(Editor: We are looking back at this post from June 16, 2020, in honour of Black History Month.)

If I were asked to make a list of what comes to mind when I think about environmental issues, I would probably say something like habitat loss, pollution, climate change, species extinction, and non-renewable energy reliance. And if I were asked to make a similar list for racial issues, I might say housing and job discrimination, mass incarceration, systemic poverty, and, especially in response to the ongoing protests, police brutality.

I’m willing to wager many of our lists would look pretty similar.

It may seem that there isn’t very much overlap in these lists, but actually environmentalism and anti-racism are more connected than you might initially think! In fact, climate justice is inseparable from racial justice, and understanding environmental racism will help us learn how.

Environmental racism is a concept used to acknowledge that it is overwhelmingly people of colour who live in the areas that are most polluted and vulnerable to climate change. Through private industry and government collaborations, they are made to disproportionately bear the burden of environmental risk (think: air pollution, sewage, toxic waste disposal, and contaminated water).

The term originates from the southern United States, when in 1982 a predominantly Black community protested against oil companies using their city as a landfill for toxic chemicals. The protests spread across the nation and sparked a national report which found that race is the number one predictor of where hazardous waste facilities are located in the United States (a fact which holds true in reports done today).

Protestors block the delivery of toxic PCB waste to a landfill in Afton, North Carolina, 1982. Photo credit: NRDC, Ricky Stilley.

But environmental racism isn’t only a problem in the United States. Canada is a huge perpetrator of environmental racism too.

A prime example can be found in Nova Scotia, just north of Halifax. In the mid-1800s, the city of Africville was established by the descendants of African slaves. It was a tight-knit and self-sufficient community, where residents found success in fishing and farming. They built stores, a school, a post office, and a church, which served as a social centre. It continued this way until Halifax’s industrial boom, when Africville began to be treated as a dumping ground. Waste treatment facilities, coal factories, and slaughterhouses were constructed nearby, and basic infrastructure and services were denied. Finally, in 1970, the entire city was destroyed under the guise of urban renewal; residents were relocated, with many left homeless, for the sake of highway and bridge construction.

Boil-water advisories. Photo credits: Library and Archives Canada, Ted Grant.

Another example can be found in southern Ontario, where the Aamjiwnaang First Nations are exposed to the worst air pollution in Canada. This is because 40 percent (!) of Canada’s entire petrochemical industry neighbours their reserve, earning the area the nickname “Chemical Valley”. The chemical toxins emitted by these industries causes serious health problems, including chronic headaches, skin rashes, pregnancy loss, birth defects, cancer, high blood pressure, and asthma. Because of the risks associated with simply going outside, it is almost impossible to partake in culturally important activities, such as fishing and medicine gathering.

Photo credit: VICE, Patrick McGuire

Aamjiwnaang’s story isn’t unique either. At any given time, there are roughly 100 Indigenous communities in Canada that are under water advisories, meaning that water is, or could be, contaminated by pathogens.

Environmentalism and anti-racism are inseparable because the same power structures that uphold climate injustice are the same that commit racial injustice. So, when Black Lives Matter protesters demand government accountability for police violence, that includes accountability for climate change inaction.

Anti-racism protest 2020. Photo credit: Agence France-Presse, Angela Weiss,

Above all, to fight against environmental racism is to call for the right to healthy and safe environments for everyone. With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, this has never been made more clear; clean, breathable, and comfortable living spaces are non-negotiable.

The answer to all of this obviously isn’t easy, but we cannot be environmentalists without being anti-racist. The good news is that this means there are lots of great starting points, since all efforts are connected towards the same goal.

Here are some of the ways you can help:

  • Create spaces for resource sharing. Environmental racism is not a concept most Canadians are familiar with. If you learned something today, it’s your turn to share! Learning is active, collective, and ongoing.
  • Support local environmental justice organizations. Echo their stories, demands, and calls to action. Provide resources and assistance when needed. Be receptive to feedback.
  • Actively push for anti-racist policies. Chemical Valley continues to exist because Ontario regulates each source of pollution in isolation; they do not consider already existing levels of pollution or the effects of the emissions as a whole. Without legislation requiring the consideration of cumulative air pollution, they are within their legal right to continue polluting. This is just one of the policies in place that enable environmental racism.
  • Visit parts of your city that you have never seen before. This one might sound odd but hear me out. I have a memory as a child of the first time I took the Line 1 Yonge-University line north of Bloor Street. I was a Scarborough kid and I was used to the Line 3 RT (loud, clunky, and cramped) and its above-ground views (factories, junkyards, and auto repair shops). It was only when I saw the above-ground views of the North York stations did I realize that their subway rides were green and beautiful, and mine were grey and smelly. Notably, Scarborough’s population is mostly immigrants of colour, and North York houses some of the richest and whitest neighbourhoods in the city. It’s these kinds of experiences that transform environmental racism from an idea in our minds and plants it right at our doorsteps.
A comparison of Midland RT station (Line 3) and Rosedale station (Line 1) 
Photo credits: Spacing Toronto, Chris Penrose; Wikipedia, Hutima

Want to dig deeper? Here’s more:­

Greening the ghetto: Majora Carter — TED Talks

A Toxic Tour of Canada’s Chemical Valley — VICE

Read up on the links between racism and the environment — NY Times

Systemic Inequities Increase Covid-19 Risk for Indigenous People in Canada — Humans Rights Watch

In the Shadows of America’s Smokestacks, Virus is One More Deadly Risk — NY Times

Racial Equity Toolkit — The Greenlining Institute

Across the Globe, Scientists Are Striking for Black Lives — WIRED

Racial bias reaches tipping point in Canada’s healthcare system — City News

About the Author:

Hi I’m Niyat. I’m pursuing a double major at the University of Toronto in Environmental Studies and Cognitive Science. I’m starting my co-op placement with the Energy & Environment department at UHN. I’m interested in urban environmental issues and environmental psychology, but when I’m not pursuing this interest I love to figure skate and solve puzzles with my family.