Environmental racism is the term used to describe environmental laws, regulations, or practices that unintentionally or intentionally disadvantage certain racial or ethnic groups, individuals, or communities. There are still gaps in regions under federal control, despite several provinces and territories having “environmental bills of rights” and legislative frameworks for addressing environmental issues. According to the report on environmental racism in Canada, non-scientific, undemocratic decisions and exclusionary practises, such as holding public hearings in remote locations and during inconvenient hours and using English-only materials when communicating with and conducting hearings for a non-English-speaking audience, are some of the factors of the disproportionate environmental burdens experienced by Indigenous and Black communities in Canada.
Poverty, a lack of political influence and representation, limited to no enforcement and protection, and neoliberal policy reform are among the sociopolitical elements that permit environmental racism. The report further states that environmental justice is the strategies or remedies for addressing environmental racism and envisions what is achievable when the condition is treated through various targeted policies. The tendency to confuse race and class, the emphasis on pollutants rather than the effects of social and environmental stressors on health, and the neglect of traditional ecological knowledge in environmental decision-making are all examples of limitations of the environmental justice lens in Canada.
Environmental Racism is a Human Rights Concern
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics presented a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2020, that included alarming evidence of improper handling of hazardous materials and waste and how it affects different demographics. According to the report, low-income and racialized communities are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards. The burdens and impacts these communities bear vary depending on their age, gender, and line of work. For instance, children are more likely than adults to absorb harmful pollutants, and the consequences on kids can also vary according to their gender.
The UNHRC has previously been informed that some Canadian communities and social groups are disproportionately exposed to environmental risks and their negative effects. A report on environmental racism, or the disproportionate exposure to environmental risks that Black Canadians and other racialized communities endure, was first submitted to the UNHRC in 2017, a few years earlier. In the report’s words:
“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.”
Black Canadians’ experiences can be understood in the context of environmental racism as a whole, which has an impact on various racialized groups. A Toronto-based study indicated that racialized populations, particularly South Asian and Filipino groups, are disproportionately positioned near industrial sites that release a considerable amount of very harmful pollutants. Although it is unclear how being close to industrial sites affects exposure to pollutants, it is typically linked to noise, traffic, contaminated soil, odour, and subpar housing. Another study on the effects of air pollution found that Latino groups in Hamilton were most likely to be exposed to ambient air pollution.
The research that is now accessible on environmental racism in Canada offers insightful information. However, they also show that scholars and decision-makers still need to pay greater attention to this issue. It is well-recognised that racialized populations are more likely to be exposed to environmental threats. Racialized communities are more likely to encounter environmental risks due to current social and economic disadvantages, such as poverty, housing disparity, and unemployment. Due to historical inequalities in income and power, racialized areas are frequently found to be “sacrifice zones,” burdened with exposure to pollution, contamination, and hazardous waste. Projects like this story map explore aspects of how environmental racism impacts populations in Toronto, and explores the impacts on health, food security, transportation, green spaces, community services, and gentrification.
What is Being Done?
Black Canadians and Black-led organizations are becoming more active in Canada’s environmental movement. For instance, the Black Environment Initiative calls attention to the extreme vulnerability of racialized communities, including Black communities, to environmental pollution and climate change. They show how this results from socioeconomic and political frameworks that limit their ability to develop resilience against environmental risks, and to take part in decisions that impact the communities’ exposure to pollution. To better understand how racialized populations in the province have a higher risk of exposure to environmental dangers and to call for environmental justice, the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health (ENRICH) project has launched several initiatives.
The voice of upcoming Black leaders is also the focus of initiatives. An example is the collaborative study project between the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Adapting Canadian Work & Workplaces, which aims to increase the capacity of Black and racialized people to “address environmental racism and influence public policy on climate.” The Black Environmental Alliance collaborates with Black professionals to foster community and aid local environmental justice champions.