February 8, 2022
This year’s theme for Black History Month is February and Forever: Celebrating Black history today and everyday. To honour Black Canadians and their communities, this blog invites a reflection about the environmental challenges that Black communities face in Canada, how Black leaders and youth have been advocating for environmental justice, and how we need better data to design policies to counter environmental racism in Canada.
Environmental racism is a pressing human rights issue that environmental and economic policy must address
In 2020, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) detailing troubling evidence of mismanagement of hazardous substances and waste and how it impacts different social groups. The report indicates that low-income and racialized communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, and that the burdens and impacts these communities experience differ across age, gender, and occupation lines. For example, children are more prone to absorbing toxic contaminants than adults, and the effects on children can further differ by gender.
This was not the first time that the UNHRC was notified of the fact that some communities and social groups in Canada are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and their harmful impacts. A few years earlier, in 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Commission submitted another report to the UNHRC explicitly drawing attention to environmental racism, the disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards that Black Canadians and other racialized groups experience. In the words of the report:
“African Canadians experience disproportionately high levels of unemployment and poverty, as well as disparities in accessing education, health and housing. Their communities face environmental racism whereby landfills, waste dumps and other environmentally hazardous activities are disproportionately situated near neighbourhoods of people of African descent, creating serious health risks.”
Indeed, in Nova Scotia, Mi’kmaw and Black communities are more likely to reside near landfills and industrial facilities that emit or produce toxic substances that are harmful to human health and well-being.
The experience of Black Canadians can be seen in the context of environmental racism as a whole, which affects many racialized groups. A Toronto-based study found that racialized groups are disproportionately located close to industrial facilities that emit a significant amount of highly toxic pollutants, with South Asian and Filipino groups particularly overrepresented. It is not clear how proximity to industrial facilities impacts exposure to pollutants, but it is usually associated with noise, traffic, soil contamination, odour, and poorer housing quality. Another study on air pollution exposure suggested that, in Hamilton, Latin-American groups had the highest risk of exposure to ambient air pollution, while there was no statistical evidence suggesting that Black Canadians were particularly exposed to air pollution.
Though providing valuable insights, available studies on environmental racism in Canada indicate that this topic still requires more attention from scholarship and policymakers. It is known that racialized communities experience disproportionate risks of exposure to environmental hazards. Existing social and economic disadvantages, like poverty, housing inequality, and unemployment, predispose racialized communities to experience environmental hazards. Racialized communities are often found in “sacrifice zones,” burdened with the exposure of pollution, contamination, and toxic waste, due to legacies in wealth and power disparities.
But these experiences vary widely across geographic and racial lines. If anything, available research in Canada cautions against using evidence from environmental racism research from the United States and other contexts to inform Canadian policies. Canada has a unique history of immigration and a multicultural policy agenda that render American evidence difficult to apply to the Canadian context. In some places, like Mid-Scarborough, Ontario, the fact that there is a high concentration of racialized communities close to industrial facilities is less the outcome of subjective racist intent on the part of capital owners and governments, and more related to changes in immigration trends, immigrant settlement patterns, and de-industrialization, as research by Cheryl Teelucksingh suggests.
Black Canadians and Black-led organizations in Canada have been increasingly involved with environmental action. For example, the Black Environment Initiative draws attention to how Black and other racialized communities are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental pollution and climate change. They demonstrate how this is due to socioeconomic and political structures that decrease their capacity to build resilience against environmental hazards and to participate in decision-making that affect the exposure levels to pollutants of their communities. The Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health (ENRICH) project has launched a number of initiatives to improve understanding of how racialized communities in the province have a higher risk of being exposed to environmental hazards and to call for environmental justice.
Initiatives are also centered around amplifying the voice of emerging Black leaders. An example includes the joint research project between Adapting Canadian Work & Workplaces and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which focuses on building the capacity of Black and racialized persons to “address environmental racism and influence public policy on climate.” The Black Environmental Alliance is working with Black professionals to build community and support local champions to pursue environmental justice.
Black activists in Canada, some of whom are youth and have been recognized in Corporate Knights’ 30 Under 30, are raising awareness around the nexus between social justice and climate action. While grassroots action has emerged over the years and there are admirable efforts underway to make connections between social justice and climate action, Canadian social movements have yet to mobilize for environmental justice on a broad scale such as we see taking place in the United States. Some have called for a broad coalition between environmental justice advocates with health, gender, labour, LGBTQ2+, and immigrant movements. The Canadian arm of Black Lives Matter has been suggested as a potential partner of environmental justice advocates, one that could raise more awareness to environmental racism in Canada, framing it as a form of racial violence.
It is difficult (and even dangerous) to tackle a problem if we have only limited or anecdotal data. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN, a mapping tool that identifies communities with higher environmental burdens or vulnerabilities, is seen as helpful for policymakers especially in decision-making around resource allocation or regulations. Recently, calls have been made to further develop this tool, to increase accuracy of data collection and the usability of the tool by policymakers and journalists.
A crucial step to address environmental racism in Canada is to promote and fund more studies on this matter. There is a need to collect and improve access to disaggregated data on the distribution of exposure to environmental hazards and risks across racial lines. Some have called for a comprehensive socio-economic mapping of proximity of sources of toxic substances. This could inform the ratio of Black Canadians and other racialized communities living or working in proximity to industrial facilities, chemical disposal sites, and other sources of toxic substances. Others have called attention to the fact that proximity to polluting sources may only provide a partial picture, and that studies and data collection should also consider actual exposure to pollutants and potential impacts on health and well-being of different racial and ethnic groups.
What data we need to better understand environmental racism in Canada and how they must be collected are important conversations to have. Good economic and environmental policy requires good data. And good data can empower communities to advocate for themselves and bring light to their circumstances. It is our hope that these discussions receive greater attention during this Black History Month and beyond.