Environmental racism comes to light with proposed Bill C-226; while a new law enshrines environmental justice in Canada
Howl Arts Collective/Grassy Narrows/Flickr

Environmental racism comes to light with proposed Bill C-226; while a new law enshrines environmental justice in Canada

Water security is not an issue that is paid much attention to in the general population in this country, including in Ontario, despite the dozens of urban centres that dot the shoreline of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, the largest source of freshwater in the world. But it is a different story in First Nations communities, where residents have been fighting for their right to clean, drinkable water for decades.

Thirty-two long-term boil water advisories remain in 28 First Nations communities across Canada, the longest has been in place for almost 30 years. The majority of these advisories (24) impact Indigenous communities in Ontario. The disproportionate impact of these advisories on Indigenous communities is a clear example of what is increasingly becoming known as environmental racism.

It is a type of inequality where racialized communities and Indigenous residents are disproportionately impacted by nearby polluting industries and associated health conditions. 

It is a global problem. 

The roots of these harmful practices go back to the history of colonization by imperialist European nations that had little regard for the Indigenous populations of the lands they conquered. Stripping out resources at any cost, even the mass destruction of forests, fisheries, wildlife and mineral and chemical resources, including oil, was the goal. Harm to existing local populations that had walked softly on the land for thousands of years, was of no concern to the British, French or all the other colonizing forces.

Demonstrators protest the environmental destruction of the Grassy Narrows First Nation. 

(Rainforest Action Network/Flickr)


Fast forward to modern day and, alarmingly, little has changed when weighing the facts around the treatment of Indigenous communities, and other marginalized groups impacted by the unchecked thirst for industrial productivity.

In Canada, battles over pipelines and water quality have been fought for decades by Indigenous groups and First Nations while Black communities have pushed back against environmentally harmful projects, such as landfill sites, built adjacent to their homes.

“There's a tendency for government and industry to site or locate industrial facilities or other environmentally hazardous projects like pipelines and dumps and landfills and incinerators, in Canada, primarily in Indigenous communities but also in other racialized communities,” Ingrid Waldron, a professor at McMaster University, tells The Pointer. She has been instrumental in the fight against environmental racism, first in Nova Scotia and now nationwide and is co-director of the Canadian Coalition for Environmental and Climate Justice (CCECJ) and founder of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health (ENRICH) project. Both organizations work with community members to combat environmental racism. 


Ontario has the most boil water advisories in Canada, most of which are situated in northern communities home to First Nations.

(Government of Canada)


While environmental racism is a relatively new term, and a concept that grew out of the environmental justice movement exploding in the United States after 30 years of mounting activism, environmental injustice has been witnessed in Canada since the British and French first arrived. The legacy continued into the modern era. 

One of the most well known examples in Ontario devastated the Grassy Narrows First Nation, an Ojibway community located north of Kenora near the Manitoba border. In the 1960s and 70s, mercury was dumped into the Wabigoon-English River from a chemical plant in Dryden, poisoning the water and the organisms and fish that lived in it. Through a biological process known as bioaccumulation, residents of Grassy Narrows were poisoned from eating the contaminated fish. If the health impacts weren’t enough, the Ontario government closed the commercial fishery in the area leading to economic collapse for the community. It took until 1986 for the First Nation to receive a settlement from the provincial and federal governments, and the companies involved, but despite this, the mercury was never removed from the water. A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found a correlation between the mercury poisoning and suicide attempts in Grassy Narrows. The First Nation, home to 1,500 people, which never had a recorded suicide prior to 1970, is now plagued with a suicide rate three times higher than other First Nations across Canada. 

(Allan Lissner/FreeGrassy.net/Flickr)


Nova Scotia offers a snapshot of a trend across Canada and the United States where landfill developments are often located adjacent to Black communities. Lincolnville is an example of how Black settlers, who were already driven from the land they were promised by the British centuries ago to segregate them from the white population, faced environmental injustice within their own community that persists almost 250 years after they first arrived following their escape from slavery in the U.S.. 

In 2006, after a landfill had been opened right next to them in 1974, the provincial government finally closed it following decades of advocacy by the local Black community. But a second generation landfill accepting waste from across the northern reaches of the province and Cape Breton was opened in its place. 

Hazardous materials such as transformers and refuse from oil spills are reported to have been dumped in the landfill leaving community members concerned about traces of carcinogens being above safe limits in the nearby water which they drink. Since cancer is often slow growing, if proper studies are not completed, devastating impacts on local populations often aren’t seen for years, when it is too late to prevent widespread sickness.

Examples of this kind of injustice, motivated by discriminatory attitudes, are seen across the country, and around the world. In 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Baskut Tuncak, made a visit to Canada, by invitation, to examine the steps taken by the federal government to “protect the human rights implicated by the management of hazardous substances and wastes”. The results confirmed the trend Waldron had set out to study.

“During my visit, I observed a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by Indigenous peoples,” Tuncak wrote.

