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Time to address environmental racism

Time to address environmental racism

In Canada, we’re quick to favourably compare ourselves to our southern neighbours. COVID-19 caseloads may be at an all-time high here, but the US situation is even more dire. Canada hasn’t managed to curb carbon emissions, but the US abandoned emission reduction targets when it pulled out of the Paris Agreement. We may take comfort in things being “less bad” here, but that’s a low bar.
And when it comes to acknowledging and addressing environmental racism, Canada comes up short. In 1994, US President Bill Clinton issued an executive order – which remains in effect – requiring federal agencies to develop strategies to address disproportionately high and adverse health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. It also established a high-level interagency working group on environmental justice to facilitate government-wide response.
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice has operated since 1992, under Democratic and Republican administrations. Its goal is “to provide an environment where all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to maintain a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” Sadly, Environment and Climate Change Canada has no such mandate.
If you’re not familiar with the terms “environmental racism” and “environmental justice,” you’re not alone. Environmental racism occurs when, intentionally or unintentionally, environmental policies or practices result in disproportionate negative impacts on certain individuals, groups or communities based on race or colour; for example, through placement of polluting industries or other environmentally dangerous projects in these communities.
Last week, MPs started debating Bill C-230, introduced by Nova Scotia MP and Liberal backbencher Lenore Zann. A Canadian first, it would require the environment minister to develop a national strategy to redress environmental racism. All parties should support its passage.
Zann says she got the idea for the bill after encountering Ingrid Waldron’s research into the causes and effects of toxic industries near Mi’kmaq and Black Nova Scotian communities. Waldron, an associate professor at Dalhousie University, documents her unsettling findings in the film There’s Something in the Water (available on Netflix) and her 2018 book of the same name.
Researchers found that 25 percent of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada’s urban areas are within a kilometre of a polluting facility, compared to just seven percent of the wealthiest. There’s a racial dimension to this inequality. Visible minorities account for a higher proportion of the population in low-income neighbourhoods.
The absence of a legislative mandate or governance structures to address environmental racism in Canada is a blind spot that must be remedied.
David Suzuki

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