kenya and came to Canada 18 years ago.
Vyas is, he says, the only person he knows in his community who takes being green so much to heart.
“I don’t think Indians have bought into the environmental message yet,” says the commercial property manager. “I don’t think it’s been sold to them in the right way, and they have no connection with it.”
People from India aren’t the only visible minorities who aren’t clearly visible on the green bandwagon. Across North America, most environmental activists are white and middle class. So, generally, are participants in public meetings and protests, and those who voluntarily adopt the ideas that Vyas embraces.
It is, most observers agree, not a result of hostility or exclusion. And there are no absolutes. But visible minorities appear to have less interest in mainstream environment issues – often because of a clash of values and experiences – and the groups that promote green concerns haven’t been effective at drawing them in.
“I do think, with a few exceptions, the environment movement has not done a good job of reflecting the diversity of Toronto or Canada in its ranks,” says Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence. “There’s no question the movement has not paid as much attention to reaching out to visible minorities as it should.”
That’s starting to change – very slowly. Why? As with many issues in Canada, this one is muddy. In the first place, many public meetings attract the white middle class simply because they’re held in downtown Toronto, where such people dominate. And ethnic communities vary.
Some immigrants arrive with money or soon land good jobs and, after years of privation in their home country, they’re ready to live the good life, Vyas says.
He doesn’t see himself as an environmentalist. He has simply kept the habits of conservation and recycling he learned growing up in a suburb of Nairobi where, even though his father earned a good living running a hardware store, water, electricity, gas and other resources were unreliable and expensive. Others in the non-white middle class react in a different way, he says.
Take cars. In India, it was “like you’re earning $20,000 a year and gasoline costs $1 a litre, so they bought the smallest thing that would move their family. That’s why you have the whole family sitting on a Vespa scooter.”
Here, gas is much cheaper compared to what they earn, so they buy a big car or SUV, he says. “There’s an attitude of entitlement. It’s sort of like they’re saying, `We just got to the same reality that’s been happening for years. It’s not our fault. We deserve to enjoy it.'”
Kids who bring environmental messages home from school are met with “a sense of indulgence,” says G.A. Easwar, publisher of Desi News, which serves the GTA’s South Asian community. When one reported he was to be involved in a creek cleanup, his father said, “`Oh yes, this is Canada. You’re expected to do that.'”
Observes Easwar: “There are certain things you have to do, so you do it, but a sense of engagement and connection are necessary.”
Others note that environmental conditions elsewhere are so poor that newcomers find it hard to believe there’s a problem in Canada.
The experience of poor immigrants is far different. Some simply work too hard and long to get involved in any outside activities, and they’re too poor to buy energy-saving gadgets.
“Your stomach has to be full to think of the afterlife,” Easwar says. “For the environment, you need to have first fulfilled all your material needs.”
For green groups aiming to reach any visible minorities, the message is the same: Use a new approach.
For the comfortable, non-white middle class, the current message is too remote, Vyas says. They talk about things like the Arctic and melting ice, but “I’ve never been there; I’ve never seen a polar bear.
“There has to be more emphasis on cause and effect” and “it has to be sold as a matter of pride … this is the way you can be in the forefront.”
To work with low-income groups, the change must be more radical.
The mainstream movement’s definition of the environment is far too narrow, says Beenash Jafri, a 27-year-old Master’s sociology graduate from York University, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s.
In Canada, the environment has traditionally focussed on nature, the north, and green spaces, Jafri says. There’s been little focus on gritty urban issues, such as connections among pollution, poverty, race, housing, public transit, health care and social justice, “which the mainstream groups might not define as part of the environmental movement.”
As well, “so much privilege” is tied to the traditional concerns, she says. “Who gets access to nature and green space?”
A few groups are trying to reach out.
Environmental Defence is helping First Nations to battle pollution on Northern Ontario reserves.
The Toronto Environmental Alliance works with a variety of groups, including those involved in low-income housing and racial equality. It’s promoting laws to give people the right to know about toxic pollution in their neighbourhoods, as well as measures to cut electricity costs and improve efficiency in low-income housing.
Tellingly, its campaign to cut hydro costs for the poor drew flack from other groups that advocate higher prices to curb consumption, says campaigns director Katrina Miller.
But the alliance’s work shows visible minorities are interested in the environment. An energy-efficiency project at a low-income North York apartment got a great response from residents, who are mostly recent immigrants, Miller says.
They took a lead role, were “absolutely thrilled to be involved,” and “were very aggressive in the measures they adopted.
“We know, when we go out and connect with the communities, other than the white middle class, we can get great action.”