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Facing environmental racism and white privilege

Group wants Bill 111 proclaimed without further delays

by Robert Devet

The ENRICH project, an initiative that highlights environmental racism in Nova Scotia, continues to gain momentum. We talked with project lead Dr. Ingrid Waldron on the initiative, efforts to get Bill 111 proclaimed, and the many ways white privilege manifests in Nova Scotia.
The ENRICH project, an initiative that highlights environmental racism in Nova Scotia, continues to gain momentum. We talked with project lead Dr. Ingrid Waldron on the initiative, efforts to get Bill 111 proclaimed, and the many ways white privilege manifests in Nova Scotia.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - In Nova Scotia a disproportionate number of African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw communities are in close proximity to landfills, incinerators, sewage treatment plants and other toxic industries.

Residents in communities such as Lincolnville, the Prestons, Cherry Brook, Acadia First Nation, Membertou and Eskasoni worry what that does to their health.

Many community members say the provincial government is ignoring their concerns.

Dr. Ingrid Waldron, an Assistant Professor at the Dalhousie School of Nursing, agrees. Waldron, who has been working with affected community members for several years, names environmental racism as the root of the issue.

She wants the provincial government to investigate its own role in perpetuating the situation.

This spring NDP MLA Lenore Zann, working closely with Waldron and her team, tabled Bill 111 – An Act to Address Environmental Racism.

As Bills go, this is a pretty innocuous one.

“Bill 111 doesn't say that you have to address environmental racism,” Waldron explains. “Just consult with communities, that is all we ask. It's a safe bill. We wanted to present something that a government could not say no to. Not to suggest that it's enough, but it's a first step in solving the problem. ”

Nonetheless, during the spring session Bill 111 made it past First Reading, but no further. Waldron hopes to revive the private member's bill during the Fall session, set to begin on November 12.

The legislation isn't the only concern. For a couple of years, now Dr. Ingrid Waldron and her team have been working with community members to better understand how environmental racism plays out in Nova Scotia.

After several meetings with the affected communities and many often frustrating encounters with government representatives, Waldron feels that the issues are coming more sharply in focus.

“We have a general sense from the earlier community meetings, but at this time we are asking pointed questions about what the issues are and how they should be addressed. Now we need to document more precisely what the community members concerns are,” Waldron says.

Focus groups have been formed in the affected communities for a larger research study, and working groups are being created to identify effective strategies for cleaning up the waste sites, conducting soil and water testing, and mobilizing affected community members and the general public.

In addition, a survey will soon be sent to affected community members to assess the association between residence near environmental hazards and psychological distress

As well, a map will soon be posted on the ENRICH website that shows just how many African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw communities have a dump in close proximity, says Waldron.

“This map is crucial because it allows you to make the link that it is highly probable that the high number of illnesses in a community is due to the proximity of this toxic site."

"While you can never say definitively that a particular pollutant causes a particular illness, the fact that there is high probability of elevated health risks in communities that are close to a toxic waste site is significant. One hundred percent scientific validity should not be a requirement for the government to take action," Waldron says.

To be clear, when Waldron uses the term racism she is not thinking of the cross-burning variety.

“Environmental racism is simply another manifestation of structural forms of racism that are so subtle that you cannot point to any particular institution or person There is a system and a structure in society that is invisible and privileges particular people, privileges their thoughts, privileges their history, their ideas and ideologies,” Waldron says.

“White privilege is a feature of our society, like other forms of privilege such as gender (male) privilege, privilege of class and the privilege of able-bodiedness. We are all part of it. It is very difficult to detect because we all live in that world, it has become normative.”

"In order to take the issue of environmental racism seriously, government must acknowledge how environmental racism manifests within existing structures and institutions that privilege the attitudes, ideologies and priorities of white people, as well as the spaces in which they operate. Environmental racism also privileges the lives and well-being of white people when waste sites and other environmental hazards are disproportionately located in communities of colour," Waldron adds.

Waldron wants our government to recognize that environmental racism is a reality in Nova Scotia, and do something about it.

That means taking a hard look at the link between illnesses in communities and the toxic industries that exist in their backyards. It also means cleaning up the existing dumps.

And, very importantly, it means fixing the processes that allowed the toxic industries to be located there in the first place.

The Department of Environment argues that there is an Environmental Impact Assessment process, and their website describes how it all works. As well, indigenous communities have a separate consultative process written into policy.

That may be so, but it clearly isn't working, Waldron counters. 

“You need to share info in culturally applicable ways, and understand that some people may not go on your website and simply may not understand the process,” she says. “Sometimes it is best to simply go down to the community and speak with them directly.”

Meanwhile, the ENRICH project continues to grow and expand. Many students are eager to take part, and experts in waste management and cleanup have also joined. The Ecology Action Centre and NSPIRG have thrown their full weight behind the project.

“I love the energy especially of the students,” Waldron says.

But there is more to it.

"We are all complicit when it comes to environmental racism, however, it is the privilege of whiteness that enables white allies to enter spaces that will be closed to communities of colour, such as meetings with government officials. While this is not fair, it is the reality in this world. Therefore, white allies have an important role to play in the ENRICH Project.”

She also offers a word of caution.

“When white allies say that they want to help, it suggests that they are not complicit, that they are not part of the problem, that they stand outside of the problem and that it is somebody else's problem. When we come to understand that it is our problem and that we are part of the problem together only then will we begin to take seriously the issue of environmental racism and address it as a community, regardless of class, race, gender and other social differences.”


Click here to support the effort to proclaim Bill 111. Check the ENRICH website for updates on a formal hard-copy petition the group will launch shortly.

See also:

Playing partisan politics with environmental racism

We're on the back of others that have paved the way for us

In Whose Backyard. Video documents environmental racism in Nova Scotia

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter


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