Commons could soon pass legislation to study environmental racism

·4 min read
Mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows First Nation is one prominent example of environmental degradation disproportionately affecting a racialized community. (Jody Porter/CBC - image credit)
Mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows First Nation is one prominent example of environmental degradation disproportionately affecting a racialized community. (Jody Porter/CBC - image credit)

The House of Commons is close to adopting Canada's first-ever legislation on environmental racism — environmental hazards that disproportionately affect Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities.

Bill C-226 comes up for a vote today and is expected eventually to pass through the House of Commons with the support of the Liberals, the NDP and the Green Party.

Those parties hope the bill can be fast-tracked through unanimous consent and bypass several procedural hoops. That's not likely without the support of the two other opposition parties.

C-226 would require Parliament to develop a national strategy to collect information on environmental hazards in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities and address their impacts. That information could provide a foundation for changing existing federal laws, policies and programs.

The bill's supporters say they hope the remaining parties throw their support behind it when it comes back for another vote.

"I'm really hopeful that we will finally, as a government, address the issue of environmental racism and injustice," said one of the bill's supporters, Nova Scotia-based activist Lynn Jones.

Jones, a leader in the African Nova Scotian community, said she felt the impacts herself growing up on the banks of Cobequid Bay. She said her community and other Black settlements in the province were isolated on the outskirts of Truro, N.S., where governments often located landfills and ignored area flooding for years.

"So living on the edges, you often had the worst conditions. You didn't often have all the amenities that the other people in the town had," she said.

First Nations and Métis communities have complained for years of being left to deal with environmental threats such as the release of pulp paper mill effluent into the harbour near Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia or mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Many of these communities have raised concerns about the health effects of environmental degradation, such as asthma, cancer and congenital disabilities.

In her book on environmental racism, McMaster University humanities faculty professor Ingrid Waldron has called on policymakers to view environmental racism as a form of "state-sanctioned racial" violence similar to police brutality.

"There's a kind of a racist ideology that gets written into an environmental policy where we tend to [exclude] people that we think don't hold the most value right in this world," Waldron told CBC News.

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

Green MP Elizabeth May, who introduced C-226 as a private member's bill, said there's no "grey zone" between the violence racialized communities experience in encounters with police and the adverse impacts of environmental racism.

Conservatives oppose the bill, arguing it could further complicate approval of resource projects — like oilsands mining in Alberta — which tend to operate close to Indigenous communities.

"We already have a complicated regulatory environment when we are developing projects in this country," Conservative environment critic Kyle Seeback said in April during one of the debates on the bill in the House.

The Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, withheld its support because it worries the bill could infringe on Quebec sovereignty, since the environment generally is an area of provincial and territorial jurisdiction.

"We are convinced that it would be inconsistent to claim to fight for environmental justice at the federal level while failing to advocate for the defence of Quebec's environmental sovereignty," the Bloc's environment critic Monique Pauzé said during that same debate in April.

WATCH | How mercury poisoning has affected Grassy Narrows First Nation:

This is the second attempt to get environmental racism legislation through the House of Commons. Former Nova Scotia member of Parliament Lenore Zann tried to get a similar bill passed in her province's legislature when she was a provincial representative. The same bill died in the last Parliament before Zann lost her seat in the 2021 federal election.

Zann said she and her allies might have gotten the bill passed if it hadn't had the word "racism" in it.

"White people always want you to take the word racism out," Zann said. "It's like it makes them nervous, right?

"They don't want to admit it exists ... And I'm like, no, that's the whole point of this bill."

WATCH | Behind the push to address environmental racism:

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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