Human rights lens needed to prevent environmental racism
Diversity is strength. That’s true in nature and human affairs.
But recent painful events have shown society has yet to grasp this. The appalling deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Toronto’s Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and many others — all at the hands of those tasked to serve and protect — have ignited awareness of the intense, often violent racial discrimination that continues to oppress Black, Indigenous and people of colour in Canada and the U.S.
The overwhelming call to end race-based discrimination demands we take stock and action. This needs to include an examination of how environmental harm disproportionately affects vulnerable populations and marginalized communities. Canada’s main pollution-prevention law, the 269-page Canadian Environmental Protection Act, doesn’t include one mention of environmental justice, human rights or vulnerable populations.
Yet, in urban areas, 25 per cent of the lowest socio-economic status neighbourhoods are within a kilometre of a major polluting industrial facility compared to just seven per cent of the wealthiest. Income inequality in Canada also has a racial dimension. A 2019 analysis found racialized men earned 78 cents for every dollar non-racialized men earned, while racialized women earned 59 cents (non-racialized women earned 67 cents for every dollar non-racialized men earned).
About 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry operates within a few kilometres of Sarnia and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, exposing community members to a range of harmful pollutants. Inuit in Canada’s North are at greater risk of economic losses and poor health as a result of climate change, with rapid Arctic warming jeopardizing hunting and many other activities.
Marginalized communities can also be more susceptible to insidious toxic exposures. For example, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, even at low levels, can interfere with hormone functioning. We’re all exposed to them in myriad ways, from food pesticide residues and personal-care product ingredients to textile treatments, product packaging and industrial air pollution. American researchers identified higher exposure levels in ethnic minorities and a corresponding higher disease burden. They hypothesize that cultural behaviours, consumption patterns and proximity of industrial facilities and waste sites could contribute to these disparities. These are just a few examples. Unresponsive environmental policies systematically result in concentration of pollution risks — and inadequate access to environmental benefits — in disadvantaged Canadian communities.