What is environmental racism? A look into Atlantic Canada and what you can do to help!

Jun 29, 2020

When George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe,” it resonated with activists everywhere. While the phrase is directly associated with police brutality, there are many other forms of systemic racism, including environmental injustices. And yet, this discrimination is not discussed enough among environmentalists, even though black and low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to deadly amounts of pollution and toxic waste. 

What is Environmental Injustice or Environmental Racism? 

This term describes how people of colour and poor communities have borne disproportionate harm from pollution and the discriminatory systems that perpetuate those inequities. 

And it isn’t new. Since 1983, we’ve known that the best predictor of whether you live near a hazardous waste site is your skin colour.

Since George Floyd’s murder, a global social awakening has sparked protests in cities around the world. Black Lives Matter has caught fire, and citizens are demanding serious changes to fight systematic racism. One of the many ways that the “system” has continually failed to protect people of colour is through environmental racism or environmental injustice.

And it’s not an American phenomenon. Right here in Atlantic Canada, we have glaring examples. 

Africville, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Africville was a small community founded in the early 1800s and occupied by former slaves from the United States and Black Loyalists. Throughout its lifetime, Africville was disproportionately affected by pollution problems, and the city withheld essential services in times of need. The city used Africville as a landfill, filling it with toxic and medical waste, even running hospital sewer pipes into the water supply. In the 1960s, “slum clearance” saw Africville residents relocated. Despite stiff resistance from the community, Africville was demolished. It is now home to a museum and has become an important symbol of environmental racism in Canada.

Eel Ground First Nation, New Brunswick

Equal access to clean water is an issue in every province. While most Canadians enjoy clean drinking water, many Indigenous communities have been challenged with water advisories for decades. 

Eel Ground First Nation, which was on a long-term boil order, only got funding for a water/wastewater infrastructure plan in 2018. Inaction is costing indigenous communities their health and quality of life.

Chemical Valley, Sarnia, Ontario

Chemical Valley is home to almost half of Canada’s petrochemical industry. Over 35 square kilometres in Sarnia, 60 chemical plants and oil refineries operate 24/7. On average, there are 100 spills a year, dumping around 10 tons of pollutants in the St. Clair river. 

Nestled inside this giant ring of chemical production, surrounded by industrial plants, sits Aamjiwnaang, a Chippewa First Nations reservation over 300 years old. It’s one of the most toxic locations in North America, yet neither the local or federal government has launched a health study to properly investigate the effects on local residents, who inhale the Chemical Valley’s emissions every time they step outside.

What Can I Do? 

Environmental injustice is a big, complex issue but there are things we can do to counter it. 

1. Educate yourself and spread awareness!

2. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is!

Donate to causes fighting environmental racism or raising awareness to support the movement! Here are a few:

  • Africville Museum: The museum celebrates the spirit of Africville and tells the story of the survival of a community.
  • EcoJustice: EcoJustice uses the law’s power to defend nature, combat climate change and fight for a healthy environment for all.
  • Friends of the Earth Canada: This organization takes action to confront polluters, holding governments to account for their promises and insisting they enforce laws.

This movement is on fire since the murder of George Floyd. Let’s help keep that flame alive by tackling ALL systems that disproportionately affect people of colour in our communities. In the age of climate action, we must be inclusive and proactive in tackling environmental racism and alleviating the suffering that communities of colour have been subjected to for centuries.


By Jane Burchill and Sue Tran

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