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.”

$50 million Forestry Transition Fund to retrain and support workers following closure of Nova Scotia’s polluting Northern Pulp plant – Updated

This blog has been updated on January 10 to reflect the company announcement that a new environmental assessment process may yet keep the mill alive. It also expands on Unifor’s position in supporting the mill and the opposition by environmental groups and First Nations. 

After years of controversy, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil announced on December 20 that the province will enforce a January 31 2020 deadline for B.C.-owned Northern Pulp plant to stop pumping effluent in Boat Harbour, near Pictou Landing First Nation.  The deadline had been set by legislation in 2015, and will not be extended, despite the company’s threat to shut down the mill.  Acknowledging the job loss and economic hardship which will result from the decision, the Premier’s announcement  included a $50-million transition fund for forestry sector workers and businesses “to support displaced workers across the province, small contractors and all those whose livelihoods will be affected. The transition fund will be used for retraining and education, and for emergency funding to help those in immediate need.” On January 3, the Premier’s Office announced the composition of the Forestry Transition Team. A previous announcement had designated the provincial deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Trade as the team lead; members announced on January 3 include more government representatives as well as industry management – noticeably absent, any worker representation.

After the first meeting of the Forestry Transition Team,CBC reports that the government has  fired an industry member. The Premier has announced  $7 million to assist silviculture and forest road building operations  in the central and western regions of the province .  The January 10 article in the National Observer also states that the Premier  is working to ensure the stability and accessibility  of the mill’s pension plan .

Company enters new environmental assessment process which may yet keep the mill alive

On  January 10 , an article in the National Observer   reported on a statement by Paper Excellence Canada , the owner of the Northern Pulp mill:   … “Our team is currently focused on supporting our employees, developing plans for a safe and environmentally responsible hibernation, and working with the government of Nova Scotia and stakeholders to determine next steps.” Plant closure has been at least temporarily averted as the company has informed the government that it will continue the environmental assessment process for its proposed effluent treatment plant.  In response,  the Nova Scotia Environment Ministry released draft Terms of Reference for that assessment on January 8, giving the public and government reviewers 30 days to comment on the draft.  Following a period for company response, the terms of reference will be provided  by early April, and the company will be given another two years to complete the environmental assessment report.  The government  webpage dedicated to the environmental assessment is here , providing the new draft terms of reference, how to make a submission, and an archive of past documentation in this long-running project.

Opposing viewpoints in a long controversy

The Halifax Chronicle Herald has published many articles describing the long history and competing interests in this dispute, for example in a Timeline of the dispute ; “Nova Scotia sticks to Boat Harbour deadline; Northern Pulp confirms shutdown”;  and “Northern Pulp mill will close without extension to Boat Harbour Act, company says” (Dec. 19).

Unifor, which represents 230 workers at Northern Pulp in Local 444 , has maintained an  ongoing  Save Northern Pulp Jobs campaign , described in  WCR’s separate blog postAfter the government’s December 20 announcement, the union issued a press release, “Premier McNeil throws away 2,700 rural jobs in Nova Scotia” . Another press release on  January 3  is more detailed, reporting to members on subsequent interactions with government, and stating: “the best course of action for a viable and continued forest industry in the province is with Northern Pulp continuing to operate. We reiterated that the $50 million should be used to assist all workers in the industry through a temporary shutdown of the mill to facilitate the construction of Northern Pulp’s new effluent treatment facility (ETF)…. We also suggested the idea of a third-party expert who could serve as intermediary between government regulators and the company to establish a firm and fair process and timelines for the necessary approvals to take place for construction of the ETF.”

boat harbour rallyIn contast to Unifor’s support for the company’s proposal for an alternate effluent treatment plant, which was rejected in a provincial environmental assessment on December 17, it had been  widely opposed – by the Pictou Landing First Nation, as well as fishermen’s associations from all three Maritime provinces , tourism operators, cottagers, boaters and others whose livelihoods would be affected by the proposed dumping of treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait.

