A spotlight on environmental injustice during Black History Month

February 25, 2022

Clara Phillips

February is Black History Month – a time of reflection, celebration, and action. For the month of February, West Park’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Collaborative has been sharing stories acknowledging both the achievements of the Black community as well as the barriers still in place that prevent equality, including in the workplace and in health care. Visit this link to explore these stories.

In this article, we address the role of racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, known as “environmental racism”, a term coined by a Black American civil rights leader, Benjamin Chavis, in 1982. It brings to light how climate change disproportionately affects minority groups: Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), recent immigrants, and low-income populations.

Environmental racism exists in Canada and around the world, and manifests when environmental practices, technologies or policies lead to increased pollution or health risks in these marginalized communities. When cities are planned, hazardous facilities such as toxic waste management and dumpsites are intentionally kept far from residential spaces; consequentially, these facilities are located near vulnerable communities, creating undesirable living conditions, poor air quality and unhealthy soils. Environmental racism is further illustrated through a lack of green spaces, walking trails, healthcare and mental health supports, clean water, and community gardens. Not only do all these factors lead to inequities in rates of cancer, respiratory illness, mental health illness, suicide, addictions (the list goes on), but the poor health of the soil, water, air and food also affects the entire living ecosystem in the area.

It is well-known that large cities have concentrated air pollution in highly racialized areas, like Scarborough in the GTA. GoodScore is a recent tool created to assess air quality, street greenness, transit and recreation in urban Canada, to map out neighbourhoods’ environmental quality and inequities.

Ingrid Waldron, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Environmental and Climate Justice, describes the long history of Canada’s environmental racism in her book, There’s Something in the Water. Specifically, she explains the story of a Black community in Nova Scotia facing a battle against the development of a landfill. The book was eventually turned into a documentary, now available on Netflix, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. With tools like GoodScore (still in prototype phase), interactive maps, and recent research on links between race, health and the environment, there is progress towards curbing environmental racism. However, we are still far from its eradication. National strategies to address and prevent further environmental racism require funding, Black voices at decision-making tables, and support from various levels of government. How can you help? Learn more about the Black Environmental Initiative, support legislation aimed at promoting environmental justice in Canada, and participate by voting in your local elections or taking action online.

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