Canada will collect data on the impact of siting a disproportionate number of polluting industries and landfills in areas inhabited by racial minority communities, federal lawmakers voted Wednesday.
The bill aims to tackle “environmental racism,” where Indigenous, Black and other racial minority communities are exposed to higher levels of dirty air, contaminated water or other toxins and pollutants.
One of the most famous cases is in the Indigenous Grassy Narrows First Nation community in Ontario, where residents have since the 1960s suffered health impacts from mercury contamination produced by a former pulp and paper mill.
Similar cases of polluting industries being sited in racial minority communities are common across Canada and the United States, where President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January pledging to tackle the issue.
“For too long, people just didn’t realize that some people were being exposed to more toxins than others simply because of the colour of their skin,” said Lenore Zann, a Liberal MP from Nova Scotia and the bill’s sponsor.
“It’s time that we address that and change our behaviour as a society,” she said in a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Collecting data on the issue — such as the location of environmental hazards and levels of health problems in those areas — will make the problem clearer and allow legislators to create policy recommendations to begin addressing it, Zann said.
In 2019, a UN special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes concluded that “marginalized groups, 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.”
During debate on the bill Tuesday, however, opposition parties said the Liberal Party government had itself failed to act on pollution threats.
They pointed to delays in the government fulfilling its 2015 pledge to within five years clean up water supplies in Indigenous communities and end advisories to boil drinking water or drink bottled water.
The government has lifted more than 100 long-term advisories since the pledge, but 58 are still in place in 38 First Nation communities, according to Indigenous Services Canada, a government body.
Conservative MP Eric Melillo said the government’s record in tackling environmental racism had been “all talk.”
He said it should prioritize practical steps like cleaning up water in First Nations communities and investing in infrastructure to help Indigenous people deal with the impacts of climate change.
Issue featured in 2019 Netflix doc with Elliot Page
The bill was inspired by the work of Ingrid Waldron, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, whose research has highlighted how environmental hazards disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous communities in the province.
Waldron in particular has examined the town of Shelburne, where a toxic waste dump sited near a Black neighbourhood is suspected of contributing to higher-than-usual cancer rates in the area.
Siting of such facilities “is based on racism, to put it bluntly,” said Waldron, whose work was brought to a wider audience by a 2019 Netflix documentary directed and narrated by Hollywood actor Elliot Page.
Speaking with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview, Waldron said the facility siting decisions made by largely white economic and environmental policy-makers rarely involved Black or Indigenous people.
“The last thing they’re going to do is put these industries in a white community,” she said.
While the new bill will require the federal government to collect data on the problem and create a strategy to solve it, analysts said the problem often lies in provincial-level industrial permitting decisions and other laws.
“The strategy, even if it’s excellent, will come up against a barrier where it can’t actually achieve what it wants to unless things change at the provincial level as well,” said Dayna Scott, an environmental law professor at York University.
She said the bill has put the issue on the agenda, but provincial rule changes would be needed, such as prohibiting the siting of polluting facilities in areas already overburdened with them.
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