Second reading of Bill C-226, National Strategy Respecting Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Bill

By: The Hon. Michèle Audette

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Hon. Michèle Audette: [Editor’s Note: Senator Audette spoke in an Indigenous language.]

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-226, An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice.

In preparation, I did my homework so I could understand this definition and where it comes from. According to Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice, I have come to understand that it means the following, and I quote:

Any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.

As I continued my research, I read Elizabeth May’s speech on this bill at second reading and I also came to understand the following, and I quote:

One of the things I know from cleaning up the Sydney tar ponds with Clotilda is that we can recognize as a reality that toxic chemicals do not discriminate. They do not pay attention to the colour of our skin when they lodge in our body, when they pass through placenta to children, when they cause cancer and when they cause birth defects. They do not care about the colour of our skin. However, the public policy that puts indigenous peoples and communities of colour far more frequently at risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals does notice skin colour. It does notice whether we are marginalized or not. It does notice whether we have money or not.

First Peoples have been experiencing environmental racism ever since the Doctrine of Discovery emerged from the papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued in 1455.

According to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, this doctrine, which relates to the older concept of terra nullius, has enshrined the principle whereby any Christian monarch who discovers non-Christian lands has the right to proclaim them his own, because they belong to no one.

It took the Vatican 568 years to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I’m sure my colleagues will agree that this is one more step towards reconciliation — an important step.

However, today, in 2023, the pillaging of land and resources, the lack of access to or the isolation of reserves are still real. The damage and harmful impacts have continued to this day.

Environmental racism is also the cause of the community impoverishment, and the loss of our culture and our customs. This environmental racism has also diminished our food sources.

Environmental racism also plays a role in the creation of mining projects without the participation or consent of communities, and it pollutes the environment of these communities, their fauna, their flora and their waterways.

My home in Matimekush-Lac-John, Schefferville, has the biggest 18 holes in the world. However, I’m not talking about golf holes, but mining holes. In this very community, Conrad André, in an article published on June 8, 2022 on Radio‑Canada’s Internet site, asked the following question, and I quote:

How is it that IOC makes billions, but there is not one single Innu millionaire here?

In that very community, Mathieu André, an Innu born 50 kilometres northwest of Schefferville, discovered the first iron deposit near Knob Lake in the 1930s.

This discovery led in part to the iron rush in the border region of Labrador and Quebec. Mathieu André is now in Caribou country, but his son Luc says that after his father’s discovery, Labrador Mining was able to develop the land, promising the people and the Innus a percentage of the profits it would make from the deposits.

However, he said, and I quote:

We never got anything. We met the mining company and we were told that if they had to give something to one person, they would have to give to everyone.

In Ontario, Aamjiwnaang First Nation is surrounded by 50 industrial plants within a 24-kilometre radius of its territory. Their people are disproportionately exposed to toxic substances such as sulphur dioxide, benzene, mercury and others. A 30‑year‑old chair of the local environment committee, Janelle Nahmabin, says she has grown increasingly frustrated at seeing her community shoulder the health risks of industries operating in the area:

Quite frankly, we’ve been here for a millennia — forever. For us to have to continuously be the ones accommodating, I’m done with that. I’m done with having to compromise our health, our mental well-being, our safety, for everybody else.

She also adds that asthma and other breathing problems, along with rashes, headaches and high cancer rates, are among the most prevalent health issues on the reserve.

Shelburne, Nova Scotia, according to a CBC interview with Louise Delisle, a resident of Shelburne, the community’s history with cancer, disease and death are connected to the dumping ground for industrial and sometimes even medical waste just around the corner. Ms. Delisle said:

The majority of the black men in the community have died from cancer . . . There’s a community of widows in Shelburne. That’s what it is.

We also find a map compiled by the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health Project showing dozens of waste disposal sites in close proximity to communities, either Black communities or Indigenous populations. The map also encompasses dozens of stories similar to Shelburne’s story, where we can find a dump and slaughterhouse built near Halifax’s Africville in the late 1700s, a paper mill’s effluent pond next to the Pictou Landing First Nation and yet more landfills built in the Black community of Lincolnville in Guysborough County.

Dr. Ingrid Waldron, who also co-produced the film There’s Something in the Water, says:

It’s not only about health and stress. It’s about lack of power, that you’ve placed certain industries in certain communities without consulting with them. You’ve taken away their power, you’ve taken away their voice, and you’ve placed it in communities that are not only racialized but that are also poor.

The Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, which has been singled out for releasing above-acceptable levels of 23 contaminants, is now planning to expand a buffer zone. A total of 200 homes will be demolished and the people who live there will have to relocate — families, children, Quebecers and many others. Why is this happening? Because the smelter is exempted from Quebec’s airborne arsenic emission standard, as it was in operation long before these environmental standards came into effect.

Need I remind everyone that the concentration of arsenic in young children’s fingernails is four times higher in this region? Need I remind everyone that in 1940, again in the same region, no one could swim in Osisko Lake, between Noranda and Rouyn? In 1979, the Quebec government was warned of the dangers the Horne smelter posed to children in the Notre-Dame district, who had two to three times higher levels of arsenic in their hair.

The same issues have been raised in Canadian Family Physician, the official journal of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, last August. The abstract to this article reads as follows:

You are a family physician doing a locum in northwestern Ontario. Your next patient is a 6-year-old child who presents with chronic fatigue and paresthesia in their extremities. Upon physical examination, you also discover bilateral hearing impairment. You recall reading in the news that, years ago, 10,000 kg of mercury were dumped into the Wabigoon River, thereby polluting downstream water and poisoning the fish that sustain communities such as . . . (Grassy Narrows) First Nation. In addition to other investigations, you conduct a 24-h urine mercury test for the patient and ascertain that they have abnormal mercury levels. How do you treat this patient? How do you respond to this issue at the community level? To what extent do you consider how the environment, history, and economic factors contributed to this patient’s presentation?

This is despite the fact we know that Indigenous communities are often the most impacted when the worst happens, like the two oil spills in Alberta last year which were identified months before First Nations were notified.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples of the world, and it must be implemented in Canada.

A national strategy to assess and prevent environmental racism must absolutely be rooted in that declaration and carry the voices of the original stewards of these lands.

Other interesting solutions are put forward by the authors of the article in Canadian Family Physician, which the strategy should take into account:

First, as health care providers and Canadians, we need to educate ourselves about the true history of Canada. Second, we should become aware that environmental racism exists in our country, and as per the CanMEDS-Family Medicine Indigenous Health Supplement, we must “challenge the systems that we work in to make changes to racist processes and policy.” We know racialized communities are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and we know this has profound health implications. If we want to address health from a proactive and preventive standpoint, we must advocate for sustainable change and listen to the voices of those who are affected.

A national strategy must also include provisions related to education, public input in environmental decision making, self‑determination for communities in matters related to water, food production, housing distribution, energy, transportation and the creation of an environmental bill of rights.

Simply put, environmental racism is very much a reality in Canada. As the United Nations has declared, a healthy environment is a human right. Let’s give ourselves the means to counter environmental racism and move towards environmental justice.

I say to you once again, we cannot change history, but we can and we must change our present, to adopt a more responsible attitude in an effort to fix the mistakes of the past and to write a new chapter together.

Thank you, senator, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. Of course I support this bill. Together, I know we have the power to change things, big and small.

Thank you.

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