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

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Hon. Marty Klyne: Honourable senators, I rise to speak in support of Bill C-226, a bill sponsored by Senator McCallum. The legislation proposes a requirement for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to create a national strategy to help promote efforts to address the harm caused by environmental racism. This is Parliament’s second attempt at passing this legislation after its predecessor Bill C-230 died on the Order Paper at the conclusion of the Forty-third Parliament. I hope that together we can get this version of the bill across the finish line.

I support this bill because environmental racism is an issue that successive governments have failed to address, and because efforts to address this issue are overdue and it’s time to come to terms with this problem. Bill C-226 is an important component of reconciliation, not just with Indigenous peoples but with all people who have had their lands or waters poisoned, their air quality worsened and their lives harmed because of this type of discrimination — a form of high-handedness, if you will.

There’s no universally accepted definition of “environmental racism.” As we know from Senator McCallum’s speech, one definition refers to it broadly as discrimination in environmental policy-making. To that I add, “or lack thereof.” This can mean making decisions without due care and attention in spite of impacting an overrepresentation of racialized or marginalized communities for waste facilities and related infrastructure, by allowing life-threatening pollutants to exist at high levels in communities mainly populated by minority groups or by excluding minority voices from leadership positions in the environmental movement. While exact definitions will differ, the problem is straightforward.

While racism is widely recognized and understood, the concept of environmental racism is sometimes questioned. So what are we talking about?

For generations, governments and civil societies have made decisions on the environment that had disproportionately negative effects on racialized and marginalized communities. Oftentimes, those decisions were made without input or consultation from the affected communities. One only need look at Canada’s record on environmental policy to conclude that environmental racism is undeniable. I’ll share some examples in a few moments.

Perhaps senators may have heard another phrase that can be confusing: that climate change has a racial aspect. However, this is common sense when we consider that Western industrialized countries have built-up their economies by disproportionately burning fossil fuels, which at the same time has caused disproportionate harms to less developed regions of the world. Indeed, at COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, leaders from Africa argued that the continent would require $1.3 trillion in funding over the next two decades to provide for climate adaptation and mitigation.

The effects are already being seen. A report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies noted that climate-related disasters and extreme weather events were responsible for the deaths of more than 410,000 people, mostly in lower-income countries.

One of the biggest challenges when discussing environmental racism stems from the fact that the conversation tends to be closely associated with jobs and economic development. When we discuss environmental racism, we tend to think about things like paper mills, manufacturing plants, waste treatment plants and mining operations, all examples of businesses that can have a large environmental impact and that are usually located away from the typical suburban downtown. These facilities often employ many people, and they support significant economic activity across Canada. Often, the jobs found in these types of facilities pay good salaries, offer benefits and allow people to plan for retirement. We cannot, and should not, discount any of those things.

Yet, when we call upon the government to address environmental racism, that often means asking government to have difficult conversations with the companies which employ our friends, family and neighbours. It’s no easy task for elected officials to decide to close a local mill or to tell a large employer it must do more to address environmental concerns. It’s even more difficult to tell those companies that their actions have disproportionately affected racialized peoples. Often, those companies will fight back and governments will back down, preferring to let the status quo remain rather than fight for what’s right.

That’s why I support this bill because it will help the federal government make a positive change — at the very least, make a change going forward, even when that may be difficult to do.

Allow me to share some examples of what environmental racism looks like in Canada. I’ll begin with a story from my home province. As we all know, rural Canada is dotted with small towns and settlements. Northern Saskatchewan is no different. It’s a large space with few people but plenty of natural beauty. Many who live in northern Saskatchewan are Indigenous and their connection to the land is sacred. However, northern Saskatchewan is also well-known for uranium mining. In fact, northern Saskatchewan is home to the largest high-grade uranium deposits in the world. As with most resource extraction industries, uranium mining can have an impact on the environment. Sadly, this impact seems to have fallen disproportionately on the Indigenous peoples who have lived on those lands since time immemorial.

One such example is Uranium City. It’s a small settlement located just below the border that divides Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories on the traditional territory of the Chipewyan Dene people. As Uranium City’s name would suggest, the town was once a hot spot for uranium mining and its population exploded into the 1950s. For a short time, the town and others like it boomed as the mines carried out their operations. Today, the city as it was known, Uranium City, a small settlement, no longer exists other than stranded remnants.

While uranium mines were profitable, the Dene and other Indigenous peoples were often not able to share in the economic prosperity the mines created. Not only were they subject to racism and discriminatory hiring practices, but they were subjected to dangerous radioactive dust and tailings that were created by mining activity. Many Indigenous workers were not told about the dangers associated with working at the mining sites, and many would later die of cancer or experience other health issues.

