Linking the crises of Covid-19, racism, environmental justice, and police violence

With thousands of people marching in protests around the world, including in Canada, it is clear that the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ignited long-held and deep memories of injustice. Despite the denialism of dinosaurs such as Rex Murphy, most Canadians realize that, as explained in The Tyee, “Canada Has Race-Based Police Violence Too. We Don’t Know How Much”  (June 2).  A current example is the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet   still under investigation after she fell to her death from a high rise apartment,  in the company of Toronto police.  Relating to environmental concerns,  the winter of 2020 saw demonstrations across Canada in support of  Indigenous protestors at the Wet’suwet’en blockades of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, documented in “No Surrender”, in  The Intercept.  In their  2018 book  Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State authors Jeffrey Monaghan and Andrew Crosby examined four prominent movements in Canada, including the climate-related struggles against the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the anti-fracking protests surrounding the Elsipogtog First Nation.   A June 3 article, “How Militarizing Police Sets up Protesters as ‘the Enemy’” is highly relevant for Canadian climate and social justice activists – re- published by The Tyee from an article in The Conversation.  

The following selection of recent articles focuses on how policing and social justice intersects with environmental justice in Canada and the U.S. :

‘This is about vulnerability’: Ingrid Waldron on the links between environmental racism and police brutality” in The Narwhal (June 3) summarizes an interview with Professor Ingrid Walton, associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, head of the ENRICH Project that tracks environmental inequality among communities of colour in Nova Scotia, and the author of the 2018 book,  There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities. In the interview, Walton raises the January 2020 closure of the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou, Nova Scotia as an example of environmental racism – the Mi’kmaq First Nations community had been calling for decades to stop the discharge of toxic effluent into Boat Harbour , but Walton argues that action took so long  because “closing the mill was  a risk for white people in power who were profiting from these industries. …With police violence, it’s similar. It’s different, but it’s similar in that the physical and emotional impacts on Black bodies are not the kinds of things white people care about.”

wetsuwetenEmilee Gilpin, journalist and managing director of the First Nations Forward Special Reports series at the National Observer, writes an eloquent Opinion piece: “If life before this was ‘normal,’ I don’t want to go back” (June 1) . Emphasizing the need for solutions, she concludes:

“I want to live in a world where the murder of innocent Black boys and men is not a normalized reality, where Indigenous women do not get murdered or go missing and turned into a statistic, where reconciliation means reparation, where people aren’t shot with rubber bullets and tear gas for demanding accountability and change, and where every system of power is representative of the society it’s meant to serve.

I want to live in a world that listens and respects the natural world, rather than trying to dominate, colonize and control it. I want to live in a world where diverse worldviews and ways of being are celebrated, and where at the very least, at the very very least, everyone has the right to BREATHE.”

Berta-Caceres-770x470In “Racism, police violence and the climate are not separate issues” in The New Yorker,  Bill McKibben states: “The job of people who care about the future—which is another way of saying the environmentalists—is to let everyone breathe easier. But that simply can’t happen without all kinds of change. Some of it looks like solar panels for rooftops, and some of it looks like radically reimagined police forces. All of it is hitched together.” His article reports on an interview with Nina Lakhani, an environmental-justice reporter for The Guardian, who discusses her new book, “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet”  – the indigenous environmental activist in Honduras, killed for her opposition to a hydroelectric dam in 2015.

Why Racial Justice is Climate Justice” in Grist (June 4) compiles the comments of five environmental justice leaders in the U.S.: Adrien Salazar, Senior campaign strategist for climate equity at Dēmos, New York; Kerene Tayloe, Director of federal legislative affairs at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Washington, D.C.; Julian Brave NoiseCat,  VP of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, Washington, D.C.; Mariah Gladstone, Founder of IndigiKitchen, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana; and  Alvaro S. Sanchez: Environmental equity director at The Greenlining Institute, Oakland. From the article:

“We now know that coronavirus — much like police brutality, mass incarceration, and climate change — is not colorblind. It’s not that the virus itself differentiates by race, but, as with other crises, the factors that make communities of color more susceptible to it are shaped by the United States’ long history of discriminatory policies and practices.

Many of the places that have been dealt the harshest blow by COVID-19 are simultaneously dealing with other serious threats to residents’ well-being. Even under the cover of the pandemic, environmental rollbacks and pipeline plans continue to threaten the health of people of color.”

One recent study which links the environmental links to Covid-19 death rates was conducted by the T.H Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University – summarized by the New York Times in April).  Two subsequent blogs from Data for Progress expand that focus to include the links to race and environmental justice: on May 6, “In Georgia, Coronavirus and Environmental Racism Combine”, and on May 19 “The Bronx Is An Epicenter for Coronavirus and Environmental Injustice “.    Among the alarming statistics: “Data from the New York City Department of Health finds that the asthma hospitalization rate for children in the Bronx is 70 percent higher than the rest of NYC and 700 percent higher than the rest of New York State, excluding New York City.”

