Commons could soon pass legislation to study environmental racism

The House of Commons is close to adopting Canada's first-ever legislation on environmental racism — environmental hazards that disproportionately affect Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities.

Bill's proponents say the effects of environmental degradation fall heavily on racialized communities

Mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows First Nation is one prominent example of environmental degradation disproportionately affecting a racialized community. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The House of Commons is close to adopting Canada's first-ever legislation on environmental racism — environmental hazards that disproportionately affect Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities.

Bill C-226 comes up for a vote today and is expected eventually to pass through the House of Commons with the support of the Liberals, the NDP and the Green Party.

Those parties hope the bill can be fast-tracked through unanimous consent and bypass several procedural hoops. That's not likely without the support of the two other opposition parties.

C-226 would require Parliament to develop a national strategy to collect information on environmental hazards in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities and address their impacts. That information could provide a foundation for changing existing federal laws, policies and programs.

The bill's supporters say they hope the remaining parties throw their support behind it when it comes back for another vote.

"I'm really hopeful that we will finally, as a government, address the issue of environmental racism and injustice," said one of the bill's supporters, Nova Scotia-based activist Lynn Jones.

Jones, a leader in the African Nova Scotian community, said she felt the impacts herself growing up on the banks of Cobequid Bay. She said her community and other Black settlements in the province were isolated on the outskirts of Truro, N.S., where governments often located landfills and ignored area flooding for years.

"So living on the edges, you often had the worst conditions. You didn't often have all the amenities that the other people in the town had," she said.

First Nations and Métis communities have complained for years of being left to deal with environmental threats such as the release of pulp paper mill effluent into the harbour near Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia or mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.

Fishing boats pass the Northern Pulp mill as concerned residents, fishermen and Indigenous groups protest the mill's plan to dump millions of litres of effluent daily into the Northumberland Strait in Pictou, N.S., on July 6, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Many of these communities have raised concerns about the health effects of environmental degradation, such as asthma, cancer and congenital disabilities.

In her book on environmental racism, McMaster University humanities faculty professor Ingrid Waldron has called on policymakers to view environmental racism as a form of "state-sanctioned racial" violence similar to police brutality.

"There's a kind of a racist ideology that gets written into an environmental policy where we tend to [exclude] people that we think don't hold the most value right in this world," Waldron told CBC News.

McMaster University humanities faculty professor Ingrid Waldron, author of There's Something in The Water, co-produced the film by the same name. Her research into environmental racism inspired the creation of Bill C-226. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Green MP Elizabeth May, who introduced C-226 as a private member's bill, said there's no "grey zone" between the violence racialized communities experience in encounters with police and the adverse impacts of environmental racism.

Conservatives oppose the bill, arguing it could further complicate approval of resource projects — like oilsands mining in Alberta — which tend to operate close to Indigenous communities.

"We already have a complicated regulatory environment when we are developing projects in this country," Conservative environment critic Kyle Seeback said in April during one of the debates on the bill in the House.

The Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, withheld its support because it worries the bill could infringe on Quebec sovereignty, since the environment generally is an area of provincial and territorial jurisdiction. 

"We are convinced that it would be inconsistent to claim to fight for environmental justice at the federal level while failing to advocate for the defence of Quebec's environmental sovereignty," the Bloc's environment critic Monique Pauzé said during that same debate in April.

WATCH | How mercury poisoning has affected Grassy Narrows First Nation:

How mercury poisoning has affected Grassy Narrows First Nation

3 years ago
Duration 2:30
'I grew up not knowing that the land, the water was already poisoned,' Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Randy Fobister said.

This is the second attempt to get environmental racism legislation through the House of Commons. Former Nova Scotia member of Parliament Lenore Zann tried to get a similar bill passed in her province's legislature when she was a provincial representative. The same bill died in the last Parliament before Zann lost her seat in the 2021 federal election.

Zann said she and her allies might have gotten the bill passed if it hadn't had the word "racism" in it.

"White people always want you to take the word racism out," Zann said. "It's like it makes them nervous, right?

"They don't want to admit it exists ... And I'm like, no, that's the whole point of this bill."

WATCH | Behind the push to address environmental racism:

Growing push to address and track environmental racism in Canada

3 years ago
Duration 2:21
Disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards has long had a larger impact on Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities in Canada. A private members bill is calling for a national strategy to address and track instances of environmental racism.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca

With files from CBC’s What on Earth, Tashauna Reid and Alice Hopton