On March 23, Bill C-230 is scheduled to resume deliberation within the House of Commons. This bill, also known as The National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act, was introduced by Member of Parliament, Lenore Zann. This national strategy aims to examine the undeniable link between race, socio-economic status, and environmental risk. This ‘link’ is known as environmental racism, an act of violence where “a burden is imposed on racialized communities by disproportionately locating hazardous and toxic industries, hazardous waste sites, landfills, and incinerators in their neighbourhoods.”
Unlike other countries, Canada does not have a legislated environmental justice lens, leaving environmental racism to go unrecognized and untreated. Therefore, the need for Bill C-230 is undeniable. Environmental activist, David Suzuki, states that this bill puts “the issue on the table” and holds an important role in starting to name and understand environmental racism. Environmental injustice and racial injustice tend to be recognized as separate issues. Therefore having a bill that puts them in conversation with one another is crucial. These forms of injustice work in tandem as environmental injustices are often a result of systemic racism. This bill not only helps bring the issue forward, but also recognizes that pollution and environmental degradation are racial justice issues that must be fought as such.
In the region in Nova Scotia which Zann represents, there have been numerous instances in which hazardous sites have caused negative health outcomes amongst Black and Indigenous communities. For example, every member of Shelbourne, a predominantly Black community, has been affected by cancer as a result of the close proximity of their community to a toxic dump which would be lit on fire by people in hazmat suits. Pictou Landing First Nation, another marginalized community, also suffered because an industrial pulp mill was contaminating their drinking water.
The government knows that these marginalized communities do not have the resources to bring these issues to court nor the opportunity to pack up and leave. This means that communities are often left to accept the government’s inhumane decisions. Given the government’s unwillingness to prioritize the wellbeing of these communities, their actions are tantamount to intentional acts of violence.
The bill has the intention of solving Nova Scotia’s racism but also stresses the need to look well beyond it too. For example, in Ontario, 16 year-old Autumn Pelletier, named the chief water commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation, has demanded for the water crisis amongst Indigenous communities to be solved. This is a crisis which has left many reserves and Indigenous communities with long-term boil water advisories. Neskantaga First Nation, for instance, has been under a 25 year water advisory.
In response, in 2015, the Trudeau government promised that these advisories affecting Indigenous communities would be put to an end by the end of this month. While the government has allocated over $3 billion to bringing an end to boil-water advisories, it has had a minuscule impact. As NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh explains, “Indigenous communities are no better off now after six years of the Liberals being in government.”
A central reason why this funding has not generated meaningful change is because Indigenous communities have been left out of the decision-making processes of the allocation of the funding. This illustrates the importance of involving Indigenous communities in the process of in finding meaningful solutions. Bill C-230 calls for this.
So does Pelletier:”Maybe, we need to have more elders and youth together sitting at the decision table when people make decisions about our lands and waters.”
Pelletier is a part of a wider community of ‘water protectors’ which feel a responsibility to protect the sacredness of water. In her book, “As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance,” Leanne Simpson draws attention to the impacts of this devastation being multi-dimensional. It not only directly affects their living conditions but also their values as Indigenous peoples, as it speaks to the larger issue of displacement and environmental destruction.
Evidently, the project of colonialism is still very much in place: It continues to shape the lives of marginalized groups. Environmental racism is just one of the ways it does this.
The capitalist economy operates in a way which forms the relationship with the land to be one of possession and exploitation. Many Canadians cannot envision a system in which the economy does not rely on resource extraction.
However, Simpson explains how this relationship to the land is specific to settler society, rather than a universal truth. She explains how Indigenous people hold a deep, mutual, consensual, and non-exploitative connection to the land. Environmental degradation and land displacement prevent Indigenous peoples from living off the land and being connected to the land. Clearly, Canada’s foundational origin story is one of land dispossession and it continues to this day. As a result, it not only infringes on Indigenous peoples’ basic human rights but also continues to displace them from their ways of knowing and living.
Unquestionably, violence towards Indigenous land is also violence toward Indigenous bodies.
This bill is crucial: It acknowledges and addresses environmental racism, putting in place a national strategy that recognizes it as a trend across Canada.
However, it is also important to recognize the bill’s limitations. For example, Alvin Fiddler called the government’s plans “vague, open-ended goals without firm timelines or accountability.” While Bill C-230 addresses the consequences of environmental racism, action must be taken to introduce preventative and proactive approaches to environmental racism rather than merely reactive. An environmental justice movement —a movement that fights ecological problems that fall along lines of class and race—would target the socio-political system of capitalism.
Capitalism, a profit oriented economic and political model, is intrinsically linked to colonialism. Capitalism allows the structure of colonialism to persist by allowing for exploitative and extractive practices of the land and the people to function. It works in the interests of the privileged while simultaneously harming marginalized groups. This widens the societal inequalities that are felt most prominently by Black and Indigenous communities. This system is at the root of environmental racism. It demands the destruction of the land to supply goods that are produced by polluting industries.
Capitalism, an unsustainable, unethical, and deeply exploitative system, is a pillar which upholds colonialism and systemic racism. With it in place, economic gain is prioritized over citizens’ health. This burden that is disproportionately felt by marginalized groups must be alleviated. Dismantling capitalism, an intrinsic part of colonialism and systemic racism, offers a tangible way to weaken the systems that keep environmental racism (and racism more generally) alive.
Edited by Yu Xuan Zhao.
Photo credits: “Fort McMurray, Alberta – Operation Arctic Shadow.” by Kris Krüg, published on 08/28/2019, licensed under Flickr Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDervis License. No changes were made.