How can we start to undo a legacy of environmental racism?

Lasting change will require a shift in individual behaviour and perspectives. However, the law can help move this change along and can be protection for those who need it most, it just has to be good law.

Along with increased study of environmental justice, there are numerous recommendations and suggestions for how our laws can be improved. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, it should give you an idea of some of the ways that improvement is possible. Increasing environmental justice for marginalized communities can be facilitated by:

  • Developing legislation dedicated to combating environmental racism. 20 years after their initial report, the United Church of Christ released a follow up report. This report suggested passing a National Environmental Justice Act (Executive Order 12898). This Act would be designed to impose federal responsibility in ways that advanced equal protection under the law for communities of colour and low-income communities and broadened the scope of those responsible for the protection of environmental justice. [1] A Canadian equivalent has been suggested as an option, in part, because it could help to create a, “clear and enforceable framework through which to reflect environmental justice considerations in government decision-making.” [2] This would be a very broad piece of legislation intended to focus on the extended issue of systemic environmental racism, rather than just individual decision making processes.
  • Making changes to the environmental assessment and other approval processes to make it mandatory to consider a project’s potential to disproportionately impact marginalized communities such as Indigenous or low-income communities, [3] or how the project would affect traditional land and resource uses (particularly for Indigenous populations).
  • Implementing mandatory consideration of cumulative effects when approving new projects from the municipal to federal levels. As we saw in our section on Toxins & Waste, (click here to read it) the problems faced by the people living in Chemical Valley were worsened in large part due to an approval process that did not consider the cumulative effects of all of the environmentally toxic projects in that area. [4]
  • Adding a right to a healthy environment into the Constitution. Although this would not necessarily affect every decision made by a government body, it would give affected people more recourse to hold government’s accountable when they do not adequately protect the health of the environment.
To read more about this idea check out our Constitutional Law section here.
  • Diversifying the panels authorizing project approvals to include more people from the affected communities. For example, ensure that more than one Indigenous person with an understanding of the community sits on an environmental assessment panel.
  • Expanding the rules around standing and intervener status to allow third party groups to more easily put forward their thoughts on new projects.
  • Including sustainability assessments in the federal Impact Assessment Act. In its simplest form, a sustainability assessment asks: does this project positively contribute to sustainability? [5] A sustainability approach may help to ensure communities are not faced with undue environmental burdens by raising the standard of projects being built on the whole.
  • Implementing the precautionary principle in more legislation and requiring that the precautionary principle be considered before a project approval can be finalized. This should ensure that projects must demonstrate that they will not impose an unfair burden of harm on any particular community. [6]
Check out our section on Fundamentals of Law here to read more about this principle.

Now that you have completed this introduction on environmental racism and justice in Canada, take some time to think about other ways that you think the law may be able to help fix this problem. You may notice more examples of environmental racism while reading through the website and while continuing your studies in environmental law more generally, if you do come back to let us know.

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[1] Robert D Bullard et al, “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007: A Report Prepared for the United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries” (2007) United Church of Christ at 157.

[2] Kaitlyn Mitchell & Zachary D’Onofrio, “Environmental Injustice and Racism in Canada: The First Step is Admitting We Have a Problem” (2016) 29 J Env L & Prac 305 at 329.

[3] Kaitlyn Mitchell & Zachary D’Onofrio, “Environmental Injustice and Racism in Canada: The First Step is Admitting We Have a Problem” at 332.

[4] Elaine MacDonald & Sarah Rang, “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley – An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario Area” (October 2007) EcoJustice at 19 online:

[5] Natalie J. Chalifour, “Bringing Justice to Environmental Assessment: An Examination of Kearl oil Sands Joing Review Panel and the Health Concerns of the Community of Fort Chipewyan” 21 J Env L & Prac 32 at 50.

[6] Natalie J. Chalifour, “Bringing Justice to Environmental Assessment: An Examination of Kearl oil Sands Joing Review Panel and the Health Concerns of the Community of Fort Chipewyan”.




Environmental Justice

Lesson Plan: Fundamentals of Environmental Law
Lesson Plan: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Lesson Plan: Tragedy of the Commons
Lesson Plan: Climate Litigation

Curriculum Connections


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