Environmental Racism in Canada?

by Alexander (Sandy) Miller

Sandy MillerThe study of environmental racism (ER) is the examination of how environmental inequalities within human populations are related to race. ER was first recognized in the U.S. and developed as a concept to explain the phenomenon whereby racial minorities were found to live in closer proximity to environmental burdens, such as polluting industries and waste disposal sites, than non-racial minorities.

Pioneering scholars, such as Dr. Robert Bullard, documented how African American communities could be pin-pointed on a map adjacent to these polluting facilities in high frequency. Interestingly, this trend was more closely related to race than any other demographic including socio-economic status. Since 1982, following the case of PCB-contaminated soils in a predominantly black community of Warren County, North Carolina,  ER has been recognized by scholars in the United States as a legitimate concept and is now included in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate.

Environmental racism, as a concept or a theory, can technically be applied to situations outside of the United States. There has been a budding interest (and concern) recently in Canada and elsewhere under the greater umbrella of the environmental justice (EJ) movement concerning the disproportionate exposure of minority communities to toxins and other environmental hazards. In Canada’s urban centres, where populations are not so clearly defined along lines of race, ER is not so apparent—and possibly not present at all. However, in many of Canada’s more remote First Nation communities the same cannot be said. In looking briefly at the situation concerning drinking water standards and air quality in some of these communities, evidence for ER might appear quite obvious. However, what is more significant is the constitutional framework and other provincial and municipal legislation than has either created or exacerbated these conditions.

Environmental RacismIn my recent paper: From the Indian Act to the Far North Act: Environmental Racism in First Nation Communities in Ontario, I examined the question of whether or not environmental racism presents itself in the Canadian context. At first glance it was neither a ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ answer. In Canada’s urban centers, where there has been a growing body of research concerning environmental injustices, the investigation is not as clear cut along a specific demographic as it was initially in the US. Canada’s First Nation communities, on the other hand, often appear geographically isolated and consequentially are often subject to substandard conditions (both environmentally and politically) to which other communities are not. The idea of this research was by no means intended to compare the struggles faced by unrelated minorities living under entirely different jurisdictional frameworks; rather the intention was to determine if a concept (environmental racism) defined in one place could be applied and justified elsewhere.

Read : “From the Indian Act to the Far North Act: Environmental Racism in First Nation Communities in Ontario.”

Sandy Miller recently graduated from the Environmental Science honours program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. His research explored the issue(s) concerning the substandard environmental conditions which often burden First Nation reserves in Canada, and the jurisdictional framework responsible for these conditions. His personal interests fall under the greater umbrella of urban and regional planning, specifically outdoor/recreational opportunities. He is also concerned with animal and human rights. He is a keen athlete and outdoor recreational enthusiast inspired to study environmental sciences through these pursuits.

Contact Sandy Miller: 6acm1(at)queensu.ca