Commons could soon pass legislation to study environmental racism
The House of Commons is set to pass Canada’s first-ever environmental racism law – environmental hazards that disproportionately affect Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities.
Bill C-226 is being voted on today and is expected to eventually pass the House of Commons with the support of the Liberals, NDP and Green Party.
These parties are hoping the bill can be expedited through unanimous consent and circumvent several procedural hurdles. This is not possible without the support of the other two opposition parties.
C-226 would require Parliament to develop a national strategy to gather information on environmental risks in BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities and address their impacts. This information could serve as the basis for modifying existing federal laws, policies and programs.
Supporters of the bill say they hope remaining parties will throw their support behind it when it returns for another vote.
“I really hope that we will finally, as a government, address the problem of environmental racism and injustice,” said one of the bill’s supporters, Nova Scotia-based activist Lynn Jones. .
Jones, an African Nova Scotian community leader, said she felt the impacts herself growing up on the shores of Cobequid Bay. She said her community and other black settlements in the province were isolated on the outskirts of Truro, Nova Scotia, where governments often located landfills and ignored flooding in the area for years.
“So living on the outskirts you often had the worst conditions. You often didn’t have all the amenities that other people in the city had,” she said.
First Nations and Métis communities have complained for years of being left with environmental threats such as the discharge of pulp mill effluent into the harbor near Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia. Scotland or the mercury contamination of the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.
Many of these communities have raised concerns about the health effects of environmental degradation, such as asthma, cancer and birth defects.
In his book On environmental racism, Ingrid Waldron, a professor in the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster University, called on policymakers to consider environmental racism as a form of “state-sanctioned racial” violence similar to police brutality.
“There is a kind of racist ideology that fits into an environmental policy where we tend to [exclude] people who we believe are not the most valuable in this world,” Waldron told CBC News.
Elizabeth May, the Green MP sponsoring the bill, said there was no “grey area” between the violence racialized communities experience in encounters with police and the harmful effects of environmental racism.
Conservatives oppose the bill, arguing it could make it more difficult to approve resource projects — like the oil sands in Alberta — that tend to operate near Indigenous communities.
“We already have a complicated regulatory environment when we develop projects in this country,” Conservative environment critic Kyle Seeback said in April during one of the House debates on the bill.
The Bloc Québécois, for its part, refused its support because it feared that the bill would encroach on Quebec’s sovereignty, since the environment is generally an area of provincial and territorial jurisdiction.
“We are convinced that it would be incoherent to claim to fight for environmental justice at the federal level while failing to advocate for the defense of Quebec’s environmental sovereignty,” said Bloc environment spokesperson Monique. Pauzé, during this same debate in April.
WATCH | How mercury poisoning affected Grassy Narrows First Nation:
This is the second attempt to pass environmental racism legislation in the House of Commons. Former Nova Scotia MLA Lenore Zann tried to push a similar bill through her province’s legislature when she was an MLA. The same bill died in the last Parliament before Zann lost his seat in the 2021 federal election.
Zann said she and her allies could have pushed the bill through had it not been for the word “racism”.
“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 that it exists… And I’m like, no, that’s the whole point of this bill.”
WATCH | Behind the push to tackle environmental racism:
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.