Environmental racism in Canada

How hazardous facilities disproportionately affect Indigenous and Black Nova Scotian communities

Image used with the permission of Fernwood Publishing

It’s well known that Indigenous, Black and other communities of colour are disproportionately affected by income insecurity, poor public infrastructure and a lack of access to public services. What’s less known is that heavily polluting industries tend to be located very close to these communities as well, affecting air and water quality—further compromising residents’ health and wellbeing. Ingrid Waldron, associate professor at the Dalhousie University School of Nursing, wanted to learn more about this “environmental racism” and its impact on these communities.

“Most people are familiar with the social determinants of health, but very rarely do we consider the environmental factors,” said Waldron. “But they are inextricably linked, so I wanted to look at these issues simultaneously: the social, political, economic and environmental.”

Allowing communities to tell their own stories

A sociologist by training, Waldron adopted a community-based, community-led approach to conducting research with four Black and two Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia—all near environmental hazards such as landfills, mines, and pulp and paper mills. She hired local community members to facilitate workshops to hear directly from the affected people about the links between water contamination, cancer and other health-related issues.

“I didn’t want to just charge in and tell them what I was going to do,” said Waldron. “These events were about listening, learning what was important to them and asking them what my research questions should be.”

Her findings supported what these communities already knew, showing clear correlations between hazardous facilities and poor health outcomes when compared to communities located far from such sites.

Taking action and raising awareness

To address these issues, Waldron and her team—including faculty and students in sociology, nursing, environmental science, political science, law and other fields; health professionals; environmental organizations; and Indigenous and Black community members—have launched several local initiatives. In addition to advocating for environmental racism awareness to be included in the Nova Scotia public school curriculum, she co-founded Rural Water Watch, an organization that provides water testing in rural communities, and workshops on maintaining healthy wells.

“We also trained communities to test their own water,” said Waldron. “In some cases, this was the first time they actually knew what was in their water. Now they can treat it accordingly and advocate more effectively for change.”

Waldron’s work is featured in There’s Something in the Water, a documentary she co-produced with Nova Scotia actor and director Elliot Page, based on Waldron’s 2018 book of the same title. The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 and has already led to positive change: a pulp mill agreed to stop piping effluent into local waterways and one community will get a new well thanks to financial support from Page.

Waldron anticipates the film’s release in March 2020 on Netflix will continue to broaden the conversation and inspire greater change. She also has high hopes for Bill C-230, a federal private member’s bill influenced by her work and that calls for the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism.

“I hope this work touches the hearts and humanity of people across Canada and the world, especially politicians,” said Waldron. “If this bill becomes law, it will have a massive impact on communities of colour everywhere.”

Want to learn more?

Follow Ingrid Waldron’s work at The ENRICH Project, read her book and watch There’s Something in the Water.