Father of environmental justice movement inspires young Black Canadians to take up baton — and run with it
Trio of promising young Canadians say more Black youth need to be part of environmental decision making
When Robert Bullard designed a study of Houston's solid waste disposal sites more than 40 years ago, he had no idea he'd one day inspire young Canadians to take up the baton in the fight against environmental racism.
The African-American sociologist's research was the core of a class-action discrimination lawsuit that argued it was no accident that Texas garbage sites often ended up near Black communities.
The case, filed in 1979, was an unprecedented challenge of a waste facility site's location, claiming racial discrimination under civil rights law. It was dismissed, as the judge didn't see it as a racial issue.
"The judge was white and about 150 years old," Bullard told Laura Lynch of CBC Radio's What on Earth. "It was war. But it was … the right fight to do."
This was considered the first "environmental racism" case. It argued that the decision to permit a solid waste facility near a predominantly Black Houston neighbourhood constituted racial discrimination. The legal case failed, but Bullard's decades of research in the years that followed laid the groundwork for an environmental justice movement that's still growing today.
Last Wednesday, the federal Green Party re-tabled Bill C-230, renewing the call for a national strategy to address the harm caused by environmental racism.
The bill was first brought forward by Nova Scotia Liberal MP Lenore Zann in 2020. But the initial bill was scrapped when that session of Parliament ended.
Environmental racism work in Canada
It wasn't until 2012 that then associate Dalhousie professor Ingrid Waldron learned the term "environmental racism."
Waldron learned that environmental racism is a form of systemic racism defined as the disproportionate exposure that Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities have to environmental hazards as a result of institutional policies and practices.
The McMaster University humanities professor became intrigued by the issue that was pioneered by Canadian activists, like Irvine and Eddie Carvery — two brothers who protested the bulldozing of Africville, a predominantly Black community in Nova Scotia, 50 years ago and won $3 million in reparations from the city.
During research for a book, Waldron learned of Bullard, whom she now describes as her "hero."
But for the 13 years she lectured about environmental racism in Nova Scotia Waldron said she often felt like a "lone wolf" in Canada, as nobody in academia was talking about the concept.
"I kind of boldly named it and said: let's talk about environmental racism," said Waldron, the HOPE chair in Peace and Health in Humanities at Hamilton's McMaster University.
In past years she would only be asked to speak locally about environmental racism. But now, Waldron says things are shifting.
Today, she gets invites from across Canada and in Europe to talk about the subject after years of researching waste sites near Black communities in Lincolnville and Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
Waldron's Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health (ENRICH) Project followed the lead of activists like Nova Scotia's Louise Delisle and collected data through water testing to confirm that dumps, landfills and pulp mills are often near African-Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw communities that suffer from high rates of cancer and respiratory illness.
More Black youth need a voice in environmentalism
Waldron and Naolo Charles founded the Canadian Coalition for Environmental & Climate Justice (CCECJ) in 2020. The following fall, the organization sent three Black interns to the COP26 climate summit.
Charles said as far as he knows it was the first time that a Canadian delegation included Black youth at COP.
"We didn't really do it to make history," he said.
Waldron said she was shocked this hadn't been done before.
"The ongoing exclusion of Black youth specifically is problematic," she said. "It's the young people … who are the most passionate about this issue."
The three interns, all young women, told Waldron their experiences at the summit inspired them and caused them to change their career focus, especially after they met Bullard in person.
The 'father' of the movement
"I was just in shock. It was powerful just to see him in person," said Alyson Doyle-Braithwaite, 23, of meeting Bullard, who she said is considered the "father" of the environmental justice movement. She is nearing graduation at Ryerson University in Toronto and studying U.S.-Canadian policy.
The interns were disappointed to see no other Black youth at the 2021 climate summit.
"When we are not there we are left out of the decision making," said Tyjana Connolly, 23. She's a recent graduate of the University of Calgary who now works as a campaign organizer with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and examines the effects of climate change in Somalia.
"I would like to work with an organization that really tackles issues in our racialized communities," said Leïla Cantave, a recent McGill University graduate.
When we are not there we are left out of the decision making.- Tyjana Connolly, on the lack of Black youth at the COP26 climate summit
As the Montreal-based intern or youth environmental justice lead for the CCECJ, Cantave is developing a workshop on environmental justice and just transition to be presented to union members across the country. She's also fielding media interviews for the the CCECJ, and does work with the Climate Action Network and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Cantave, 24, says her own neighbourhood of Saint-Michel has a vibrant Haitian community, but fewer parks, poorer air quality and more noise pollution compared to other parts of Montreal.
She's also concerned about helping international communities.
"Haiti is very vulnerable right now to climate change," she said. "We need to [make] more efforts to provide for these vulnerable countries that are suffering, but literally don't have the means to fight it."
Decades before the terms environmental racism and environmental justice became more well-known, Bullard was already fighting for the cause.
The Alabama-born sociologist faced inequities first-hand, growing up in a "red-lined" community.
The term "red-lined" dates back to the 1930s and a discriminatory bank practice of drawing lines on government maps around certain areas that were often predominantly Black or poor.
According to Bullard, these communities were denied services, from financing to sewer lines, street lights or even paved roads. Redlining was banned in 1968, with the U.S.'s Fair Housing act.
In the 1970s, Bullard's study that mapped landfills and incinerators convinced the former marine that too many toxic sites ended up close to Black communities.
"Blacks only made up 25 per cent of the population — [but] 82 per cent per cent of the garbage was dumped on Black people. That was an eye opener for me," he said.
This research underpinned the 1979 lawsuit — Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. — that took on the city of Houston, the state of Texas and a waste company, but lost its bid to prove that waste site placements were based on racial discrimination under the civil rights code. At the time, Bullard was fighting the second largest waste management company in the world, with a bevy of high-paid lawyers against his tiny team.
"It was a war … We were fighting Goliath," said Bullard.
Environmental justice issues are now getting more attention.
WATCH | The push to address environmental racism in Canada:
Change takes 'pressure'
Bullard is buoyed to see Canadians taking up his baton.
"It takes pressure. This is not something that the [U.S.] federal government decided it wanted to do out of its own benevolence," he said.
Meeting three young Canadians who see him as a bit of a rockstar inspires Bullard to keep going.
"I'm hopeful that we will get to healthy, resilient and sustainable lives. That's what our movement is all about."
Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Rachel Sanders.
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.