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A new law aims to crack down on environmental racism in Canada

For years, researchers, activists, community leaders have shown how Indigenous, Black and other racialized groups have been disproportionately affected by polluting industries. Now, a new law will require the federal government to better track this injustice, and aim to correct it.

Legislation will track how communities are affected and 'hold government's feet to the fire,' professor says

Swing in the foreground and a chemical plant in the background

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

Now, a new law will require the federal government to better track this injustice, and aim to correct it.

Bill C-226, sponsored by Green leader Elizabeth May, became law Thursday evening, nearly four years after similar legislation was first proposed in Parliament. The law will require the federal government to develop a national strategy on environmental racism within two years.

"There is no doubt that Canada has had a problem with environmental racism for decades, and taking action is now required," May told a news conference earlier this week.

Advocates have been pressing for years for legislation to counter environmental racism, in which polluting factories and other environmentally damaging activities are disproportionately located near Indigenous or racialized communities.

As outlined in the legislation, the national strategy must include "an examination of the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk" and steps that can be taken to address environmental racism.

Those could include changes to federal laws, policies and programs.

"It's been a long road," said Ingrid Waldron, a professor in the global peace and social justice program at McMaster University, who has been pushing for such a law.

Waldron is one of the founders of the Canadian Coalition for Environmental and Climate Justice, and the author of There's Something in the Water, which documents the health impacts of environmental hazards on Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia and beyond, and the actions those groups have taken to fight back against the pollution poisoning their communities.

The legislation, she said, means two things happen: "you get to hold government's feet to the fire" and, secondly, "it creates much more transparency now there's much more pressure for them to do something."

'A step in the right direction'

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

Residents in the community have for decades suffered health impacts from mercury contamination produced by a former pulp and paper mill.

The First Nation filed a lawsuit in Ontario Superior Court earlier this month, arguing governments have failed to protect against or remedy the effects of mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River system.

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

"They got compensated so quickly and then Grassy's been going through this for decades, and still there's no resolution," Da Silva told CBC News earlier this month. "I think it's environmental racism."

WATCH | Grassy Narrows lawsuit targets 'environmental racism' of mercury poisoning:

Grassy Narrows lawsuit targets 'environmental racism' of mercury poisoning

17 days ago

Duration 2:13

Judy Da Silva, environmental health co-ordinator for Grassy Narrows First Nation, says years of inaction and 'environmental racism' are behind the lawsuit against Ontario and Ottawa.

Environmental racism has also reared its head through the regulatory process for major projects like the Trans Mountain Pipeline, in the view of Indigenous groups, often citing a lack of prior consent.

"It's really important to bring awareness to how lopsided the process is," said Rueben George, a manager of Sacred Trust, an organization launched by the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation in British Columbia to fight the pipeline expansion project.

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

The environmental racism law "is needed and it's a good step in the right direction," he said.

A 2020 report by theUN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights pointed to "a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada."

Cheryl Teelucksingh, a sociology professor at Toronto Metropolitan University who researches environmental racism, said in an interview the bill could also have implications for areas such as public health, urban planning and workers' rights.

"Having the language, and the 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 possibly work with community groups to develop the strategy, which will need to be released by 2026 and reexamined five years later.

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate policy, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

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