Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ontario, is ringed by some 60 toxin-spewing petrochemical plants, more than any other community in Canada. That kind of environmental racism is the motivation for a private member’s bill currently before the House of Commons that calls for a national program to help communities measure the impacts they face.
“If passed, Bill C-230 would be the first legislation in Canada to require the federal government to collect statistical information on the location of environmental hazards across Canada, as well as the links between race, socioeconomic status, and health outcomes,” writes CBC News.
Aamjiwnaang Environment Committee Chair Janelle Nahmabin told CBC that while her Nation believes poor air quality is contributing to elevated asthma and cancer rates (local air monitoring stations have recorded unsafe levels of toxic chemicals like benzene), scientific proof is still needed. Having Bill C-230 on the books could galvanize the federal government to gather the data, she said.
Introduced by Nova Scotia Liberal MP Lenore Zann with the support and advice of Ingrid Waldron, associate professor in Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Health, the bill would also require Ottawa to “compensate affected communities and ensure they are involved in future environmental policy-making.”
The bill comes nearly two years after a United Nations special rapporteur declared Aamjiwnaang First Nation—along with many other communities living under the weight of a toxic legacy that has routinely plotted out inequitable access to clean air and water—to be victims of environmental racism.
“There exists a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada,” writes CBC, quoting from the UN report.
“There’s something that all of these communities that I’ve looked at, and also the communities that I’ve met, share—they all have very high rates of cancer, high rates of rare cancers and respiratory illness,” Waldron agreed.
She stressed a key provision in the proposed bill that mandates research into the health impacts. “If they’re not giving credibility to the stories of community members, then we need the stats in order to back up what community members are saying.”
While Bill C-230 has received support from the NDP, Green, and Liberal parties, “there has been pushback from members of the Bloc Québécoisand Conservatives, who have dismissed the role of systemic racism and instead blamed failed government policies,” writes CBC.
Not so fast, say the 11,000-plus Canadians who have so far signed a recent petition in support of the bill, launched by the newly-formed National Anti-Environmental Racism Coalition.
Naolo Charles, a Toronto-based environmentalist who co-directs the coalition alongside Waldron, urged politicians to think about the climate crisis and the communities it hits hardest—then vote for Bill C-230.
“If now, Black and Indigenous communities are not well protected, what will it mean for the future when climate change will start having more impact?” he asked CBC.