Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism

The terms ‘environmental justice’ and ‘environmental racism’ were first coined in the United States during the 1980s.  They were first discussed by Benjamin Chavis Jr., a commissioner for the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, when he released a report in 1987 in which he found a striking relationship between the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities across the United States and communities of people of colour.

In response to these findings, the report defined environmental racism as “the intentional siting of hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators and polluting industries in areas inhabited mainly by Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous peoples, Asians, migrant farm workers and low-income peoples.”[1] Flowing from this definition, access to environmental justice requires “the fair and consistent distribution of environmental benefits and burden, without discrimination on the basis of socio-economic status, race, ethnic origin, or residence on an Indigenous reserve.”[2]

This report set off country-wide interest in environmental justice and led to numerous studies and detailed academic literature across the United States. In the United States, researchers found that chemical or waste companies specifically chose Black or immigrant neighbourhoods in which to locate their projects, with no particular resource connection to those areas, making environmental racism easy to identify. [3] Canada, on the other hand, has been slow at both recognizing our role in creating and perpetuating situations of environmental racism and in addressing these situations. However, the seeds are starting to be sown and communities across Canada, especially Indigenous communities, are fighting for their right to shoulder an equal amount of environmental burdens and receive an equal share of the benefits.

In this section we will further explain environmental justice/environmental racism with some real-life examples from across Canada. We will also summarize some of the recommendations for ways that environmental justice principles can be incorporated into our environmental legislation.

Hopefully this brief introduction will help you better understand and support environmental justice in your own community.

What exactly is environmental justice? >>

[1] Dr. Benjamin F. Charles Jr., “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites” (1987) Commission for Racial Justice United Church of Christ at xiii online: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/unitedchurchofchrist/legacy_url/13567/toxwrace87.pdf?1418439935.

[2] Shirley Thompson, “Flooding of First Nations and Environmental Justice in Manitoba: Case Studies of the Impacts of the 2011 Flood and Hydro Development in Manitoba” (2015) 38 Man LJ 220 at 222.

[3] Brett Bundale, “Weekend Focus: The toxic sites of Nova Scotia racism” (25 April 2015) The Chronicle Herald.