On May 27,  the CBC reported on the “hot spots” of Covid incidence in the Greater Toronto area, corresponding to low income neighbourhoods with high density.  Ontario data collection and transparency has been widely criticized.

How is the environmental movement responding to calls for racial justice?

Responding to protests, green groups reckon with a racist past” in Grist (June 1)    reviews the performance of  U.S. environmental groups: “The League of Conservation VotersEarthjustice350.org, and the Sierra Club also issued statements condemning the killing of George Floyd and vowing to work towards racial justice. “There is no just recovery for climate, without addressing the systemic extraction, harm and violence towards Black communities,” said 350.org in a statement on its website.”

An Open Letter  sent to leaders of the U.S. House and Senate from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights includes environmental groups among the 446 signatory groups. The letter begins: “we urge you to take swift and decisive legislative action in response to ongoing fatal police killings and other violence against Black people across our country.”  Environmental groups signing on include: Greenpeace USA, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, NextGen America, and the Sierra Club.

Black environmentalists talk about climate change and anti-racism” in the New York Times (June 3). This article summarizes interviews with three U.S. environmental activists:   Sam Grant,  executive director of MN350.org,  (Minnesota affiliate of 350.org); Robert D. Bullard , professor at Texas Southern University and a expert who has written about environmental racism for more than 30 years; and Heather McGhee,  a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”

“An anti-racist climate movement … should be led by “a real multiracial coalition that endorses environmental justice principles” and its goals should seek to uplift the most vulnerable. That means,… the creation of green jobs, rather than cap-and-trade policies that allow companies to keep polluting in communities of color as they have been able to do for decades….. Success is measured by the improvement in the environmental and economic health of the people who have borne the brunt of our carbon economy.”

 

 

 

 

Addressing environmental racism through legislation and through activism

Bill C-230, An Act respecting the Development of a National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism  is a private members bill introduced to the federal House of Commons on Feb. 26 by Nova Scotia MP Lenore Zann, seconded by Elizabeth May of the Green Party. The Bill calls on the government to develop a national strategy which will address the disproportionate number of Indigenous or racialized people who live in environmentally hazardous areas. If passed, the Bill would require the Minister of Environment and Climate Change “to consult with representatives of provincial and municipal governments, of Indigenous communities and of other affected communities, as well as with any other affected persons and bodies.”  Further, the strategy must:

  • (a) examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk;
  • (b) collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards;
  • (c) collect information and statistics relating to negative health outcomes in communities that have been affected by environmental racism;
  • (d) assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province; and
  • (e) address environmental racism including in relation to
    • (i) possible amendments to federal laws, policies and programs,
    • (ii) the involvement of community groups in environmental policy-making,
    • (iii) compensation for individuals or communities,
    • (iv) ongoing funding for affected communities, and
    • (v) access of affected communities to clean air and water.

Member of Parliament Zann had previously introduced Bill 111, The Environmental Racism Prevention Act  in 2015,  when she was a member of the  provincial legislature Waldron something in the water coverof Nova Scotia . An article in Saltwire (Feb. 28) explains how Nova Scotia has become a centre for research and action on environmental racism –  led by the research of Dr. Ingrid Waldron of Dalhousie University. Dr. Waldron’s book,  There’s Something in the Water,  was published by Fernwood Press in 2018 and has been turned into a documentary co-directed by Halifax-born star Ellen Page.   In 2017, the East Coast Environmental Law Association  proposed an innovative  Nova Scotia Environmental Bill of Rights  which states that the people “have a right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”, and recognizes that “there is a history of environmental racism in Nova Scotia that has disproportionately and negatively affected historically marginalized, vulnerable, and economically disadvantaged individuals, groups or communities, particularly Indigenous People and African Nova Scotians”.

Green is Not White

On the same day as Bill C-230 was introduced, Medium’s Asparagus magazine took up the issue of racism in the environmental movement.   “Too White to Solve the Climate Crisis?” (Feb. 26)  discusses the white elitism of the environmental movement, and offers the example of the Green is Not White project, which educates Green_Is_Not_White_cover ACWtrade unionists about environmental racism and advocates for the rights and inclusion of Black, Asian, and Indigenous workers in a zero-carbon economy. The Green is Not White project was begun in December 2016 by the Ontario branch of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) , led by Chris Wilson of the Public Service Alliance of Canada,  in collaboration with the  Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Climate Change (ACW).  Its work engages community and labour activists in workshops and participative research , and  has  also been highlighted in Rabble.ca (Feb. 29) and  in Our Times .

