Nova Scotia names first member of panel studying environmental racism in province

HALIFAX — Augy Jones, the first member named to a Nova Scotia government panel that will examine how racism affects a community's natural environment, says he hopes the panel's work gets national recognition for the way it approaches the problem.

Jones, president of the Nova Scotia Community College Akerley campus, was named to the panel Thursday. He has held leadership roles within the provincial Education Department and at St. Francis Xavier University, and he is the son of the late Nova Scotia civil rights activists Rocky and Joan Jones.

“Being the son of civil rights activists I realize the systemic work that needs to be done to make authentic change,” he said in an interview. “We want this process to be an example to Canada on how you engage with marginalized communities who have been traumatized in an intergenerational way.”

Environmental racism is considered a form of systemic racism whereby landfills, trash incinerators, coal plants, toxic waste facilities and other environmentally hazardous activities tend to be near communities of colour, Indigenous territories and the working poor.

Although a national problem, Nova Scotia has had its share of cases of environmental racism, including a toxic dump and a landfill that operated for decades near the historical Black towns of Shelburne and Lincolnville.

As well, a cleanup is ongoing at Boat Harbour, N.S., near the Pictou Landing First Nation, which served for decades as the effluent lagoon for a nearby paper mill. In his capacity as environment minister in the former Liberal government before becoming premier in 2021, Iain Rankin referred to the site as one of the worst cases of environmental racism in Canada.

Jones said environmental racism is a particular form of discrimination. “It’s not like someone making a racial slur towards you individually," he said. "It’s actually a systemic experience where a whole community is being put in an unhealthy position based on something systemic that’s happening."

Jones has been tasked with drafting terms of reference for the panel’s work and with recommending other panel members. He is to make recommendations to the provincial government by the end of February, while the panel is to make its recommendations by Dec. 31, 2023.

The idea for the panel was included as an amendment proposed by NDP member Suzy Hansen to climate change legislation passed last fall.

Jones said that although he is not an expert on environmental racism, “It’s in my wheelhouse as far as the work that I’ve done around education and community and equity. I do have an expertise in community engagement.”

He said he wants to help create a diverse panel composed of community members “who often aren’t at the table,” along with academic and government experts. Jones said he’s conscious about making sure the panel's size is the right fit to be effective and inclusive. There’s been no direction on how many members Jones can name but he said there will likely be “under 20 but more than five.”

He said he envisions drawing on “lived experience” from members of the African Nova Scotian, Acadian and Mi’kmaq communities in order to tackle work he considers “hugely important.”

“They will do the work, including community engagement, to come up with sustainable ways that can prevent environmental racism from happening in the future,” Jones said.

The panel’s work, he added, should be about giving communities a say in their future.

“We want to authenticate their voices and hear what went wrong, own the responsibility of what went wrong and then make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press