Effective activism takes 'urgent patience,' says head of N.S. environmental racism panel
‘I'm not really looking for the approval of the government,’ says Augy Jones
Augy Jones admits he may not be the foremost expert on environmental racism in Nova Scotia. But as a longtime leader in community outreach and civil rights — following in the footsteps of his parents and extended family — he says he's uniquely qualified for the job.
In December he was named the first member of a new panel to address environmental racism in Nova Scotia.
Jones' parents were also major figures in the fight against racism in Nova Scotia. His father, Burnley (Rocky) Jones, was a civil rights lawyer and activist; his mother, Joan Jones, played important roles behind the scenes, and was known as "the power behind the throne" of the movement.
Augy Jones spoke with What on Earth host Laura Lynch about his family's civil rights legacy, his objectives for the panel, and how environmental racism and climate change intersect. Here's part of their conversation.
For listeners who don't know, can you tell me about some of the well-documented historical examples of environmental racism in Nova Scotia?
Dr. Ingrid Waldron, in conjunction with [actor] Elliot Page, put out the documentary There's Something in the Water. And that talked about Boat Harbor, which is in Pictou County, where there was a pulp and paper mill that was basically polluting a body of water that was next to Pictou Landing Mi'kmaw nation.
And then in that same documentary, they focused on a … garbage dump that was put beside a Black community in the Shelburne area, which is on the south shore of Nova Scotia.
One of the things we're going to focus on, too, is Africville. So for those people that don't know, there was a Black community that was along the Halifax harbor, [and] that was eventually bulldozed in the late '60s.
We wouldn't have called it environmental racism at the time. But when we talk about the public health intersection of the ways that you deal with communities, and create toxicity in that community, Africville would be one of the early examples of what we're now coining environmental racism.
That's the historical record. I'm wondering where you see examples of environmental racism in your province today.
Today really is connected to the past. And so in the history of Nova Scotia, we have Black loyalist communities, and we have Mi'kmaw communities that have been put on reserves. Those communities are affected, and [are] affected still to this day.
The influx of people of African ancestry to Nova Scotia is unique to the country. You know, the Black loyalists came to Nova Scotia in the 1700s. So they came up and were given the worst land in Nova Scotia.
In most cities or little towns in Nova Scotia, there [would] be a Black community that was put away way, way, way and on this windy, windy road on infertile land.
And in 2023 … some of the areas in Nova Scotia that are being affected by environmental racism [are also] being affected by climate change. But those communities have been there for 300 years in a place that was not environmentally safe.
And so they're way more exposed in 2023 based on the decades or centuries that they've been in an unfavourable environmental condition.
So now you've got this role, the first member of a panel addressing environmental racism in Nova Scotia. What are you hoping to achieve?
Initially, we're looking at seven or eight experts to bring to the table, and that has to be done by the end of February 2023.
We're looking to make sure that we have historians, or someone with that background of history, because as we know from environmental racism, we have to connect it to how people came to the land, how they were treated when they were on that land.
[Questions] including: Did you put a dump by that land? Did you have some type of company with industrial waste flowing through that land? What was the sewage on that land?
I also think we need a policy law perspective. You know: What did companies have to do? What regulations and laws were in place ... to protect the people or not protect the people?
And then the third piece that we would really like to have is a medical expert…. So we can look through [medical] data to see what happens in the community when they have bad sewage, when they have bad water, when they have a dump beside them, when they have industrial waste being put through their community.
And then most importantly … we want community experts, right? We want people who are from the African Nova Scotian community and have done this work, and thought about the environmental effect on the Black community in Nova Scotia.
And we also want the Mi'kmaq Indigenous voice of people from [the] community who have been doing this work. They've written the government, they've advocated.
We know from previous reporting that … those who experience environmental racism can often feel the sharper effects of climate change. So I'm just wondering, you grew up in Nova Scotia. What impacts of climate change are you noticing in the places you spent time in as a child?
So my dad is from Truro, Nova Scotia. Truro is a low lying town at the best of times. But my dad grew up in an area called The Marsh. And literally it was a marsh. And the Black community was there.
Well, now with global warming, the city of Truro is dealing with more flooding than it ever has before. And the Black community, which used to be thriving, there's not that many people [living] there anymore.
And partly it's because this marsh area is now virtually unlivable because of the amount of flooding that is happening in that area. So think about it being called The Marsh decades ago. And so now in 2023, it's a very exposed area to climate change and flooding.
I'm wondering what parallels you see between your parents' fight for civil rights and the current fight for environmental and climate justice here in Canada and around the world?
I always thought "civil rights," to me, was like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. And really, those two words resonated with Black America.
And then when my dad passed away and I was at the funeral, I really kind of saw the variety of people that were there that were saying that he had an effect on them. And then I thought, Oh, so civil rights is the rights of civilians, and that's intersectional and that's inclusive. It doesn't matter what the colour of your skin is.
So now for me, I think doing that same work decades later, it's more to make sure that I'm speaking on behalf of citizens and taking their voice forward in the most authentic ... way so that they feel the change.
So ultimately, for the panel … I'm not really looking for the approval of the government, to be honest. I'll know that we've done a good job when the community says that they're happy with what we've done, and they're happy with the processes and the recommendations that we put forward.
What do you think Rocky and Joan would be saying to you if they were still alive and knew you got this job? What advice would they be giving you?
They often talked about urgent patience, you know, and being in that yin-yang situation. And I agree with that, having worked at the Department of Education and worked in government.
I think that because it's the people's money and it's taxpayers' money, things can't happen quickly. There are processes, there are checks and balances. That's the patient part.
The urgent part is that we should have dealt with environmental racism 30, 40 years ago. So you have to be able to go into these committees, and [do] this change management work, and you've got to be urgently patient.
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.
Interview produced by Rachel Sanders. Q&A edited for length and clarity.