A Very Brief Introduction to Environmental Racism in Canada

by | Oct 31, 2023

Canada is a country that tends to fly under the radar of global news. The nation is deemed as non-confrontational, polite, and often overshadowed by our much louder, Southern neighbor, the United States of America. This starte to change on May 28th, 2021, when The New York Times reported: ‘‘Horrible History’: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada. A day later, BBC followed by announcing that ‘Canada mourns as remains of 215 children found at Indigenous school’. The horrific history of our non-confrontational nation was beginning to be uncovered, and the nation finally made international newsstands for more than its Prime Minister. The history of Residential schools, where these mass graves were found, is not the only tragedy against Indigenous communities that can be found in this country. There is a chronic, slowly-destructive process found in everyday covert actions caused by the Canadian government and national industries. This article does not dive into all of the neo-colonial practices in Canada, but rather, provides a brief overview of perhaps the most covert socio-economic action of them all: environmental racism, an issue that needs to be called to international attention.

Over the past decade, Canada’s Chemical Valley has slowly begun to receive attention from activists and academics. Located on Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the Chemical Valley derived its name from the plethora of oil and gas factories that release toxic pollutants into the air, which cloud the sky over Aamjiwnaang. About as visible as environmental racism can get, the residents of Aamjiwnaang First Nation are known to suffer from health concerns directly caused by the pollutants streaming into their communities. The cluster of factories are owned by the biggest names in the oil and gas industry, the very same industries that – quite literally – fuel Canada’s economy. This is country-wide; the Athabasca Tar Sands project in Northern Alberta is very similar. The Tar Sands leave carcinogenic toxins in the air, only to be breathed in by the First Nation community that sits downstream. This entire community has higher levels of cancer, leading to the generational destruction of a racial minority, while the remainder of the province reaps the benefits of the oil and gas industry.

Many scholars consider this not just environmental racism, but cultural genocide because of it’s links to ecocide. Ecocide is the intentional destruction of the natural ecosystems through direct toxins or other forms of environmental deterioration. The intentional destruction from private or crown corporations for economic profit not only destroys ecosystems, but the communities of people in that environment. This is almost reminiscent of early days of colonialism when smallpox and other diseases would wipe entire populations of Indigenous people off the map. Now, neo-colonial practices conducted by profit-rich industries, destroy not only the land, but the rightful owners of that land in the process.

In recent years, the Canadian Government has neglected creating an official strategy to begin the process of ending environmental racism. The National Strategy Respecting Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Act, also known as the non-partisan bill: C-226, is a current bill being pushed to become law in order to create real action. This would include collecting data that factors in health concerns for minority communities, and give recognition to these communities. The end goal of this bill would be for environmental racism to not simply be acknowledged by the government, but for communities to not have to encounter these issues to begin with. For context of this process, the original bill C-230 was established in early 2020, which then died, and had to be re-born into bill C-226, which was last presented to the House of Commons in November of 2022. However, the process to get this bill passed is a slow one. The bill awaits the Senate’s third reading before it can be passed. Until then, no official efforts will be put toward ending environmental racism.

The Canadian government continues to fail to address domestic issues, such as environmental racism, which is why international attention can assist the call to action and create more efficient ways to combat environmental racism. The link between environmental concerns and socio-economic racial injustice are undeniable in Canadian case studies. I believe that international headlines bringing attention to domestic issues in Canada can pressure the government to act swiftly. When the historic uncovering of mass graves in Canada caught global attention, the federal government immediately created a national holiday in Canada. National Truth and Reconciliation Day has since increased discussion and strategy for reconciliation. Canada needs to remain in the headlines in order to increase efficiency in government processes when it comes to the discrimination, racism, and environmental concerns on Indigenous communities and racial minorities. The next time Canada hits international newsstands, more people should question the truth behind the headlines, and uncover a little more to the story.

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