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Environmental Racism and COVID-19 in the Canadian Context

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Wil Robertson's picture
Public Policy Thinker, Independent Consultant

An analytical thinker, with a passion for promoting the sharing of our truths. Proud to further the causes of social acceptance, sustainability, and justice. 

  • Member since 2021
  • 20 items added with 6,545 views
  • May 19, 2021
  • 952 views

As a professional in the renwable energy inustry, my company is an apolitical organization. Our focus is on benefiting the environment and New Brunswickers. This is done through renewable energy projects to promote a healthier and more sustainable future. But like the ties between the environment and public health, the environmental crisis is also linked to race. The environment is not a political issue, and neither is race. When either is treated as such, it degrades the opportunity for progress in either respective issue.   

It is easier to understand systemic racism through the environmental crisis. Every life in the human family is significant and valuable. As such, human rights apply to everyone. It is clear that people of colour are marginalized and mistreated in our society today. The human family inhabits one overarching eco-system: Earth. Just because we hear the birds sing and see blue skies here in New Brunswick does not mean there is no climate crisis. As we have recently learned from nuclear disasters, devastating forest fires and blue-green algae blooms, environmental negligence elsewhere can affect us here and vice versa. Power structures have long been in place that dissuade environmental progress along with racial equity. It is past time for a change. We needed to change years ago, yet today we must with more urgency.  

Environmental racism is the development and implementation of environmental policy on issues such as toxic waste disposal sites, pollution, and urban decay in areas with a significant ethnic or racial population. Canadian examples of environmental racism include Africville, NS; Hogan’s Alley, British Columbia; Leamington, Ontario; and Shelburne, Nova Scotia.  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 Story of Africville, Nova Scotia

Africville, Nova Scotia was a community in the northern area of Halifax that consisted of hundreds of descendants of enslaved African people. They lived peacefully in the area until Halifax experienced an industrial boom in the mid-twentieth century. The city began needing an area to dispose of its growing amounts of waste, and Africville was deemed an eyesore to be removed. Over time, facilities including dumps, an infectious disease hospital and an abattoir were placed in and around Africville. Then, in the 1960s, after decades of being used as a regional dumping ground, the community was bulldozed and its residents were told to disperse.

In recent years, a UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent recommended that the “Government of Canada should encourage federal, provincial, and municipal governments to seriously consider the concerns of African Nova Scotians and help to develop legislation on environmental issues affecting them.” In the Spring of 2015, the Environmental Racism Prevention Act passed its first reading in the NS legislature. It was never passed into law. Similar legislation was introduced nationally by the same MLA, and now MP, Lenore Zann this year. It wasn’t discussed before the summer adjournment of Parliament. To this date, no serious government action has been taken. Environmental racism exists here in Canada, and it needs to be addressed.  

Environmental racism is the development and implementation of environmental policy on issues such as toxic waste disposal sites, pollution, and urban decay in areas with a significant ethnic or racial population.

The reality of environmental racism and its effects were highlighted in a report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2018. The EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. According to the study’s authors, “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.” The study focused on particulate matter, which is comprised of natural and man-made microscopic particles that serve as air pollutants. Some of this particulate matter comes from smog, soot, oil smoke, ash, and construction dust. All these sources of particulate matter have been directly linked to serious health issues. They have been deemed carcinogens, they also are linked to lung problems, heart attacks, and premature deaths.

That study also found that Hispanics faced rates of chlorine exposure that are more than double those of whites. Black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and Hispanics have experienced about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites. These statistics show not only the effects of environmental racism but also its prevalence in society today. While we acknowledge there is much more information available on these issues in the American context, we encourage you to read, "There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities" by Ingrid R. G. Waldron. It was also adapted into a documentary format available on Netflix. It discusses and depicts environmental racism in Canada by highlighting the issues mentioned above in Nova Scotia and much more. In moments like these where racism and the environment are top of mind and more important than ever, it is important to educate ourselves on these issues.  

COVID-19 and Environmental Racism

Gloved hands hold a medical mask.

