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Environmental Racism

Image is courtesy of The Starfish.

What Is Environmental Racism?

Anthropocene is a term that is used to describe the consequences of human actions on the Earth, commonly discussed as human actions on biodiversity and animals needing to migrate. When talking about the environment, the topic of systemic racism is not something that often comes to mind, but the two have been shown to have an intersection.

Environmental racism is a sector of the environmental justice movement. According to Ecojustice, the term was coined by Benjamin Chavis, a United States civil rights activist. He defined the term to be “... 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.”

Since this issue is a part of systemic racism, this would mean institutional policies are the cause rather than the actions of an individual. As Greenaction outlines, it refers to institutional rules, regulations, policies, or government and/or corporate decisions that intentionally target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses, lax zoning, and environmental enforcement. It results in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based on race.

Environmental racism is exacerbated by intentional neglect, the seeming need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, a lack of institutional power, and low land prices for people of colour. Polluting enterprises and their weak regulation disproportionately harm communities of colour and low-income areas. In Canada, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour have been on the receiving end of environmental racism for many years.

Examples In Canada

Below are a few examples of environmental racism in Canada from The Canadian Encyclopedia.


Africville was an African community situated in Halifax, Nova Scotia that has existed since 1848. The region became a hotspot for a variety of environmental and socioeconomic problems. A fertilizer plant, slaughterhouse, tar factory, stone and coal crushing plant, cotton mill, penitentiary, three railway track systems, and an open waste were among the dangers. It was later condemned in the late 60s and inhabitants needed to relocate. Descendants of the community attempted to fight back in 2016 and took it to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia for a class-action lawsuit for the loss of their land. However, the judge’s ruling was that the plaintiff did not have the prerequisites in order to be certified as such, preventing the case from proceeding.

Image is courtesy of The Star.


Pictou, a First Nations reserve, was subjected to Northern Pulp mill’s pollution in 1967. In 1986, the community took legal action against the federal government, but the government did little to remedy the problem. Chief Andrea Paul and her First Nation administration authorized a road roadblock heading to the wastewater leak location on June 11, 2014. After the government and Northern Pulp failed to respond to her questions about how they planned to clean up the leak, Paul authorized the blockade. The First Nation lifted the barrier when Paul and former Environment Minister Randy Delorey inked a deal to shut the mill by 2020.

Grassy Narrows

During the 1960s and early 1970s, another First Nations reserve near Kenora, Ontario was Grassy Narrows. Dryden Chemicals Ltd., which was located upstream from the reserve, was responsible for dumping loads of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River, which served as a key source of fish for the community’s food and revenue. The Ontario government halted the commercial fisheries in 1970 owing to mercury poisoned fish. As a result, the community’s unemployment rate climbed to 95% in April 2020, and the federal government pledged to establish a care center in the reserve for individuals suffering from mercury poisoning, as well as long-term assistance for the care home.

Image is courtesy of Pulitzer Center.

What We Can Do

There is no quick solution to this problem, however, there are a few things that can be done such as supporting non-profit organizations made to combat environmental racism. We can also take the time to learn about environmental racism to better identify it in the future policies that will affect BIPOC communities. Another important step is to have more BIPOC individuals helping lead ecology or environmental movements, as they are the group that is disproportionately affected by pollution. Finally, environmental groups may make use of the opportunity to commit to an anti-racist orientation, and anti-racist movements can support environmentalists in an effort to assist BIPOC communities, as cross-movement solidarity may provide a solution.

Article Author: Idil Gure

Article Editors: Victoria Huang, Sherilyn Wen


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