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A Canadian flag flies near the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Oct. 23, 2019.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When Parliament returns to the House of Commons and Senate after the winding down of pandemic shutdowns, one of the bills coming to the floor will address the emerging issue of environmental racism in Canada.

The term refers to the disproportionate placement of polluting industries near minority communities, most often those of Indigenous and Black peoples, which can result in serious health issues, among other social detriments.

Bill C-230, also known as the National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act, was introduced as a private member’s bill by Nova Scotia MP Lenore Zann.

Author Ingrid Waldron on Africville and the history of environmental racism in Canada

Private member’s bills rarely become law. But if this one passes, Canada would create a national strategy to promote efforts across the country to redress the harm caused by environmental racism. The bill was seconded by former Green Party leader Elizabeth May and is moving on to second reading in the House.

“We want to work with the municipal governments, provincial governments, the First Nations people, of course, and other racialized groups to first of all do an assessment where [these problems] exist," Ms. Zann said, "and make sure that it doesn’t keep happening.”

While the bill has been dubbed the first of its kind in North America, it isn’t her first time introducing such a piece of legislation. In 2017, she introduced a similar provincial private member’s bill in Nova Scotia’s legislature.

Ms. Zann had worked on the initial bill with Ingrid Waldron, an associate professor at Dalhousie University and author of There’s something in the water: Environmental racism in Indigenous & Black communities.

“She had said that of all the politicians that she had reached out to, no one wanted to meet with her except for me,” Ms. Zann said.

In her book, Dr. Waldron uses the gentrification and destruction of Africville, a Black community in Nova Scotia, as a historic example of environmental discrimination. A class-action lawsuit had been denied for the expropriation of land.

“I really think a piece of the puzzle is legislation,” she said in an interview. “Having a bill like that is actually key, because it sets out certain recommendations that the government has to follow.”

As NDP provincial environment critic at the time, Ms. Zann took on the initiative. She introduced the private member’s bill, knowing it likely wouldn’t pass.

“Because at the very least we will bring it to the public attention and if we could get it to second reading, it could be debated on the floor of the House and it would force politicians to address the issue and talk about it,” she said.

Even though it didn’t pass, to her surprise the gallery was full on the day of first reading. At second reading, the gallery was full, as well.

“To be honest, it was great to see so many African Nova Scotians in the gallery, and so many First Nations people in the gallery," she said. "I had not seen that many people in the public gallery in my six years already in the provincial legislature.”

One example of environmental racism that Ms. Zann mentions is a pulp mill near Pictou Landing First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community in Nova Scotia. The industrial plant there has been emitting brown, foul-smelling waste and the effluent treatment facility has been said to cause respiratory and skin illnesses. The mill was ordered to stop pumping effluent into Boat Harbour this past January, after more than 50 years of polluting the lagoon.

Dr. Waldron names many instances across Canada, but says she is most concerned by what is known as “Chemical Valley,” at Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ont. “They have extremely high rates of cancer and they have high rates of reproductive-health issues,” she said.

Shortly after Ms. Zann had moved on to become a Liberal MP, she introduced the federal version of the provincial bill. Again with the help of Dr. Waldron and legislative lawyers, she had been told it would likely get to second reading by late April before the pandemic hit. Now, she hopes it will make it by the fall.

She has approached senators about the bill, anticipating that it could eventually pass to the Red Chamber, and received support from some, including Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, the first African-Nova Scotian to hold a tenure-track position at Dalhousie University.

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