Environmental Justice in Canada: an interview with Dr. Michael Buzzelli

by Julie Rempel

What can citizens and researchers do to both raise awareness of and address environmental justice in decision making?

Traditionally, the researcher’s role has been to provide evidence and information regarding the specific environmental inequalities that are being studied. This information can be utilized in a variety of ways. One of the biggest ways is increasing awareness among the general public regarding the social, environmental and economic aspects of environmental justice.

Citizens can exercise their liberties and voice their concerns by targeting elected official and media. However, citizens that are most engaged are often those that are least exposed to environmental disparities. The people that aren’t complaining are the individuals that are most affected by environmental inequalities. However, often these are also the individuals that don’t have access to the knowledge to engage the leverage of power required to address the problems they are experiencing in their communities. Programs need to be developed in order to provide the resources to empower communities to embrace their civil liberties we all have a right to exercise. So that the issues that are least known are brought to light and they demand access to healthy living conditions which all Canadians have a right to have.

What have been significant contributions to the agenda of the environmental justice movement? Originally, the environmental justice movement began as an American social movement and research stream. Only in the past decade has the movement started growing in Canada and elsewhere. The fundamental question of Environmental Justice is whether environmental hazards are concentrated in communities marked by low socio-economic status (SES, as indicated by income, educational attainment, wealth, or other indicators of advantage/disadvantage). The concept infers a lack of equity or fairness because disadvantaged communities do not share equally in the production and consumption sectors that raise living standards and quality of life yet, ironically, they bear the lion’s share of the unintended circumstances. Within Canada there are a number of researchers that are taking bold advances in the area. Some include Mike Jerret, Jeff Masuda and Jamie Baxter.

There are also contributions from both governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The Environmental Justice movement is quite unique as it integrates questions of environment and health combined with issues of economic and social justice providing a full picture and in depth scope that has been attained by very few other disciplines.  Due to Canada’s relative infancy within the Environmental Justice framework, small but growing does not always follow with US research. Studies of air pollution exposure in Hamilton show that neighbourhoods marked by family status (lone parents) and low education (less than grade nine) bear most of that city’s ambient pollution exposure (Buzzelli et al., 2003). This provides further motivation that within Canada, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be completed beyond the current awareness approach where the majority of the emphasis it.

Within Canada, what steps need to occur in order to develop better infrastructure to bridge the gap with policy development and the principles of environmental justice? Presently, the major principles of environmental justice do not fit neatly with the practice of policy development or within existing policy paradigms. Policy adoption is necessarily an interplay of power and politics though it must be broad-based, acceptable to the public and, most of all, principled. While Environmental Justice hits all of these notes, it also presents place based policy approaches that are not able to be applied as an overarching policy.

An area that needs more attention is that despite the fact that we know that disadvantaged communities face disproportionate exposure to hazards and compromised health, environmental health perception research shows us that policy can “over-respond” to more connected and wealthy communities because they are resourced and engaged. In these scenarios they leverage resources in spite of living in relatively healthy environments.

For those in bleaker neighbourhoods and regions, we can make the principled argument as we do in social policy that they ought not be bypassed and as a greater population we cannot afford for this to continue to happen. For policy adoption, what is needed in the first instance is messaging and awareness. Formal research is key but not enough. Also needed are community dialogues where we “test the waters”; tap the as yet unknown demand for environmental justice in environmental policy- and decision making. For these projects and idea’s to translate into reality additional funding and resources are required. Additionally goals need to be established in order to provide a national vision and a framework to address the inequities that environmental justice principles are set up to answer. In order to accomplish a list of goals that would reflect the needs and priorities of the entire country is a multi-day forum like a National meeting where dialogue can occur and a real clear plan can be established, for example, a National Action Plan on Environmental Justice. This could inevitably initiate a larger scale of involvement from citizens in communities being affected, researchers, policy makers, and political representatives.

At this moment what matters most is to actively and meaningfully engage communities in policy discourse. We need to listen to their stories for policy adoption, incorporate their ideas into policy development and ultimately work with them in implementation.

A sustainable economy and a just environment are not necessarily complementary and both achievable. Do you agree with this statement? I do not agree with this statement. I have seen a lot of discussion and dialogue about the global impacts of social inequalities. Some of the outcomes of the recession are a good example of what happens when there is a lack of social infrastructure and it’s a grave risk that is acknowledged by business leaders as well. If we truly want to move forward as a developed nation, as knowledgeable global citizens, social disparities need to be addressed at the local, provincial, national and international level. As a very wealthy nation, as informed citizens we can’t afford not to work towards reducing environmental disparities.


Michael Buzzelli
Associate Professor
Departmant of Geography
University of Western Ontario

Environmental Justice in Canada – It Matters Where You Live