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Not So Nice: Why Canada’s Environmental Racism Crisis is Cause for Reconsidering its National Identity

Image by Grace Chen

If the first thing you see when you picture Canada is a lush, progressive, free healthcare utopia, you would not be alone. The country’s international reputation generally ranges from benign acknowledgement to outright veneration. What’s more, Canadian citizens truly believe their country to be the beacon of liberalism, openness, and diversity that the rest of the world sees it as. 

But, for many, this perception of Canada is a veneer that hides a darker truth. Perhaps no community knows this truth as well as Canada’s Indigenous peoples. For the last 400 years, the Indigenous people of Canada have been subject to sustained abuses, first by European colonizers and, later, by the Canadian government. Most well-known in this string of atrocities was Canada’s residential school system, a network of boarding schools run by Christian churches and made mandatory for Indigenous children in an attempt to assimilate them to Euro-Canadian culture. This “assimilation” process consisted of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. The residential school system has since been cited as cultural genocide, and its effects have manifested in intergenerational trauma passed on between the victims, their families, and their communities. The most recent public iteration of this trauma was felt with the discovery of hundreds of bodies of Indigenous children at unmarked graves near old residential school sites.

And yet, as the country mourned the death of these children, the grief and anger of the non-Indigenous public appeared largely misplaced. Many framed the discovery as a relic of a distant but deplorable past and believed that the issue itself was self-contained. What the public did not seem to grasp, however, was that the tragedy did not begin and end with the murder of Indigenous children. Rather, the specter of residential schools lives on in Canada to this day, seen in a whole host of issues disproportionately affecting Indigenous communities. Perhaps one of the most pressing of these issues is that of environmental racism

Coined by African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis, the term environmental racism describes “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.” For many Indigenous communities in Canada, environmental racism permeates daily life. In one of the more famous examples, the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario is the site of a mercury poisoning incident dating back to the 1960s and 70s when a chemical plant dumped 10 tons of toxic waste in a river upstream from the community. In the decades since, 90 percent of the Grassy Narrows population has experienced symptoms of mercury poisoning. In another case, the Neskantaga First Nation of Ontario has been living under a boil-water advisory since 1995, the longest-running of such advisories in Canada. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located in an area of the country known as the “Chemical Valley,” lives with some of the most polluted air in the country thanks to nearby industrial plants. These cases are far from anomalies. In his report on a 2019 visit to Canada, Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, found that “Indigenous peoples [in Canada] appear to be disproportionately located in close proximity to actual and potential sources of toxic exposure” such as refineries, manufacturing facilities, incinerators, and pipelines.

The damage done to Indigenous communities extends beyond the degradation of physical health and surrounding natural ecosystems. Indeed, a whole host of other issues, ranging from disability to job loss, often ensues, causing other problems such as substance abuse, mental illness, feelings of hopelessness, and violence among Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous teens in communities like Grassy Narrows have “never lived in a community where jobs are plentiful and disabilities are rare. Few of them are familiar with a world beyond loss and pain and grief.” 

What is even more striking about the environmental racism crisis in Canada is the government’s utter neglect of the problem. Tuncak’s 2019 report found “a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by Indigenous peoples.” Take the boil-water advisory issue as an example. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had committed to ending all long-term drinking water advisories on Indigenous reserves by March 2021 in his 2015 campaign for prime minister. That deadline came and went without much comment, and only in late April did the government release a new estimate stating it did not suspect it would be able to end long-term reserve water advisories until 2023 at the earliest

Compounding the physical and ecological damage of environmental racism is the fact that Indigenous peoples in Canada rely on land and water for “their traditional foods and medicine, their culture and identity, as well as their traditional knowledge.” Taken in this context, we should thus be framing the conversation around environmental racism in Canada as the latest iteration of the Canadian government’s attempted cultural erasure of Indigenous peoples.

Environmental racism and its material ramifications necessitate immediate institutional actions by the federal and provincial governments. Canada currently has multiple possible policy tools at its disposal that could alleviate some of the crisis’s worst effects. Bill C-230, for instance, is a private member’s bill currently making its way through the parliamentary system that aims to develop a national strategy for tackling environmental racism by “making efforts to identify, document, and monitor environmental racism, creating processes to increase the participation of Indigenous, racialized, and other affected communities in environmental policy-making, providing redress for harm due to environmental injustice and ensuring access to clean air and water.” It would also launch a nationwide effort to collect statistics on environmental racism, as a key challenge in tackling the crisis is a lack of data to accurately assess the scope of the problem. 

In addition to C-230, the Canadian government has a number of other policy actions it can and should take to rectify environmental disparities, including putting greater resources towards ending the Indigenous water crisis and formally adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law. While Canada did pass Bill C-15, a law promising to align its federal laws with the treaty, it has not yet gone so far as to recognize the declaration itself as the law of the land.

This is not to say that progress has not been made on Indigenous affairs in Canada more generally. On September 30, Canada observed its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, an action long recommended by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as part of their 94 calls to action. Additionally, Canada recently saw the swearing in of its first Indigenous Governor General, Mary Simon. While each of these outcomes have brought forth notable advances, Canada’s systemic racism ultimately still remains. As the Native Women’s Association of Canada pointed out in their reaction to Simon’s appointment, “Ms. Simon is being asked to serve the senior role in what is still a colonial system of governance.” 

Such glaring insufficiency in government action should prompt nothing less than a recontextualization of the country’s national identity as a whole. The Canadian government is, after all, a colonial institution that has not yet been reformed in any meaningful way to properly represent the people it colonized. For evidence, look no further than the fact that the ministries of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services (the two agencies with the most direct impact on Indigenous peoples) have not yet been led by Indigenous individuals. Canadians are, knowingly or not, living under a model of governance that systematically disadvantages Indigenous peoples. 

Environmental racism is a modern manifestation of the system of thought and discrimination that created residential schools. It is a product of the same spirit of abuse and neglect which has seen the Canadian government fail to address the rising number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the mental health crises ripping a hole through Indigenous communities. Canada’s environmental racism crisis should be a signal to the country that it is still capable of committing the gross atrocities it likes to believe it has left in the past, and recognizing this fact must ultimately usher in a reconception of Canada’s core national identity. After all, if the country has any hope of credibly championing liberalism and humanitarianism abroad, it will first have to reckon with its demons at home. It is not the innocent bystander to racism and human rights atrocities that it often believes itself to be. In failing to deal with environmental racism and disregarding its Indigenous peoples, Canada is in a precarious position; without significant reform, its days as the friendly face on the world stage will be numbered.