Environmental advocacy and First Nations groups also oppose the mill. “Northern Pulp decision validates rights, First Nations lawyer says”  summarizes the position of the Pictou Landing First Nations and praises the Premier’s courage in “righting an injustice spanning five decades.”  And while acknowledging the hardship ahead for forestry workers, the Ecology Action Centre of Nova Scotia calls the decision “courageous” and “forward-thinking”, saying : “For the first time in Nova Scotia’s history, a government has said no to a pulp mill’s coercive demands in defence of environmental protection, Indigenous rights and human health. It is a watershed moment — a turn away from the old ways of allowing mass extraction and the pollution of the air, land and water. This decision could mark the start of a new, cleaner future and a livable planet for our descendants.”

Nova Scotia legislation targets “boldest” GHG emissions reduction targets in Canada

bay of fundy tidal turbine

Tidal turbine in the Bay of Fundy NS

Nova Scotia’s Premier Stephen McNeil issued an October 30th press release  to mark the end of the legislative session, stating: “We began the sitting by introducing a ban on single-use plastic bags at retail checkouts and calling for an emergency debate on climate change. We ended by bringing in the boldest greenhouse gas emission reduction target in the country and some of the strongest environmental legislation in North America.” The “boldest” GHG emissions reduction target referred to is stated in Bill 213, the Sustainable Development Goals Act  passed on Oct.30, calling for GHG emissions reduction of 53 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.  The Act recognizes the urgency of a global climate emergency, and states that the goal of sustainable prosperity must include the elements of sustainable development, a circular economy, an inclusive economy, and “Netukulimk”, which is defined as a Mi’kmaq First Nation concept: “the use of the natural bounty provided by the Creator for the self-support and well-being of the individual and the community by achieving adequate standards of community nutrition and economic well-being without jeopardizing the integrity, diversity or productivity of the environment”.

 

A press release from the Ecology Action Centre of Halifax welcomes the new legislation;   a more detailed EAC Backgrounder   discusses the level of GHG emissions called for, and concludes: “….. A legislated target of 53% below 2005 levels by 2030, for Nova Scotia … sets us on track to overshoot 2 degree C of global warming and it is not based on our differentiated responsibility and capability. For this reason, the EAC continues to advocate for a legislated target of 50% below 1990 levels by 2030 (equivalent to 58% below 2005 levels by 2030).”

Other initiatives introduced in the Sustainable Development Goals Act  include:  an extensive public consultation process to update the province’s climate strategy, to be called Climate Change Plan for Clean Growth and to released by the end of 2020, and a Sustainable Communities Challenge Fund to help communities with mitigation and adaptation. Summaries of the legislation are provided by articles in the National Observer  and the CBC.  

Environmental injustice for Canada’s First Nations – updated

Syncrude_mildred_lake_plantAn overview of the state of environmental injustice in Canada appears in The Statement of United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, issued following his visit in May/June 2019. The full report will be presented to the United Nations in Fall 2020.  The preliminary information presented in  the Statement identifies “a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples. ” The Statement commented on the specific cases of the oil sands (Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan), Sarnia, Muskrat Falls, and mining sites such as Elk Valley.  He noted that Canada has “the second highest number of known mining accidents from 2007-2017, increasing significantly from previous years.”

The Special Rapporteur concluded: “It was clear during the course of my visit that many communities in Canada continue to be exploited by toxic exposures.  Some key concerns include: (1) the limited degree of protection of human health and ecosystems under various legislation; (2) the lack of environmental information and monitoring in areas of high risk; (3) long delays or absence of health impact assessment for affected communities; (4) the inadequate compliance with and enforcement of laws and policies; (5) systemic obstacles to access to justice, in particular for cases of health impacts due to chronic exposures; and (6) the recalcitrance to ensure that victims can realize their right to an effective remedy.   The situation of affected communities outside Canada is of equal concern in many of these regards, including the inordinate power imbalance faced by communities in low- and middle-income countries relative to Canadian corporations.”