The mining operations near Uranium City closed in the 1980s. Sadly, little was done initially to remediate the land. Cleaning up former mining sites has taken decades and has been mired in legal disputes and jurisdictional challenges. Meanwhile, those who worked in and around mines like these often suffered from high rates of lung cancer and other health issues years after their employment ended.

The voice of the local Dene people wasn’t heard when the mines were being built. Their voices weren’t heard when their health began to fail. And their voices weren’t heard when governments and corporations alike left the land to decay after the mines closed.

Sadly, the uranium mines of Northern Canada are not the only example of environmental racism in our country. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that today these mines are very mindful of environmental, social and governance issues and corporate responsibility. Let’s face it, most of these mines, mills, cement plants and the like can’t simply pick up their power lines, gas lines and deposits, and then move elsewhere and leave a stranded community behind.

Nonetheless, we’ve heard similar examples of environmental racism in places like Boat Harbour, Nova Scotia, where effluent has been dumped into the waterways that Pictou Landing First Nation has relied on for decades. Another example can also be found here in Ontario on the lands of Grassy Narrows First Nation. Theirs is a story of poisoned water and the impact it has had on generations of families.

For generations, there has been a paper mill in Dryden, Ontario. A mill is still in operation to this day. Yet, its history is stained. In the 1960s and 1970s, the mill’s chemical plant dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River. The mercury poisoned the river, which the people of Grassy Narrows depended on to catch fish. Health problems related to mercury poisoning have persisted in the community ever since. At first, neither the company nor the provincial government would accept responsibility for what had happened. It would be years before a legal settlement was reached, but by then it was far too late.

For a final example, I turn to Nova Scotia. It’s a story about a community from the past whose legacy lives on. Decades ago, in what is known today as North End Halifax, there existed a community called Africville. It was a small, predominantly Black community, and former residents have called it a happy place with vibrant community connections and a sense of family. Yet the community was treated poorly by the City of Halifax. The city neglected to provide Africville with services it had given to other neighbourhoods over the years, such as street lights, garbage pickup and even indoor plumbing. To make matters worse, the city would often use Africville and the surrounding area as a dumping ground for services that would never have been well received in other communities, such as a fertilizer plant, a prison, a slaughterhouse and, yes, a dump — all located inside or in close proximity to a community of 400 people, people whose voices were ignored.

When we think about environmental racism, I don’t think we should think about things like paper mills or uranium mines, nor should we think about the economic activity those facilities can generate. When we think about environmental racism, we should think about the Dene men who worked in those mines and who died of cancer. We should think about grandmothers living in Grassy Narrows First Nation who are worried that the mercury poisoning that destroyed their health will one day affect their granddaughter’s health too. We should think about a small Black community, ignored by its city and used as a dumping ground. That’s what environmental racism looks like, and they are who we should be thinking about when considering Bill C-226.

A national strategy will help in very specific ways. First, we need to ensure that the marginalized communities are consulted and their voices are heard and included in decision-making processes related to their environment. These communities should have a say in what happens in their neighbourhoods. With a national strategy, we can learn from past mistakes and move forward in a more inclusive way. Also, a national strategy will help to determine what future steps and targeted investments are necessary for sustainable development in marginalized communities and, I will add to that, with much resilience.

A national strategy is an important first step toward planning for a better tomorrow and for ending environmental racism.

Personally, I find little in this bill that can be objected to. I was surprised to learn that the bill had not been agreed to unanimously in the other place, so I’d like to address some of the concerns that were raised during the debate.

Issues were raised regarding the effectiveness of creating another national strategy. To me, hard or easy has got nothing to do with it. And others stressed the importance of recognizing regional differences and provincial jurisdiction. Let’s “step forward.” Let’s “step up.” I appreciate those criticisms, but I believe that a legislative tool like a national strategy is required to address the challenges faced by those who are experiencing environmental racism.

While I appreciate the concern that this is yet another national strategy and that it adds one more piece to Canada’s complicated environmental policy regime, the evidence is clear that such a strategy is needed to address issues being experienced by racialized peoples. They have as much of a right to a healthy environment as other Canadians and, as of 2023, they’re being denied that right.

When we vote on this bill, I hope that senators will think about the communities most impacted by environmental racism. These communities can’t wait any longer, and this is an issue we can no longer ignore. I hope that senators will lend their support to Bill C-226 so we can move it to committee and take one more step on the path towards making Canada a more equitable place for all people. Thank you. Hiy kitatamîhin.

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