When she was a girl, Louise Delisle could sometimes smell the stench of burning garbage from the Shelburne dump less than half a kilometre away from her home.
When the dump pile got too high, the town would set it on fire, dispersing the ash around the homes of black families who lived nearby, including Delisle's.
"We were exposed to things that came from the shipyard, the naval base, the hospital," she said.
"Everything went there. We don't know [what]. And nobody even bothered to ask us if it was OK that they dumped that there."
Looking for public support
Delisle is part of a citizens group calling on Nova Scotia to adopt a proposed environmental bill of rights and pass it into law.
Proponents met Friday at a downtown Halifax restaurant to share their concerns and hopes for the future.
The bill of rights, currently a draft document written by a local law firm, aims to strengthen the ability of citizens to take the government to court to make it enforce existing laws or orders.
It also calls for the creation of an environmental commissioner, who would act as an advocate for citizens groups and a watchdog to ensure the government complies with the existing Environment Act.
Afraid to speak up
Delisle said when the Shelburne dump was being built in the 1950s, many people in her community were afraid to speak up or did not have the education levels to know how to protest effectively.
"Back in those days, nobody said anything — especially if you were black, living in the community and you had a job at the shipyard, or a job at the mill, or a job at the hospital. You never opened your mouth to complain," she said.
"So this bill will give people a right ... a voice to what has been done and what is wrong in the environment."
The group is led by Ingrid Waldron, a professor at Dalhousie University's faculty of health professions. It is backed by East Coast Environmental Law, a Halifax-based non-profit organization working to increase public awareness of environmental laws.
'It's time we got support'
"The environmental bill of rights is what we need," said Marlene Brown, a Harrietsfield resident who has been fighting for years to get clean water in her community.
Brown was one of five representatives from communities around the province who told Friday's gathering how they've been harmed by pollution.
"People are suffering," she said. "The environment is suffering. It's time we got support from our government."
Brown has gone to court many times to try to get enforcement of ministerial orders to clean up contamination from a former auto salvage yard, but that has not happened. She said she believes things would be different if an environmental bill of rights existed.
"We'd be thriving now," she said. "Children could drink water at their school. Everyone could go to their taps and get a cold glass of water. I could plant vegetables in my ground, in the soil."
Environmental racism report
Raymond Sheppard, who also spoke at Friday's event, said the bill calls for a special report on environmental racism. He defined it as picking the "poorest, weakest communities" to locate the most harmful environmental problem sites. Sheppard grew up in Lincolnville, a mainly black community that has had two dumps located in the area.
Dorene Bernard from the Sipekne'katik First Nation and Jonathan Beadle of the Pictou Landing First Nation both spoke about water quality issues in their communities.
Bernard's community had to live under a boil water order for two months in 2012, while Beadle's community sits next to Boat Harbour, which is said to have received enough contaminants from the Northern Pulp paper mill to fill about 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Bernard called on the crowd, which included politicians and political candidates, to better protect natural resources like water and animal life.
"We speak for all the species that don't have a voice," she said while stroking an eagle feather.
A spokesperson for the provincial Environment Department said Friday in an email the department is held accountable through the offices of the auditor general and the ombudsman.
"Nova Scotia has strong regulations to protect the environment for all citizens," said Krista Higdon. "The minister is committed to an effective, consistent, and equitable approach to ensuring compliance with these regulations."