But getting the general population to understand environmental racism has been a challenge. Conflating it with climate change is one critical problem Waldron pointed to.

“It's important to understand environmental racism as an independent issue from climate change,” she says. “Environmental racism is about poisonous facilities. It's about contaminated water. It's about polluted air. And it's about the facilities or projects that create contaminated water, and polluted air, so completely different issues. But where they intersect is that interestingly, the same communities that tend to be most impacted by climate change are the exact same communities that are disproportionately impacted by environmental racism.”

Environmental racism can often be subsumed within the overarching problem of climate change but never the other way around. Waldron cautions against linking the two.

“With climate change, it is this notion that we're all impacted by climate change, it's not a race issue. So I think part of the subsuming of environmental racism within a broader topic of climate change is seeing climate change is more important, or because environmental racism tends to focus on racialized communities, people are uncomfortable with that.”


Professor Ingrid Waldron’s work began in Nova Scotia where there are clear examples of environmental racism impacting Indigenous, Black and Acadian communities.

(Nicole Bratt/Wikimedia Commons)


Despite the general population’s hesitancy to talk about issues dealing with race, Waldron has dedicated almost a decade to educating people about environmental racism and, if Bill C-226 (An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice) passes in the Senate in the fall, her efforts will have led to potentially impactful legislative action.

In January 2015, Waldron walked through the door of a local coffee shop in Nova Scotia to meet then NDP Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Lenore Zann. In the midst of employees from surrounding offices enjoying their 15-minute break and long time friends catching up over a steaming cup, the sight of the two women wouldn’t have stood out. But a plan was brewing, one that would follow a roller coaster path. Just when it looked like the two women had been defeated, a bold idea salvaged their determined effort to force change, to protect those Waldron had stood alongside.

“She proposed to me that one way to create awareness about environmental racism, and just kind of get it on the map more than I had, was to develop a private member's bill,” Waldron tells The Pointer.

Zann warned Waldron that private member’s bills don’t have high success rates, but it would be an excellent opportunity to educate the public and to emphasize in the media the widespread nature of environmental racism. In 2015, environmental racism was not well understood and the hope was that the campaign could bring greater attention to the problem, spurring public action.

“When I started in 2012, I had journalists and members of the community email me and say, ‘I've never heard of environmental racism. Are you serious? What is this? You know, this sounds strange’,” Waldron says. “There was a lot of doubt in what I was doing, or just lack of doubt that this existed when I first started. And then as I continued on in Nova Scotia, the questions and the perplexed look on people's faces changed.”

Introduced as Bill 111 in the Nova Scotia legislature on April 29, 2015, it sought to establish a panel to examine the issues of environmental racism across the province, particularly as it impacts the African-Nova Scotia community, First Nations communities and the Acadian community, and to provide recommendations on how to address this uniquely harmful discrimination.

The Bill made it to second reading but was never passed. Zann reintroduced it multiple times throughout the following three years without success.

“It was a bit frustrating,” Waldron recalls.

While they faced roadblocks within the provincial legislature, the women were successful in building an awareness campaign that spread nationwide. Attention started to build in Nova Scotia at first, but Waldron says she began receiving requests for events and talks all across the country.

Ingrid Waldron, a professor at McMaster University, has been fighting for years against continued environmental racism. 

(Supplied photo)


“I get emails from professors across the country, saying we are putting on an event on environmental racism, which is just glorious to my ears, because that never happened in the past.” 

In 2020, a twist of fate reignited the potential of turning Waldron’s work into binding legislation. Shortly before the onset of the pandemic, which would bring upon its own challenges for BIPOC communities, Zann contacted Waldron to let her know she had moved on from her position as an MLA and was serving as an MP in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, and she wanted to reintroduce the environmental racism legislation on the federal stage. 

“I said, that sounds great to me, because then we can now address not just Nova Scotia, we can address all the Indigenous communities that have pipelines across Canada,” Waldron says. “I thought this is much better.”

The two worked together once again to alter the legislation and make it much more robust. At the federal level, the Bill called for statistical and disaggregated race data to fully paint the picture of the problem across the country.

The Bill made it to second reading, before getting wiped off the table during the snap election in September 2021. But the election did more than take the legislation off the table, it also led to Zann’s defeat, removing the champion of the environmental racism bill from Parliament.

With one more chance for success, federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May decided to revive the work of Waldron and Zann, tabling Bill C-226, an Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice, with the same wording as it had during the previous parliamentary period.

It passed in the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate when Parliament reconvenes in the fall. Hopes remain high.

“From what I'm hearing from several people, they say it's going to pass. I can't believe it,” Waldron says. She’s even heard Conservatives in the Senate support the bill despite the PC MPs voting against it in the House. “I'm very cautious because I've been doing this since 2015. But I'm hearing from different people saying they’re 99 percent sure this is going to pass.”

If it does pass, it will be the first legislation of its kind.

