Environmental justice in Canada: A labour union call to action, and evidence from the UN Special Rapporteur

  “We will not rest, we will not stop: Building for better in a post-pandemic recovery” appeared in the Labour Day issue of Our Times magazine, written by Yolanda McClean and Christopher Wilson, executive officers of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). Set in the context of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, the article states: “The calls to intensify the struggle against Canada’s police violence, economic apartheid and environmental racism are resounding.  …Anti-Indigenous, anti-Black and systemic racism extend beyond our political structures to our education and healthcare systems, to our corporations, workplaces, communities and, yes, to our labour movement.  (On this point, the authors refer to “Dear White Sisters & Brothers,” an Open Letter by unionist Carol Wall which appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Our Times).

Wilson and McClean call upon the labour movement, stating: “A labour vision for a post-pandemic recovery must confront structural racial inequalities and advocate for the inclusion of BIPOC communities — economically, politically and socially.”   As positive examples, the article cites the Ontario Federation of Labour, which joined with the CBTU in a joint statement in July, stating: “As allies, we must act now and support the call to defund the police”. Wilson and McClean also highlight the CBTU’s “Green Is Not White” Environmental Racism research project, and its associated webinar “What Can Unions Do to Stop Environmental Racism?” , produced by the CBTU, the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, and York University’s Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW).   

UN Special Rapporteur reviews toxic chemicals in Canada and concludes: Environmental injustice persists in Canada

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics, Mr. Baskut Tuncak, officially visited Canada in May/June 2019, and presented his resulting Report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in early September 2020. The report states clearly that “Environmental injustice persists in Canada. A significant proportion of the population in Canada experience racial discrimination, with Indigenous, and racialized people, the most widely considered to experience discriminatory treatment.” The report focused on the extractive industries (defined as “mining of metals and oil sands”) in Canada and abroad – noting that over 50% of the world’s multinational mining companies are based in Canada. The report also discusses oil and gas pipelines, and chemical industries (including pesticides in agriculture). After documenting many specific examples, the Rapporteur concludes with recommendations for legislative and regulatory changes.

Excerpted highlights from the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics :

“….Contamination from extractive industries, including the massive tailing ponds in Alberta, and the possibility of seeping into local water supplies, is of concern.

… despite compliance with the Fisheries Act, 76% of metal mines have confirmed effects on fish, fish habitat or both. Among these mines, 92% confirmed at least one effect of a magnitude that may be indicative of a higher risk to the environment.

….The health risks posed to Indigenous peoples by the multibillion-dollar oil sands industry are another example of concerns. Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip) paint a disturbing picture of health impacts of the oil sands (i.e. tar sands) that were not properly investigated for years, despite increasing evidence of health impacts on local communities.

 … the situation of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia is profoundly unsettling. Deeply connected with their land, residents on the reservation invaded by industry as far back as the 1940s are now surrounded on three sides by over 60 industrial facilities that create the physiological and mental stress among community members …It is one of the most polluted places in Canada, dubbed “chemical valley.” ….   

…Workers are unquestionably vulnerable regarding their unique and elevated risks to chemical exposures. In Canada, occupational diseases and disabilities due to such exposures pose a major challenge to fulfilment of workers’ rights. Recent estimates show over 2.9 million workers are exposed to carcinogens and other hazardous substances at work, which is a gross underestimation.. ”  

SEIU cleaners stage the first union-authorized climate strike in the U.S.

Strike logo yellowTo launch his new column,  Strike: Jeremy Brecher’s Corner at the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) website, Jeremy Brecher  began with the theme “The Future of Climate Strikes”.  On February 29 , he posted “First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?” (re-published in Common Dreams as  “Did we just witness the first union-authorized climate strike in the United States?”). The article describes a one day strike on February 27 by members of Service Employees International Union Local 26 , employed by over a dozen different subcontractors to clean corporate buildings in Minneapolis.  He states that it is, “as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands. ”

Brecher gives voice to many of the low-wage and immigrant workers who are the backbone of the strike, and traces their climate activism back to 2009, when Local 26 won contract language:  to establish an Ad Hoc Committee of union and company representatives at each company, to “review the use of green chemicals”, to provide training to employees on the “use, mixing and storage” of cleaning chemicals, and that “The employer “shall make every effort to use only green, sustainable cleaning products where possible.”  The SEIU Local 26 collective agreement for 2016-2019 is here , with climate-related clause 18.13 on pages 39-40.  Other examples of clauses related to toxic chemicals in Canadian collective agreements are available from the ACW Green Agreements database here ; clauses regarding green procurement are here , and the full searchable database of 240 clauses  is here .

seiu strikeAlthough the main focus of  First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?  is on the climate-related demands, the strike is also important for its success in coalition-building and community support. Brecher characterizes it as exemplary of the growing trend toward “Bargaining for the Common Good, ” as outlined in a September 2019 article in The American Prospect , “How Workers Can Demand Climate Justice”  .  An article by Steve Payne reported on the broader community justice issues in the strike in “Twin Cities Janitors and Guards Feature Climate and Housing in Their Strike Demands” in Labor Notes (Feb. 20) .

UPDATE: 

Since Brecher’s article, the union has released a press release on March 14,  announcing agreement with most employers and members’ approval of  a contract which includes funding towards a Labor-Management Cooperation Fund for green education and training.  Notably, given that these are the workers keeping airports and commercial buildings clean in the Covid-19 crisis, the agreement also provides for an increase for all full-time workers to six paid sick days by the second year of the contract.

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.

 

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).

 

Pollution cost Canada $2 billion in Lost Labour Output alone

The June 2017 report, Costs of Pollution in Canada: Measuring the impacts on families, businesses and governments reviews and synthesizes existing studies to produce the most comprehensive assessment of pollution and its costs  in Canada to date. Some quick facts: the cost of climate change-related heat waves in Canada is estimated to have been $1.6 billion in 2015; Smog alone cost Canadians $36 billion in 2015. But the report also provides detailed estimates, organized in three categories: 1.  Direct Welfare Costs: (Harm to health and well-being such as  lower enjoyment of life, sickness and premature death); 2.  Direct Income Costs – (Direct out of pocket expenses for families (e.g. medications for asthma), businesses (e.g. increased maintenance costs for buildings) and governments (remediation of polluted sites); and 3. Wealth impacts.

Direct Welfare Costs of pollution, the most studied and understood,  are estimated as at least $39 billion in 2015, or about $4,300 for a family of four.  The Direct Income Costs   that could be measured amounted to $3.3 billion in 2015, but the study cautions that this many important costs could not be measured, and full impacts on income were likely in the tens of billions of dollars.  In this category, the study estimates  Lost Labour Outputs, using a metric derived from the 2016  OECD study,  The  Economic Consequences of Outdoor Air Pollution.  The OECD estimates outdoor air pollution to cost 0.1% of national GDP, which, when applied to Canada’s  2015 GDP of approximately  $1,986 billion, implies a costs of about $2 billion in lost labour output alone. And finally, Wealth impacts, or costs on value of assets , are said to be the least understood of pollution costs, about which, “We simply do not know how much pollution costs us in terms of lost wealth”.

Costs of Pollution in Canada: Measuring the impacts on families, businesses and governments was prepared by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), with funding from the Ivey Foundation; the full report is available in English- only. Summaries are in English  and French.Short  videos were derived in cooperation with the Conference Board of Canada to focus on key topics:  e.g. extreme weather, contaminated sites, and smog .