The Twitter account at  #EnvRacismCBTUACW posts frequently,  and the ACW website compiles previous articles, resources, videos, and handouts here – including  descriptions of the workshops and free downloads of  a Workshop Guide , a detailed (35-page) Facilitator’s Notes and a  Presentation which concludes with this statement:

“If Canada’s racialized and indigenous communities are not engaged in the struggle, the transition to a green economy will not be just. There can be no change without a struggle.”

USW Workshop Guide – and other climate change training resources

USW-365x365The United Steelworkers Union in Canada  produced a workshop guide, Climate Change and Just Transition: What will workers need? . The guide was piloted at the United Steelworkers National Health, Safety, Environment and Human Rights Conference in 2017, and released to the public in May 2019 by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW), which was a partner on the project. The 47-page guide is designed to lead union members through discussion topics and activities, including general introduction to climate change concepts and vocabulary, and how climate change contributes to the world of work, particularly in the forestry, mining, and transportation industries where USW membership is concentrated. The Guide also discusses Just Transition and the Canadian experience, as well as areas of action for unions: Collective Agreements; Political Lobbying; Green Procurement; Training; and Employment Insurance.

A 2018 resource,  Communicating Climate Change and Energy in Alberta , focuses on how to talk to people effectively, and gives specifics about vocabulary and themes that are participative and non-confrontational.  Some highlights are cited in Lessons in talking climate with Albertan Oil Workers” (Feb. 21), including:

“In Alberta, recognising the role that oil and gas has played in securing local livelihoods proved crucial. Most environmentalists would balk at a narrative of ‘gratitude’ towards oil, but co-producing an equitable path out of fossil fuel dependency means making oil sands workers feel valued, not attacked. Empathetic language that acknowledges oil’s place in local history could therefore be the key to cultivating support for decarbonisation.

…..This project was also one of the first to test language specifically on energy transitions. While participants were generally receptive to the concept, the word ‘just’, with its social justice connotations, proved to be anything but politically neutral. In an environment where attitudes towards climate are bound to political identities, many interviewees showed a reluctance to the idea of government handouts, even where an unjust transition would likely put them out of a job. Rather, the report recommends a narrative of ‘diversification’ rather than ‘transition’, stressing positive future opportunities instead of moving away from a negative past.”

The report was produced by the  Alberta Narratives Project, whose lead partners are The Pembina Institute and Alberta Ecotrust. It  is part of the global Climate Outreach Initiative,  whose goal is to understand and train communicators to deliver effective communications which lead to cooperative approaches.

environmental racism trainingThe ACW also partnered with  the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists  to produce the training materials used for an Environmental Racism and Work workshop at the Indigenous and Workers of Colour Conference organized by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council on June 1st.  The 2-hour workshop was co-delivered by Patricia Chong (Asian Canadian Labour Alliance) and Chris Wilson (Coalition of Black Trade Unionists) – the Facilitator’s notes for the 2-hour workshop are here.  Related  training materials on environmental racism are described, with links, here .

climate resistance handbookThe Climate Resistance Handbook  was released by 350.org in May 2019, and meant to be used with their library of free training resources.  This handbook is directed at a general audience, especially young climate strikers, with very basic principles of building relationships, tactics, and moving from actions to strategic campaigns.  It includes the example of an organized action in 2014 at the National Energy Board against  TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.

 

Labour activists raising environmental justice issues in Canada’s climate change policy

ourtimes cover-Chris JawaraThe featured article in the Winter 2018 issue of Our Times is  “A Green Economy for All” , which describes the action-research project Environmental Racism: The Impact of Climate Change on Racialized Canadian Communities: An Environmental Justice Perspective.   The ultimate goal: to equip Black trade unionists and racialized activists in Canada with the tools they need to influence the public policy debate over climate change, to ensure that the new green economy does not look the same as the old white economy.   With important inspiration from the Idle No More movement and the Indigenous experience in Canada, the project began with research into what has already been written about environmental racism in Canada, along with  a participatory social media campaign using the Twitter hashtag #EnvRacismCBTUACW,  to solicit more information about lived experience.  The project has now reached its second phase, designing and facilitating workshops to develop activism around the issue.  The first of these workshops  was presented to the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT) in December 2017.  Facilitation questions, case studies and workshop information will be made publicly available, with the goal of engaging other social and political activists, as well as the labour movement.

The Environmental Racism: The Impact of Climate Change on Racialized Canadian Communities  project was launched in 2017 by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) project at York University,  in collaboration with Coalition of Black Trade Unionists , and is being led by Chris Wilson, Ontario Regional Coordinator for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and  PSAC Ontario union negotiator Jawara Gairey.

“A Green Economy for All”  also mentions the work of the Toronto Environmental Alliance , which produced a map of toxic concentrations in the city in 2005, and the forthcoming book  There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities,  which highlights the grassroots resistance against environmental racism in Nova Scotia, and is written by Ingrid Waldron, an associate professor at Dalhousie University  and  Director of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health Project (The ENRICH Project).