By Hannah Vonberg
Environmental racism is an awkwardly imprecise term. However, it captures a multitude of factors that constitute modern forms of racism.
Racism systematically constructs inequalities by conferring advantages upon one racial/ethnic group at the expense of others; power and privilege are distributed unevenly across space and time based upon racial/ethnic group characteristics.
Environmental racism, a critical component of this wider system of oppression, more specifically describes the use of racist practices in determining which communities receive health-protective infrastructure. Resources are therefore distributed neither equally nor needs-based, but rather on parallel pre-existing power structures, often following ethnic lines.
This practice, a modern and far more subtle form of racism, is largely rooted in the colonial history of countries. The legacies of colonial history have become especially apparent in Canada in recent months due to the re-emergence of the Residential School System in public debate. The ‘Indian Residential School System’ (IRS) was set up by the Canadian government and the churches to assimilate Indigenous children into settler-colonial society, depriving them of contact to their family and friends and punishing them for e.g. speaking their native language. Horrifying narratives of abusive teachings and behaviors in order to ‘take the Indian out of the child’ were backed up by the finding of hundreds of dead bodies under these schools. In 2015, a cultural genocide was declared by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
Environmental racism is especially tricky to recognize and address due to two main characteristics that extend it beyond the traditional definition of racism. Firstly, environmental racism is systemic. Secondly, it imprisions communities in a cyclical trap. This article will examine the extent and implications of environmental racism through the case study of Mi’kmaq (Indigenous) communities in Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s Atlantic Provinces.
Systemic racism is the practice by which racist beliefs become embedded in institutions that govern politics and society in such a way that non-white people are disadvantaged. For example, “one-quarter of Indigenous people living in Canadian urban areas were in poverty [during the COVID-19 pandemic], compared to 13% of non-Indigenous population in these areas”. The systemic nature of environmental racism against Indigenous communities is exemplified by the Alton Gas Project (Brentwood, Nova Scotia). The project has been permitted to store natural gas in a cave created by solution mining an existing salt deposit, a resource-intensive and highly wasteful process that puts the surrounding ecosystems at risk. Furthermore, there are concerns about the drinking water quality of the local communities and the high failure rate of natural gas storage caverns. The Sipekne’katik (Shubenacadie) River which provides the water needed for the process as well as serving as a waste dump afterwards is part of Mi’kma’ki, the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. Mi’kmaq communities along the river were neither informed nor consulted throughout the design and implementation of the project, and continue to fight the Alton Gas company for their legal rights in this case. Built without consultancy and approval of the Mi’kmaq, who by law have all the rights to (and have never officially surrendered) the land of Nova Scotia, the gas pipeline and storage facility violate the peace and friendship treaties governing Crown-Indigenous relations. Having lived in Nova Scotia for over 13,000 years and up to date constituting 2.7% of the province’s population, the Mi’kmaq’s inherent treaty rights are mostly respected on paper. In reality, there is almost daily conflict on the building site of the project between Alton Gas security services and the women (Protectors of the Water in Mi’kmaw culture) of the local Mi’kmaw community. The Protectors of the Water actively occupied the planned building site and claimed their treaty rights to stop Alton Gas from commencing the project. Openly racist court arguments by Alton Gas and a lack of provincial government transparency contributed to this escalating situation. In the end, direct local activism protected Mi’kma’ki, not the environmental laws or political institutions. Institutions, created to facilitate a better life and protect all people, do not always protect Indigenous people. This is an existential flaw of modern society, driven by environmental racism.
Secondly, environmental racism impacts communities in a way that is incredibly hard to escape or fight; it is often perceived as especially suffocating or paralyzing. This fact is illustrated by Elliot Page’s Documentary “There’s Something In The Water” where he showcases the resource struggles that minority (including Indigenous) communities face. In his documentary he engages (among others) with the Mi’kmaw community living close to Boat Harbour, a place called Pictou Landing that is facing a “toxic legacy of government neglect”. The surrounding ecosystem, (unceded) ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq, has been poisoned by untreated industrial waste from a pulp and paper mill (owned by Northern Pulp) to an extremely high degree. As stewards of the land, the Mi’kmaq aim to live in harmony with it and leave it in the same or a better state than they found it in, so that future generations can live in dignity. Their concerns about the mill’s impact on the ecosystem were ignored and smoothed over by showcasing a water treatment plant that wasn’t even similar to the one planned in Boat Harbour to the chief of the community at the time – a facade to make the community sign over its rights to the land for about 65,000 Canadian dollars. Over time, the community saw its home deteriorate due to waste, so it contacted the provincial government of Nova Scotia. However, this investigation only led to vague answers and the plan for a new waste dump was continuously delayed (new proposals would divert the waste stream only slightly and thereby still affect the community). As a rural province with most of its revenue relying on fisheries and heavy industry, Nova Scotia suffers from strong lobbying influence. Corporate interests thereby often come in direct conflict with environmental protection efforts and minority rights. We need to remind ourselves that apart from being an environmental crisis and posing the question of human rights, environmental racism displays itself as a medical crisis. The Pictou Landing community experiences drastically increased levels of certain diseases, such as cancer and lung diseases. Furthermore, the intergenerational trauma and negligence by the provincial government lead to heightened risk of mental health issues and provide fertile ground for various addictions. No matter the cause, people in Pictou Landing “don’t grow old”.
Today, systemic environmental racism inhibits First Nation people from possessing the adequate quality of life they are entitled to. Corporate interests are an important driver of environmental racism, as is the strong provincial authority of Nova Scotia. In the case of Pictou Landing, public pressure eventually led to results: The mill had to close indefinitely in April 2020 as a result of Premier Stephen McNeil’s refusal to give an extension to Northern Pulp in finding a new waste dump. The Alton Gas Project has been canceled only recently, in October 2021; this project had been under public pressure for about seven years and the cancellation is largely owed to the relentless protests of the local Mi’kmaq community. However, these two cases are the exception rather than the norm. Environmental racism is dangerous, it costs lives and continues the intergenerational trauma Indigenous communities face in modern-day Canada.
If this is to ever change, we must directly “challenge the laws and policies that contribute to environmental racism”. And we must start now.
Edited by Gunvir Paintal, artwork by Teresa Valle