The Globe spoke to Ingrid Waldron, author of There’s Something In The Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities. Her findings led to Ellen Page’s recent Netflix documentary There’s Something In The Water, in which she explores toxic fallout created by industry and deliberately placed in low-income – often Black and Indigenous – communities.
In her book, Dr. Waldron uses Nova Scotia’s Africville as a case study for environmental racism in Canada. It’s a story not often taught in school, but worth remembering as anti-racism protests erupt across the world demanding equality and a closer look at systems in need of reform.
How are minority, and specifically Indigenous and Black communities, affected disproportionately by environmental racism?
It starts with policy. Environmental racism in general is about the fact that Indigenous and Black communities are disproportionately selected for the siting of polluting industries by government. It is about the ways in which racist ideologies and classist ideologies get written into environmental policies. That’s the subtlety of environmental racism – that it doesn’t necessarily happen overtly, although the outcomes are very overt. But it happens institutionally.
While Canadians might not want to think about that because it seems very purposeful, and that’s uncomfortable. But that’s the way racism works, not just in terms of the environment, but in general in society, in every single institution.
What would your explanation be about Africville to someone who hasn’t heard about it?
Shockingly, I only heard about Africville when I was doing my PhD. I would say it’s a historical example of environmental racism, but I would also say it’s an example of both gentrification and environmental racism.
There was a bulldozing of that community to make way for industry. They were literally pushed out of their community. Their church was actually burned down one night as a way to kind of get them out of there.
Africville, to me, is the city of Halifax trying to expropriate a group of individuals who didn’t necessarily matter to them. But in the wake of that expropriation came a lot of hazards. There were two systems of railway tracks. There was a dump. There was a cotton factory, and there were a lot of environmental hazards that were left after the community was pushed out.
What are some of the impacts these decisions had on people?
They have a social impact, and they certainly have an emotional and mental health impact. The people who are decedents of Africville, many of whom are still living, actually tried to launch a class-action lawsuit in 2016, which was thrown out. But they’re still suffering the ramification of what happened all the way back in 1967.
When you tear apart people’s sense of community, social support networks, it’s considered to be a social determinant of health. We tend to focus on industry and economics and the financial aspects, and the pollutants and the contaminants. I’m also trying to look at the trauma.
Can you speak to any of the environmental ramifications?
It is about degradation of land. It’s this sense of ownership that industry and government feel they have when they impose themselves onto, for example, Indigenous land. We’re all on Indigenous land.
So the fact that you’re imposing yourself onto people’s land without consultation, without their permission, the result is often environmental degradation and contamination of their water, and air pollution, in many instances. And then what results from that is often very serious health issues like high rates of cancer.
What you do to the land, you do to our bodies.
Could you name some other examples outside Nova Scotia in our past or present? Obviously the clean water crisis is the first thing that comes to mind for me.
In my book, I talk about Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which is near Sarnia, Ont. It’s often referred to as Chemical Valley. And that’s because it’s surrounded by 62 refineries, which is outrageous. They have extremely high rates of cancer, and they have high rates of reproductive health issues.
Then there’s Grassy Narrows First Nation. There are a lot of health issues that came out of that case – people are still dealing with the health issues and skin rashes on children.
In Alberta, there’s the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation and the tar sands, and there’s also Saskatchewan’s Uranium City. You’ve also got instances in British Columbia. In the book, I talk specifically about Indigenous communities like West Moberly First Nations, Halfway River First Nations and Log River First Nation. But there’s the more recent case, Wetsu’wet’en, that got a lot of media attention since 2018.
And there’s the case in New Brunswick that kind of came to a head in 2013 – Elsipogtog First Nation.
There are people in Canada who say we don’t have the same roots of racism and systems of oppression that the U.S. has. How do you respond to this?
I would say that racism certainly shows up differently in the United States versus in Canada. They make racism visible in a way that Canada doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen here. It just shows up differently.
If you can continue to deny and dismiss and pretend, then you actually don’t have to do anything because you can always pretend you’re ignorant. I think we have enough cases of George Floyd. It’s been happening over and over again. How many angles do you need of George Floyd dying at the hands of that policeman? It’s their way of stalling to not do anything.
What else can and should be done going forward?
I think the education system is really important – educating them the right way and getting teachers who are not afraid to talk about racism. But even if they’re afraid, which I get, providing teachers with the support so they can get into these really uncomfortable issues.
Engaging Black and Indigenous communities in much more culturally specific ways so we don’t see only white people on decision-making boards.
I also think there’s a place for protest. Protests are great for bringing light to an issue, but if they’re not followed up by structural change and policy change, a protest means nothing.
The protests around police killings have been heartwarming. But what happens tomorrow? What happens next week?
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