“This is groundbreaking. So when you say what I've been through all these years, it's been such a long road. And there were times I felt like giving up,” she says. “I was like, okay, somebody's gonna take this on once I'm gone.”

“This has a lot to do with the education over the years … The ongoing community activism, by Indigenous communities and Black communities, I think all of these things come together to create this awareness amongst people, including politicians that this is something real.”

Despite the revolutionary nature of the Bill, if it passes, collecting data to prove what has only been shown through anecdotal evidence is just the start. Indigenous, Black and other minority communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms across a spectrum of political and commercial actions, in every province, in numerous business sectors, and it will take more than quantifiable evidence to change the damaging dynamics that have persisted for more than a century, particularly in the country’s powerful natural resources industries.

A huge step forward in the fight against environmental racism is the passage of Bill S-5, which received Royal Assent on June 13, with amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), the first significant changes to the groundbreaking legislation since 1999. The new law ensures that every Canadian has the right to a healthy environment.

According to the federal government’s press release following Royal Assent, “Bill S-5 requires that decisions made under CEPA respect the right to a healthy environment. Over the next two years, the Government will develop an implementation framework to set out how that right will be considered in administering the Act. That framework will explain how the right will account for principles such as environmental justice, intergenerational equity, and non-regression. It will also describe any other relevant factors to consider in interpreting and applying the right and determining its reasonable limits.

  • Environmental justice includes the avoidance of adverse effects that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations.

  • Non-regression includes the continuous improvement in environmental protection.

  • Intergenerational equity includes the importance to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The legislation is a huge step for Waldron and all those demanding environmental justice for all Canadians, particularly marginalized communities that have suffered harm due to racist and discriminatory actions by governments and corporations.

The Idle No More movement has spread across Canada since its start in 2012 in Saskatchewan, with rallies being held in cities throughout the country.

(Maksim Sokolov/Wikimedia Commons)


BIPOC communities are still on the front lines, taking matters into their own hands to fight for a safe environment. 

Perhaps one of the most well known examples of resistance against environmental racism is the Idle No More movement, a grassroots political strategy started on Facebook by four Indigenous women in Saskatchewan in 2012. Through peaceful demonstrations, teach-ins and rallies, Idle No More demands Canada repeal parts of legislation that affirm colonial actions and hinder Indigenous rights to oppose development on their territory, calls for the recognition of legally binding titles and asks that existing environmental protections be upheld.

African Nova Scotia communities have collaborated to take action against landfill sites in various locations including Africville, Lincolnville and Preston. Actions have ranged from community demonstrations to complaints with the Human Rights Commission and even a lawsuit in the case of Africville. Despite these local actions, little has been done to address the continued harm to these communities.

In Ontario, the current government continues to push through legislation and policy that work against the environmental goals of community-based organizations.

The Doug Ford PCs have made it a priority to mine in the Ring of Fire, to extract and produce special metals including cobalt, nickel and platinum. The area is approximately 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay and spans approximately 5,000 square kilometres. Despite the government’s claim that it will create jobs, stimulate the economy and bring prosperity to communities in the north, mining is known to have severe environmental consequences on the surrounding land, air and water, which could have serious impacts on the health of local populations, the majority of which are Indigenous.

Regardless of the outcome of Bill C-226, Waldron says Canada is at a turning point on environmental racism. As dictated in the mandate letter sent to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change in 2021, Canada will undertake the creation of a new environmental justice strategy to recognize the “right to a healthy environment” and examine the “link between race, socio-economic status and exposure to environmental risk”. 

With the recent passage of Bill S-5, which makes potentially precedent-setting changes to the main existing environmental legislation, and could have profound legal consequences for future court cases, the federal government is making good on its commitment to enshrine environmental justice as a legal right.

“[The Coalition is] now in a fabulous stage where we are looking to assist with a new environmental justice strategy for Canada,” Waldron says. “We are just hoping that there's going to be some kind of collaboration. I can't say too much. But we feel that our coalition is in a very good place to work with the government because of the connections we've had with actual community members impacted.”

“Obviously, an environmental justice strategy where you do not hear from the people impacted doesn't make any sense. So we want this to be community based and community engaged where community members would say, ‘This is what I think an environmental justice strategy should look like’.”

In addition to possible collaboration with the federal government, the Canadian Coalition for Environmental and Climate Justice is continuing with its work on a mapping project which provides visual data on environmental racism in Canada. The ENRICH project has a similar map for Nova Scotia, but the one undertaken by the CCECJ will reveal nationwide examples of environmental racism and will include images and stories shared by community members who have faced and fought these injustices. 

“It's a very big project,” Waldron says. “But we see that as a data collection tool, just like a book or doing research or study. The map will show cases of environmental racism that you're familiar with. But also those smaller cases that nobody has heard of.”

Regardless of the outcome of Bill C-226, the Coalition will continue its own work in partnership with grassroots organizations committed to end environmental racism in Canada. 


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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