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

By: The Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard

Share this post:

Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard: Thank you, Your Honour. I also want to congratulate and welcome you as our Speaker.

Honourable senators, I stand today in support of Bill C-226, the national strategy respecting environmental racism and environmental justice act. I want to acknowledge that we are on the unceded, unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Nation, and I live in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. These acknowledgements are particularly important to me today given this topic of environmental racism. Thank you to Elizabeth May and Lenore Zann for their work in the other place. Thank you to Senator McCallum for sponsoring this very important bill here in the Senate and for sharing your ways of knowing and being. It truly is a gift.

Honourable senators, when I talk about marginalized communities, I am talking about groups of people who are, at times, physically on the margins of communities. Think about the outskirts of major city centres. You’ll see landfills, industry and undesirable sites. You will also see racialized communities. When I say the name of a community to our south, Flint, Michigan, most Canadians understand the expanse of the devastating drinking water crisis impacting African Americans. Let me tell you that we have many communities like Flint, Michigan right here in Canada, many of which are still living under conditions that are killing them.

One of the most widely known examples of environmental racism of a marginalized community in Canada is the story of Africville. Senator Klyne talked about Africville in his speech on this bill. Let me add a bit more. Africville was a vibrant community of African Nova Scotians. An open-pit dump was placed 350 metres from this seaside community. They did not have clean drinking water. Throughout the 170 years that Africville existed, a railway extension was installed through the community and the Halifax Explosion damaged the community. An infectious disease hospital was built nearby, along with a human waste disposal pit, a prison and slaughterhouses. It was also the location chosen for a fertilizer production plant.

Imagine a location surrounded by hazardous sites, the last place on earth that you would allow your children and grandchildren to grow up nearby. Those were the conditions forced upon Africville. Located in the city of Halifax, they were denied basic services, such as city water and sewer. Instead of providing services, the city chose to relocate the residents of Africville. During the forceful relocation of Africville in 1967, some community members were transported to public housing in the North End by the City of Halifax using garbage trucks. If that doesn’t show you how African Nova Scotians were seen by the government, I don’t know what would. To this day, I hear of anecdotal stories about the staggering number of former Africville residents who have died of various forms of cancer. The community has connected the dots, and perhaps the government should too.

My gratitude goes to the fierce community activists and advocates who have been mobilizing for decades to protect the health and safety of their communities. African-Canadian Professor Dr. Ingrid Waldron published a book called There’s Something in the Water, which reveals one of Nova Scotia’s hardest and most shameful truths: the pervasive nature of environmental racism against Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotians.

This book was used to create a documentary highlighting the devastation of racialized Nova Scotians. The film brings the viewer through the African-Nova Scotian community of Shelburne with local advocate Louise Delisle, who lists the people who have died or are ill with lung cancer and multiple myelomas. These families have no option to move, and even if they did, they would be leaving their homes and be separated from their communities.

Although the dump has been removed, the buried waste contaminates their water. Louise describes her childhood memories of the black smoke that regularly engulfed the skies of her neighbourhood as piles of hazardous waste from the hospitals, factories and residences were burned. She remembers arriving at school smelling like burnt garbage.

Nearby, in Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia, is a Mi’kmaw community absolutely devastated by the toxic waste from the Northern Pulp mill contaminating the water.

The Grassroots Grandmothers are a group of women water protectors who fight for the human right for their community’s access to clean drinking water. Colleagues, please take one hour to watch the documentary There’s Something in the Water and learn more about Canada’s own environmental racism crisis.

We could name many communities: Whitney Pier, the Sydney tar ponds, Membertou, Lincolnville, Indian Brook — colleagues, there are so many examples. In my own community of East Preston, residents have been advocating against plans to designate a dump nearby for decades. In a 2016 letter of protest, Spencer Colley documented three examples of locating dumps in or near the Preston communities, which are the largest Black communities in Nova Scotia: in 1992 near East Lake in North Preston, in 1997 in North Preston and then, in 2016, the proposal to relocate a facility from Porters Lake to East Preston opposite Highway 107, Exit 17, where I live.

Colleagues, policy-making on environmental issues must not exclude race as the two are intrinsically tied. We can map out Nova Scotia by sites of dumps and hazardous industry alongside Indigenous and African-Nova Scotian communities. The environment, race and land have always been tied and always will be.

Eddie Carvery’s protest against the forceful relocation of the residents of Africville will always remind us of that.

In her book, Ingrid Waldron states that:

State-sanctioned racial and gendered violence is subtle, invisible, and often has no specific person who can (or will) be . . . responsible, in contrast to interpersonal violence where a main perpetrator can be identified.

Since there is no one specific person, it is necessary to obligate all policy-makers to make decisions based on what is good for the communities nearby.

This bill proposes a national strategy to examine the link between race and environmental hazards and the locations of hazardous sites. It seeks to address federal laws, policies and programs pertaining to environmental justice; examine compensation for communities impacted and collect information on health outcomes to give us the data to prove what community residents have known for decades: that environmental racism is detrimental to our health.

Honourable colleagues, these communities are no strangers to advocating for themselves, and it’s time the Senate advocated for them. Environmental racism is a great example of colonization doing its job: wiping out Indigenous and Black people in Canada.

Reconciliation cannot happen without putting a stop to environmental racism. Let’s send this bill to committee quickly. This is not a topic to debate; it’s a topic to act upon quickly. We are ready to make policy solutions that will save the lives of some of the most marginalized people in Canada.

Thank you. Asante.


Share this post: