Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice

Often, my short walks from the bus stop to wherever I happen to be going on campus — usually straight to St. John’s College for a cup of fair-trade coffee — I have been met with an unnerving puzzle. Outside of the parking garage there has been, on more than one occasion, a long line-up of idling automobiles winding around the corner onto the short access road in front of Max Bell. The vehicles — about 95 per cent of the time — are occupied by only one person and they are invariably nursing a Tim Hortons coffee bought from a drive-through en route. I wonder what is going through the minds of the drivers waiting in line. Do they think they should have biked or taken the bus to school, or that we had best start organizing carpools? Or are they wishing more parkades would be built for their convenience? Then I start to wonder if these drivers ever wonder where the fuel they are burning so inefficiently is coming from, and if they did know, would they even care or would this knowledge alter their patterns of consumption? We are a society that takes a very rich lifestyle for granted, resources wasted away by an ungrateful, unethical and disorganized society.

Our choice — individual and as a society — in production/ consumption is a highly ethical question, one not to be easily dismissed. But one thing of which I am certain is that those selling us these resources — gas, oil, hydroelectric power, paper, lumber, coffee, you name it — probably prefer that the wheels keep turning as they are: inefficiently, wastefully, with seldom a questioning moment. What we might hear could make us revolt against the resource-use we currently take for granted, or at very least use them more efficiently. And that would mean less money in the pockets of the great exploiters of resources.

Environmental racism and indigenous peoples

The high-level of material consumption on Earth, especially in North America, is often disconnected geographically and psychologically from the vast network of industrial development and resource extraction sites that are pockmarking the Earth, leaving long and irreparable scars behind. These industrial scars are not simply matters for ecologists — they should concern all of us. The toxicity they leave behind creates dead zones where life is not sustainable, altering our visions for the generations to come. To frame the problem simply as one for the future, however, does not do the question justice. For, at this present moment, throughout the world real people are being terribly affected by our society’s collective choices of production and consumption, and most often the people worst impacted are among the world’s 370 million indigenous people. While normally we consider racism to be the uttering of direct slurs or discrimination based on one’s racial or ethnic background, there is another kind of racism that is structural and more systemic. This racism is of the kind that sanctioned the state-sponsored removal of aboriginal youth in Canada from their families and communities into the culture-stripping machines that were the church-run Indian Residential Schools.

The residential schools form not only the example of structural racism par excellence; there are those who believe that this policy was created to break long-established patterns of land use, disrupting Aboriginal cultural continuity to make the resources buried beneath more accessible. Where the structural racism sanctions the stripping and toxification of Indigenous lands and the damaging of Indigenous peoples’ health, this phenomenon is called environmental racism. Insofar as we inefficiently consume the resources stripped from native lands and insofar as we do not rally to stop this practice, we are complicit in this structural racism. We are partaking in an unethical and immoral inertia of consumption.

The ‘Oilberta scar sands,’ the Athabasca lifeline and the people downstream

Perhaps the largest, most ecologically destructive and energy-inefficient industrial project on Earth is the Alberta tar sands in Northern Alberta and north-west Saskatchewan. This oil exploration is not the conventional sort that pumps sweet crude up through wells drilled in specific oil-containing sites. No, the tar sands involve “dirty oil,” or bitumen, mixed in with sand deep below the Northern Alberta-Saskatchewan boreal forest. To access it, a series of energy intensive and ecologically suspect practices are required. The surface ecology is completely removed, the boreal clear-cut by heavy machinery, destroying the surface habitat of many beings.
Once the forest has been removed, large pits are dug and holes are drilled deep into the Earth. To get at the bitumen, huge volumes of water are used. The toxic by-product of mining the tarsands is contained in water and chemical pools called tailings ponds, which cover 130 square kms and often are found alongside the Athabasca River, inevitably toxifying it through runoff into groundwater. A recent study by University of Alberta’s David Schindler shows the dumping of pollutants into the waterways amounts to approximately one big oil spill every single year.

While the death of approximately 1,600 ducks in 2008 received great attention in Canadian and international media, downstream the Cree and Dene at Fort Chipewyan and in surrounding communities are reeling from the impacts to their lands, and thus to their health. Mike Mercredi, a 30-year old Fort Chipewyan Dene man, quit his high-paying job after he realized the degree to which his people’s health was deteriorating from the pollution of their waters. Describing the tar sands’ impacts on his community, Mercredi referred to the process being committed upon his people by the industry with the complicity of governments as a “slow industrial genocide.”

Closer to home: Manitoba Hydro dams and flooded Cree lands

Alberta tar sands represent low-hanging fruit in terms of criticizing the energy sector for its pollution of Aboriginal lands and violation of their rights. Closer to home, premiers Doer and now Selinger and their governing party do everything in their power to sell Manitoba Hydro’s electricity as “green,” trying to have this energy counted as renewable. They often cite the tar sands as a dirty source, making the publicly-owned utility’s operations in Northern Manitoba look tame by comparison. However, part of the problem of this claim is that it is being made from the remote control centres of the Manitoba Legislature and of the Manitoba Hydro tower on Portage Avenue, whereas environmental racism tends to play out in site-specific Aboriginal lands, far away from the eyes of the resource-consuming masses.

In the 1960s, the Grand Rapids dam was built near the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, causing great flooding and the relocation of the Chemawawin and Moose Lake Cree. Similarly, a more massive project that redirected the Churchill River into the Nelson River via Southern Indian Lake in the 1970s destroyed the commercial fishery of South Indian Lake, has caused relocations throughout the region, flooded many Cree burial sites and contaminated fish that were a staple of the Cree diet with mercury. What was once a vibrant fishing, gathering and hunting cultural landscape is now, for the most part, a shadow of its former self, and the embodiment of this change is seen in the health of the people today.

Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, victims of mercury, clear-cut logging

Hydroelectricity development is not the only industrial project to emit mercury directly into waterways. In the late 1960s, mercury was being discovered in the fish on the English-Wabigoon River system downstream from the pulp mill in Dryden, Ont.. A visit to these Anishiinabeg (Ojibway) communities by Japanese mercury specialist Dr. Masazumi Harada confirmed that people in the communities were contaminated with levels of mercury catastrophically above allowable health limits.

While over the decades the level of mercury in the fish in Anishiinabeg communities has decreased, the levels of mercury in the human body do not so easily decrease, making the health impacts for the residents there both long term and often intergenerational, as witnessed by a range of mercury-caused birth defects and health challenges in children born after this pollution took place. Health Canada, despite two other return visits from Harada and his team of doctors in the past decade, continues to dispute that the exact symptoms of mercury poisoning can be differentiated.

Uniting Indigenous rights and ecological movements

I am both a Green politically and a master’s student in native studies. For me, the path of ecological politics led straight to an inquiry into how land is being so easily exploited and a recognition that the oft-forgotten side of most environmental issues is found in the elements of social justice, human rights and Indigenous rights issues. Perhaps Prime Minister Stephen Harper thought that his formal apology in June of 2008 for the history of the Indian Residential Schools could mask the continued injustices inherent in the industrial exploitation of resources on and near Aboriginal lands in Canada still going on today. Perhaps he fulfilled the wish of what I call the ”political unconscious” in Canadians’ minds that if only we could formally turn the page on our country’s historic injustices perpetrated upon Aboriginal peoples, we can turn a blind eye and continue to profit from the environmental injustice still being committed against Aboriginal peoples today. Stephen Harper has internationally referred to Canada as “an energy superpower.” He also told the G20 last year that Canada has no history of colonialism. The two statements cannot be more closely linked. Behind every superpower is a shadow side that continues to enforce structural injustice upon a part of its population.

Canadians must bridge the psychological gap between our use and our profit from natural resources and the lives of Aboriginal populations from whose lands these resources have come and upon whose bodies these industries leave their mark. Canadians must choose individually and through collective political action to first recognize the environmental racism in our economy and then start to put an end to these practices through making different choices. We need to redefine our economy based on social goals and a desired minimum quality of life for all people who make up our population, and cease the blind faith in an economy based solely on GDP growth. We need to wake people up from their Tim Hortons-induced, single-occupant vehicle-idling stupor.

Once we awaken en masse as Canadians, only then can the real work of environmental justice begin: partaking in social systems that use the economy as a tool to enhance the rights of all, creating an economy that is ecologically sound and gives back what it borrows from future generations and establishing labour and environmental standards globally that are based on fair trade and respect for the dignity of all life on Earth. Until then, we remain alone in our cars, drinking unethical coffee from disposable cups and idling away the last of Earth’s available fossil fuels, shaking our heads when we read of stories from far-off Indigenous peoples suffering from cancer epidemics and mass poverty, failing to make the connection between cause and effect.

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