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In whose backyard? - video documents environmental racism in Nova Scotia

by Robert Devet

See video

K'JIPUKTUK (Halifax)

Lincolnville, Sunnyville, Upper Tracadie, North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Lake Loon, Acadia First Nation, Membertou, Eskasoni, Indian Brook, Beechville.

These are all communities in Nova Scotia with two things in common. Toxic industries, landfills and waste dumps are situated close to where people live, and the population is predominantly African-Nova Scotian or Mi'kmaw.

Many people who live there fear that toxics in their environment cause higher than normal cancer rates, asthma, skin problems, and so on.

A new video, In Whose Backyard?, documents the thoughts and fears of members of these communities. We meet people who talk about not being heard by governments and industries, about how they worry about their health, how angry they are, how powerless they feel.

The video is one of the outcomes of ENRICH, a community-driven project managed by Ingrid Waldron, a researcher associated with the Dalhousie School of Nursing.

The video is produced by Pink Dog Productions, a Halifax based video production company specializing in videos for not-for-profit and art organizations.

Waldron's team, together with local facilitators, conducted four workshops in various parts of the province, and also organized a larger meeting in Halifax where representatives from all communities met and shared experiences.

Waldron thinks that the combination of a toxic environment and a mostly racialized and poor population is no coincidence.

James Desmond, who lives in Lincolnville, an African Nova Scotian commmunity in Guysborough County that borders a landfill, agrees.

"The practice has been to locate industrial waste sites next to African-Nova Scotian communities, native communities, poor white communities, communities that don't have an economic base to fight back," says Desmond in the video.

"And you ask the question, is it environmental racism? It is environmental racism to the core."

Other community members in the video talk about the stress associated with living in a poisoned environment.

"As a kid I would always go back there and play in the mud. I never knew until now. It's scary to think I was playing in oil and everything," says Cheneyce Battiste, who lives in Acadia First Nation, in Yarmouth County.

Waldron is well aware of the perception raised in much studied communities when yet another academic researcher comes knocking.

"Researched to death is the typical statement made and [community members] don't want this to be another research project that comes in, collects data, uses community, and leaves to never return again," Waldron tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

"That just makes me more adamant that I do my very best to ensure that my goals will be realized," says Waldron.

Goals like supporting residents in their efforts to mobilize on health effects associated with toxic industries and waste dumps, getting governments to pay attention, and fostering ties between the communities that have so much in common.

Waldron is planning to conduct a survey and an analysis of health insurance data to strengthen the community members' case.

Statistics are very important, but they are not the whole story, Waldron says.

"[Our approach] is premised on experiences, ideas articulated by community members themselves, in their own words. And it takes place in a real life context," says Waldron.

"When you are working with marginalized and racialized communities, statistics alone just don't cut it, because you want to know the why and how. The only way you get that is through the voices of participants."

And race is always part of the equation.

"We ask, why does this happen to racialized communities and why communities with a high number of working poor? Is it about how we value people? Is it about who we see in this society as not being worthy?" Waldron asks.

"What you are questioning is whiteness, the privilege of whiteness, hierarchical relations in society that are based on race. Power and privilege is central to that."

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert



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