The Special Rapporteur visited Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley” and highlighted it in his Statement. This area has been identified as a “pollution hot spot”, and the Aamjiwnaang   First Nation have long fought for redress – including a legal challenge under the Environmental Bill of Rights in 2007.  More recently, on October 9, the Toronto Star published “Whistleblower alleges province failing to protect First Nations community in ‘Chemical Valley’ from ‘dangerous’ air pollutants” , a senior engineer employed by the provincial Ministry of the Environment  alleges that ministry executives withheld technical and scientific information about sulphur dioxide impacts,  failed to properly consult the Aamjiwnaang First Nation representatives, and that he was subject to workplace reprisals for raising the issues. His grievance, filed with the labour board, details his accusations and asks for $186,000 to compensate for the reprisals, and for the ministry to begin discussions with him and Aamjiwnaang representatives “with the goal of providing capacity funding and to develop a program” that would transfer authority from the ministry  to the Aamjiwnaang to enforce Ontario air pollution requirements that impact their territory.

Other examples are described by reporters at The National Observer – for example, “How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands” (April 2019)  and “Alberta officials are signalling they have no idea how to clean up toxic oilsands tailings ponds” (Nov. 2018) .  The Narwhal maintains an archive of articles concerning Canadian mining examples, including the Mount Polley and Taesko mines. One example, “‘This is not Canada’: inside the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s battle against Taseko Mines” (August 2019) .  The APTN News article “Amnesty uses World Water Day to highlight environmental racism in Canada” provides an overview of First Nations actions as of March 2019.

grassy narrows warningAnother example of long-standing concern, mercury pollution at Grassy Narrows, has emerged as an election issue, with the Chief of Grassy Narrows running for the NDP in the riding of Kenora.  Dozens of other Indigenous leaders are running in the current election to bring attention to their own areas, according to a CBC report : for the NDP, 10 candidates; for the Liberals, 12; for the Conservatives, 7, and for the Greens, 6.

Related reading:

The Alberta Environmental Law Centre published a blog in September, Access to Environmental Justice: Costs and scientific uncertainty raise barriers to protecting communities .  This brief blog acts an introduction to the issue of environmental injustice by providing brief overviews (with links to further readings) of case studies which illustrate the barriers to legal action experienced by Alberta First Nations. The  specific cases described are Kearl Oil Sands Environmental Assessment (2007), Fort McKay (2016) and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.  Looking beyond Alberta, the blog also notes examples of Sarnia Ontario’s Chemical Valley, and Africville Nova Scotia, and briefly discusses the concept of climate justice.

 

Equity for marginalized workers needed in Canada’s Just Transition policies

mertins kirkwood2019 who is includedA new discussion of Just Transition in Canada was released in August 2019, Who is included in a Just Transition? Considering social equity in Canada’s shift to a zero-carbon economy.    Co-authors Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives,  and Zaee Deshpande provide this introduction:  “After establishing a conceptual framework for just transition, including a distinction between reactive and proactive approaches, we analyze Canada’s existing transition policies to determine who is benefiting from them and who is excluded. We specifically consider gender identity, Indigenous status, racialized identity and immigrant status in our analysis of coal communities covered by the transition. We find that the main beneficiaries of present just transition policies are Canadian-born white men, which reflects their disproportionate presence in the coal workforce. However, many socially and economically marginalized people also face costs and risks from the same climate policies but do not share in the benefits of transition policies, which means these policies may lead to further marginalization.”  The conclusions are supported by the labour market analysis based on Statistics Canada employment data, combined with a synthesis of federal and Alberta Just Transition policies currently in place for the coal industry.  The paper makes a series of policy recommendations including targeted training, apprenticeship and education for people from marginalized groups.

The August report was co-published by  the Canadian Centre for Policy and  Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Climate Change project (ACW), as was a 2018 report by  Mertins-Kirkwood, Making decarbonization work for workers: Policies for a just transition to a zero-carbon economy in Canada,  in which he sets out the distinctions between “reactive” and “proactive” Just Transition policies.  In November 2019, a related article by Mertins-Kirkwood and Ian Hussey, “A top-down transition: A critical account of Canada’s government-led phase-out of the coal sector,” will appear in the forthcoming international book Just transition(s): social justice in the shift towards a low-carbon world, to be published by Pluto Press .