A new law aims to tackle environmental racism in Canada

For years, researchers, activists and community leaders have shown how Indigenous, Black and other racial groups are disproportionately affected by polluting industries.

Now, a new law will require the federal government to do a better job of identifying this injustice and trying to correct it.

Bill C-226, sponsored by Green Leader Elizabeth May, became law on Thursday evening, almost four years after similar legislation was first introduced in Parliament. The law requires the federal government to develop a national strategy against environmental racism within two years.

“There is no doubt that Canada has had a problem with environmental racism for decades, and action must be taken now,” May told a news conference earlier this week.

Advocates have been pushing for years for legislation to combat environmental racism, which disproportionately locates polluting factories and other environmentally damaging activities near indigenous or racialized communities.

As explained in the lawthe national strategy should include “an examination of the link between race, socioeconomic status, and environmental risks” as well as steps that can be taken to address environmental racism.

This may include changes in federal laws, policies and programs.

Ingrid Waldron
McMaster University Prof. Ingrid Waldron, author of There Something in The Water, co-produced the film of the same name. Her research on environmental racism inspired the creation of Bill C-226. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

“It’s been a long road,” said Ingrid Waldron, a professor in the Global Peace and Social Justice Program at McMaster University, who has pushed for such a law.

Waldron is a founding member of the Canadian Coalition for Environmental and Climate Justice, and the author of There’s something in the waterdocumenting the health impacts of environmental hazards on Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia and beyond, and the actions these groups have taken to fight back against the pollution poisoning their communities.

The legislation, she said, means two things happen: “you can hold the government’s feet to the fire” and, second, “it creates a lot more transparency now that there’s a lot more pressure on them to do something.”

‘A step in the right direction’

Lawyers often point to the experience of Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek First Nation, known as Grassy Narrows, in Ontario as one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism, and its disproportionate impact on racialized communities.

Residents in the community have had that for decades experienced health effects of mercury contamination caused by a former pulp and paper mill.

The First Nation filed a request a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Ontario Earlier this month, arguing governments failed to protect or address the impacts of mercury pollution in the English-Wabigoon River system.

Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows grandmother and community environmental health coordinator, compared her community’s experiences to those of Walkerton, a small town in southern Ontario, where seven people died and more than 2,000 others became ill from contamination with E. coli. May 2000. An investigation was ordered the same month as the outbreak and residents were offered compensation the following year.

“They were compensated so quickly and Grassy has been going through this for decades and there’s still no resolution,” da Silva told CBC News earlier this month. “I think it’s environmental racism.”

LOOK | Grassy Narrows Lawsuit Targets ‘Environmental Racism’ of Mercury Poisoning:

Grassy Narrows Lawsuit Targets ‘Environmental Racism’ of Mercury Poisoning

Judy Da Silva, environmental health coordinator for Grassy Narrows First Nation, says years of inaction and “environmental racism” are behind the lawsuit against Ontario and Ottawa.

Environmental racism has also emerged in the regulatory process for major projects like the Trans Mountain Pipeline, according to indigenous groups, often citing a lack of prior approval.

“It’s really important to make people aware of how skewed the process is,” said Rueben George, manager of Sacred Trust, an organization founded by the Tsleil-Wauth First Nation in British Columbia to fight the war . pipeline expansion project.

George said his experiences with the Canada Energy Regulator and other energy sector review bodies made him feel like the fossil fuel industry was being prioritized over the concerns of First Nations.

The environmental racism law “is needed and it is a good step in the right direction,” he said.

A 2020 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances and Human Rights pointed out “a pattern in Canada in which marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subjected to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada.”

Cheryl Teelucksingh, a professor of sociology at Toronto Metropolitan University who researches racism in the environment, said in an interview that the bill could also impact sectors such as public health, urban planning and workers’ rights.

“Having the language and recognition that the federal government sees this as something important gives people rights, and advocating for rights is something that all Canadian citizens should have,” she said.

Under the new law, the government will collect health statistics for locations near environmental hazards and may work with community groups to develop the strategy, which is to be released by 2026 and re-examined five years later.

Supporters say money will be needed to put the plan into action.

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