Advocates welcome passage of bill to tackle environmental racism in Canada

Advocates say Canada’s first environmental justice law will help chart scale of problem, address negative health impact.

A gas flare can be seen in the background near a cemetery in Aamjiwnaang First Nation [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
A gas flare can be seen in the background near a cemetery in Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which is surrounded by dozens of petroleum refineries, petrochemical plants and energy facilities in Ontario, Canada [File: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Environmental and social justice advocates in Canada have welcomed a new bill that pledges to develop a national strategy to prevent and address the effects of environmental racism.

In a statement on Friday, the Canadian Coalition for Environmental and Climate Justice (CCECJ) said passage of Bill C-226 this week would help communities better understand the scale of the problem and lay out strategies for how to tackle it.

The bill passed a third reading in the Senate on Thursday and is now expected to achieve “royal assent”, the last step in the legislative process.

“We know the stories about where and how environmental racism exists in Canada. The formal data on these realities is incomplete, and therefore, there is a lack of understanding about how real this problem is,” said Ingrid Waldron, CCECJ’s co-founder and co-director.

“Data collection and analysis will be a critical starting point in the strategy required by the Environmental Justice Strategy Act. The consequences of inaction on environmental racism would be ongoing negative impacts on people’s health and wellbeing.”

Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate siting of hazardous projects and polluting industries among populations of colour and Indigenous communities.

Over the past decades, examples in Canada have included mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario, the building of major oil and gas pipelines on unceded, Indigenous lands, and the placement of landfills near historic African-Canadian communities on the east coast.

Advocates have spent years urging the Canadian government to take action on the issue, the effects of which continue to be felt in communities across the country.

Janelle Nahmabin, of Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Ontario, told Al Jazeera in 2021 about how growing up in one of Canada’s most heavily industrialised areas – known as “Chemical Valley” – has affected her and her community.

The pollution residents are exposed to every day has harmed their relationship with the land, she said, which in turn “disconnects Indigenous people from their culture, because the land is a part of our identity”.

In 2020, a United Nations special rapporteur also found a “prevalence of discrimination in Canada’s laws and policies regarding hazardous substances and wastes is clear”.

“There exists 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,” the expert said in a report (PDF) to the UN Human Rights Council.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had promised in their 2021 party platform to pass legislation requiring the environment minister to “examine the link between race, socio-economic status, and exposure to environmental risk”.

Trudeau’s government supported Bill C-226 on environmental racism, with Steven Guilbeault, the minister of environment and climate change, saying in February that “environmental protection should not change depending on who you are or where you live”.

“Decision-making should ensure equal opportunity to all and avoid discriminating underrepresented groups. This national engagement will help us meaningfully and collectively reflect on environmental justice and racism,” Guilbeault said in a statement.

Bill C-226 – put forward by Green Party leader Elizabeth May – requires the minister to “develop a national strategy to promote efforts across Canada to advance environmental justice and to assess, prevent and address environmental racism”.

It also says the minister must work with interested parties, including Indigenous communities, and then submit a report to Canada’s Parliament within two years of the bill’s final passage, laying out the national strategy.

“The passage of Bill C-226 represents a commitment to addressing the long-standing and deeply entrenched issue of environmental racism in Canada,” May of the Green Party said in a statement on Thursday.

“This legislation is a testament to the power of collective action and the importance of ensuring that all voices, especially those of marginalized communities, are heard and respected in our environmental policies.”

Source: Al Jazeera