COVID-19 has also highlighted issues of Environmental Racism. “We’ve known literally forever that diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and asthma are disproportionately afflicting the minority populations, especially the African Americans,” said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Fauci recognized that health conditions affecting minorities, fueled by pollutants, lead to people of colour being more likely to be gravely affected or die from COVID-19. Thus, environmental hazards and pollution, disproportionately affecting people of colour through institutionalized environmental racism, have had direct effects on how COVID-19 impacts communities of colour. This reality only further illuminates the links between the environment and public health.  

Power structures have long been in place that dissuade environmental progress along with racial equity. It is past time for a change. We needed to change years ago, yet today we must with more urgency.

Environmental racism is real. It is here in Canada, in Atlantic Canada, and New Brunswick. The proof is both seen historically and found presently. Our BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by the negative environmental impacts of industry, waste, and fossil fuel energy production. I understand these facts to be self-evident and paramount to both our organization and society. We hope to provide renewable energy to everyone, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the climate crisis. These impacts clearly and disproportionately affect racialized communities. This is a societal injustice we must all look to remedy. In my work, we look to do just that through our renewable energy projects, policy advocacy, our publication of information, our diverse staff, and consultation with BIPOC communities going forward. 

Discussions
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 19, 2021

Thus, environmental hazards and pollution, disproportionately affecting people of colour through institutionalized environmental racism, have had direct effects on how COVID-19 impacts communities of colour. This reality only further illuminates the links between the environment and public health.  

This point should serve as an amplifier of the reality that we already knew was there, but was too common to push to the side. Equity & justice are intrinsically tied into clean energy and climate, and any high-level plan that doesn't include such considerations is incomplete. 

What have you found to be the most effective way to get this message across to government leaders to take seriously these considerations, that they should be integral to any policy's DNA and not simply a box to check off? 

Wil Robertson's picture
Wil Robertson on May 19, 2021

That's a great point Matt. Indeed, in Canada, the recent 2021 Federal Budget has proposed billions of dollars worth of initiatives for clean energy and climate change action. What has been included this time, are many measures to ensure the programs are including minority communities. Just the other day, with a funding announcement for the training of new energy advisors for the upcoming boom in retrofits due to more new federal funding, the government highlighted that the 2000+ new positions would be prioritized for minority communities. Additionally, the prospect of providing long-term economic opportunity to Indigenous communities, for example, have led to many renewable energy projects being completed with the aid of federal funding. So, in short, the way that government here has taken meaningful action has been when it considers economic opportunity and social inclusivity as one. Thankfully, at the federal level, this continues to happen with new programming as well.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on May 21, 2021

I would hope that organizations like BLM and HACR (Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility) would enlarge their focus from law enforcement issues, however urgent that issue is, to include the environmental racism issues that Wil refers to here. Ultimately, poor quality air and water negatively affect far more people than mistreatment by law enforcement.

Are these issues specifically addressed in any of the Biden infrastructure proposals currently under consideration?

Wil Robertson's picture
Wil Robertson on May 21, 2021

A few things Mark. BLM and HACR, along with many other activist and advocacy groups certainly have, and do recognize significant issues and threats like those posed by environmental, and institionalized racism. What may be deceiving from the public perspective is that these issues, environmental racism as one of them, do not make the headlines. They are not covered in the media more broadly. So, the issue you identify here is somewhat of a fallacy, and also partially a fault of the media echochamber. What is said by the media covering only the mistreatment of racialized communities by police, and not other systemic issues like environmental racism, the re-introduction of racially restrictive voting laws, etc..., is that these issues do not garner enough ratings and viewership to be considered over consistent police brutality. A sad reality in many aspects, to be sure. As to the Biden Administration, they are indeed working on issues of environmental racism and racism embbeded in infrastructure of the past. Sec. Buttigieg has spoken of this many times, as has Vice-President Harris. To see it come to frutition, partly by investment in renewable energy and environmental protection measures, will be interesting and encouraging to see.  

Wil Robertson's picture
Thank Wil for the Post!
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