Escaping toxic pollution is a privilege inaccessible to many Indigenous, Black and racialized communities in Canada.
With the new Biden administration making environmental justice a pillar of its mandate, the moment is now for our federal government to take action to address environmental racism. In the coming weeks, Parliament is expected to consider three pieces of legislation that could offer a promising start.
What is environmental racism?
Environmental racism describes the disproportionate toxic exposure and harms experienced by racialized communities that result from government and corporate decisions on where to place polluting industrial facilities, refineries, mines, landfills, incinerators, among others. It also extends to government inaction to regulate pollution that poses disproportionate harm to communities of colour or the clean up of legacy pollution that predominantly impacts those communities.
The decision to place 62 petrochemical refineries and plants directly adjacent to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia is environmental racism. The dumping of mercury in the English-Wabigoon River, the main source of food for Grassy Narrows First Nation, and the ongoing government failure to remediate it is environmental racism. The placement of a toxic garbage dump in the African Nova Scotian community of Shelburne is environmental racism. The marketing of products containing high concentrations of toxic chemicals such as skin lightening creams and hair straighteners to Black and Brown women and children is environmental racism. The disregard for toxic work conditions experienced by racially marginalized nail salon workers is environmental racism.
Clearly, there is much to be done to dismantle environmental racism in Canada.
Three Bills to help Canada get on the right track of dismantling environmental racism
1. Bill C-230: A National Environmental Racism Strategy
Bill C-230, An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism, introduced by Member of Parliament Lenore Zann, would require the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to develop a strategy that would:
- Examine the links between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk.
- Collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards and negative health outcomes in affected communities.
- Assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province and how federal laws and policies could be improved to better involve, compensate and protect affected communities.
This bill would compel the government to generate the information needed and take measures to remedy and protect communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution. This bill is expected to be voted on by members of parliament this spring.
And that’s why we need your help! Take action today telling your MP that environmental racism can’t be ignored and to support Bill C-230.
2. Bill C-15: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
Bill C-15 would ratify UNDRIP, which represents a universal framework of “minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples of the world,” in Canadian law. What this means is that Canadian laws would have to be consistent with the standards provided by UNDRIP. This is not only a crucial step in the process of reconciliation, it’s also fundamental in affirming and fulfilling Indigenous Peoples’ rights when it comes to conservation, ecological protection and their relationship with the environment. Read more about UNDRIP and its significance here. Two UNDRIP bills have been passed by the House of Commons but then failed to gain the support of the Senate in 2016 and 2019, making it even more urgent to make sure this bill passes without delay.
3. A bill to reform the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA)
Canada’s cornerstone law for preventing pollution – whether it’s climate, industrial, plastic or chemical pollution – is embarrassingly out of date.
While there are many major issues with the now 21-year-old CEPA, among the key ones is its marked failure to protect racially and economically marginalized communities from toxic chemicals. Weak government action on toxic chemicals like per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for example, has resulted in high concentrations of these “forever chemicals” in Inuit women and children due to the accumulation of these chemicals in country foods.
CEPA does not recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment, putting us behind at least 150 countries that have legally recognized this right. It also does not require that vulnerable populations (including racially marginalized communities) are protected from toxics and their cumulative impact (compounding exposure). But this could change once the federal government fulfills its Speech from the Throne promise to modernize CEPA. Take action today!
As we confront a health crisis that has exposed and magnified racial and social inequities, there is no better time for Canada to take meaningful steps toward achieving environmental justice. Supporting and fast-tracking the passage of these three bills will help propel Canada to get there.