Blog authored by Adam De Luca, JD Candidate, Bora Laskin Law School
The Canadian Environmental Law Association’s mandate is to promote environmental justice. Environmental law is a social justice issue. In our 50 year history, we have seen over and over again how pollution and environmental health disproportionately impact low-income, Indigenous and racialized communities. Bill C-230 – National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act is a promising new piece of legislation that would take a step in the right direction to recognize environmental racism in Canada.
Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate proximity and exposure of Indigenous and racialized communities to polluting industries, dangerous projects and other environmental hazards, and it has been ignored in Canada for decades. It occurs when environmental policies and practices either intentionally or unintentionally result in disproportionate negative impacts on certain communities including higher rates of cancer, reproductive diseases, respiratory illness, birth defects and other health issues.
On February 26, 2020, Nova Scotia MP Lenore Zann introduced Bill C-230 in the House of Commons. The second reading of Bill C-230 is set to resume March 23. If passed the Bill will move onto the Committee. Learn how to participate in Committee meetings here.
Titled A National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism, Bill C-230 aims to address environmental racism by recognizing that members of Indigenous and racialized communities disproportionately live in environmentally hazardous areas, and requiring the Minister of the Environment to consult with Indigenous and other affected communities, to develop a national strategy to redress the harm caused by environmental racism across Canada. This strategy would examine the link between race, socio-economic status, environmental risk and negative health effects, assess and amend federal environmental laws, policies and programs, and include community groups in environmental policy making. Additionally, establishing any new environmentally hazardous sites in areas primarily inhabited by marginalized communities will be considered a form of racial discrimination under Bill C-230, and any environmental policy-making that targets certain communities when establishing environmentally hazardous sites would also be considered environmental racism.
The extent of environmental racism in Canada has been highlighted in the UN Report on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes. In May 2019, CELA hosted a meeting with the Special Rapporteur of the UN, Baskut Tuncak, whose preliminary findings from the visit found Canada’s inaction on toxic exposure to be a disturbing sign of discrimination.
As noted by the Special Rapporteur, Canada has recognized various human rights implicated by hazardous substances, but does not give appropriate regard to implementing relevant international obligations and various recommendations of UN Human Rights mechanisms. Canadian environmental laws, such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, do not adequately protect health or create national binding air quality standards, and allow emission exemptions for high polluting industry such as those in Sarnia and Sault Ste. Marie.
Of particular concern is the way in which Indigenous people face increased exposure to environmental hazards. In Canada, provincial drinking water quality regulations do not apply on reserves and federal standards are not legally binding. As such, long-standing and unacceptable boil water advisories remain an issue. Grassy Narrows First Nation has suffered from mercury poisoning due to effluent dumping from pulp and paper mills in the 1960s. 50 years later, mercury in the area is still 130 times higher than upstream and the government still has not remediated the contamination. In the face of these problems, Canada must protect vulnerable communities.
Bill C-230 is long overdue and must be passed. Canada is far behind the United States in recognizing environmental racism and taking steps to remedy the problem. In 1994, US President Bill Clinton issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies (not just the Ministry of the Environment) to develop strategies to address disproportionately adverse health and environmental effects of their actions on minority groups and low income populations, which remains in effect today. At the state level, on September 18, 2020, New Jersey law makers passed a comprehensive environmental racism law that Canadian legislatures should aim to replicate where Bill C-230 falls short.
Unlike Bill C-230, the New Jersey law gives all residents of the state, regardless of age, income, ethnicity or origin, the right to live, work and recreate in a clean and healthy environment. It also recognizes the particular vulnerability of children to the effects of environmental racism, which is something the UN Rapporteur recommends for Canada as well. The New Jersey law defines and identifies important terms including “overburdened communities” and “environmental stressors”, something Bill C-230 does not. As it is written, Bill C-230 does not clarify how it will identify relevant community groups. Additionally, the New Jersey law sets out a comprehensive procedure for any industry or development license applications located in marginalized communities, including the creation of environmental justice impact statements, public hearings in the burdened community, and an opportunity to meaningfully participate for anyone wishing to.
Canada has a deep history of offloading effluent and deadly chemicals into the waters and territory of First Nations and placing landfills near African-Canadian communities. If Canada wishes to become a leader in human rights, environmental justice and equity in North America and around the world, the government must pass Bill C-230 and work to build on and improve environmental justice legislation. Although a step in the right direction, Bill C-230 should aim to do more than just shed a light on discriminatory environmental policy-making, and ensure access to justice through binding legal standards, strict enforcement, and effective remedies.
For information on how to support the passing of Bill C-230, you can click here.