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National Strategy Respecting Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Bill

Third Reading--Debate Continued

June 11, 2024

Honourable senators, I rise to deliver the comments of Senator Galvez with respect to Bill C-226, An Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice. These are her words:

I speak with the intention to convince you to unanimously vote in favour of the bill, as we did in committee.

The purpose of Bill C-226 is to “. . . develop a national strategy to promote efforts across Canada to address the harm caused by environmental racism.” This is a significant issue that affects equity-deserving communities and impacts Indigenous, Black, racialized and low-income populations, causing a myriad of harms unique to each community that suffers. This bill is an indispensable part of what must be Canada’s fundamental legislative scaffold, intended to address environmental injustices and ensure access to a clean and safe environment for all Canadians.

During our committee study of the bill, we heard testimony from Indigenous peoples, each with a unique lived experience of environmental racism. Their words throw light on their truths, and make clear Canada’s sad legacy and perpetuation of environmental racism. No more can we stand idly by while these communities across the country continue to endure the harms of environmental injustices.

I quote Chief Chris Plain from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, who talked about the impacts on his community:

Over the past 100 years, lands and waters in Aamjiwnaang have been impoverished by over-exploitation. All facets of Aamjiwnaang’s environment are polluted, including air, land and water. Experts refer to Aamjiwnaang’s traditional lands as overburdened or saturated, meaning the area has reached a state that cannot accommodate any further pollution, and it is likely that Aamjiwnaang’s traditional lands reached this state many years ago.

Dr. Ingrid Waldron, Director of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health Project, provided the committee with an explanation for the perpetuation of these situations:

Environmental racism does not manifest in a vacuum isolated from other structural inequalities occurring in Indigenous and racialized communities. Rather, these structural inequalities lay the ground for environmental racism to take root and manifest over generations. These structural inequalities include policies and actions within our social structures or institutions that lead to underemployment and unemployment; income insecurity and poverty; over-policing and racial profiling; underachievement in the school system; food insecurity; housing insecurity; poor public infrastructure, such as lack of green space, trails and sidewalks; and poor health. Therefore, addressing these structural inequalities within our social structures that operate in tandem to enable environmental racism is important if we are to achieve environmental justice for racialized communities.

Environmental racism is a legacy of colonialism, and persists as a pillar of our societal values and of our wasteful capitalist economy. The notion that certain communities are less deserving of a healthy environment says — through action — that the people in these communities are of lesser value or lesser importance. This is unethical, if not criminal. We must expunge any such notions from our societal values and humbly walk this path to reconciliation, allowing communities impacted by environmental injustices to lead the way.

As important Canadian laws intended to protect the environment and ensure a healthy environment for all Canadians, the Impact Assessment Act as well as the modernized Canadian Environmental Protection Act fail to require a holistic consideration of projects and developments, and instead allow for the siloing of environmental issues. Our current Western paradigm and colonial legal systems enable us to treat different industries in different ways, and further allow us to treat different environmental issues in different ways. This compartmentalization fails to recognize the broader cumulative environmental, health and social impacts of various projects and developments.

Bill C-226 will require us to take an intersectional and holistic look at the impacts of environmental laws and policies in Canada and will help us see the connection between this bill and laws like the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, or CEPA.

The physical and mental health harms of environmental racism include but are not limited to endocrine, autoimmune, neurodegenerative and mental health disorders, cancers, neurodevelopmental and muscular disorders from exposure to toxins released into the environment, as well as childhood leukemia, cardiovascular diseases, neurological effects, congenital defects and severe respiratory illness linked to fracking. In addition, the mental and physical health impacts associated with a broken connection with the environment, including food insecurity, and the impacts on cultural identity that result from environmental degradation and devastation are severely felt, particularly by Indigenous communities.

During her testimony, Dr. Ingrid Waldron said of the bill:

Bill C-226’s strength is that it is broad enough to capture the shared experiences of Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities that have been impacted by environmental racism. Bill C-226 is simultaneously specific enough in its understanding of the importance of looking at the intersections of race, socio-economic status, environmental risk and health.

I agree with the academics, including Dr. Waldron, lawyers, health care professionals and numerous Indigenous community leaders who have all urged the swift passing of Bill C-226 without amendment.

Environmental justice policy in Canada is long overdue. In the United States, the environmental justice movement found footing in the early 1980s — some 40 years ago — when predominantly Black neighbourhoods started voicing concerns around toxic infrastructure projects surrounding their communities. By the mid-1990s, the United States federal government began addressing environmental justice issues with an executive order that established environmental justice offices in federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice. Canada has yet to properly recognize environmental racism and its impacts and lags 30 years behind the United States in addressing issues of environmental justice.

Colleagues, today we have the opportunity to embark on our own environmental justice journey alongside those most affected by environmental racism. We must not hesitate or delay. The people we represent are counting on us to do what is right and just.

The passing of Bill C-226 is a beacon of hope for all the communities who are impacted by a legacy of environmental injustices and for those seeking freedom from environmental racism today. It is unacceptable, however, to wait for the minister to table a report in two years. Both the Government of Canada and industry must take immediate action and, acting in good faith, must advance environmental justice through meaningful community consultation to bring equity to communities impacted by polluting industries and those actively seeking to protect themselves from new and additional environmental injustices.

The environmental, economic and social impacts of environmental racism on Indigenous communities, including loss of culture and language and poor health, are profound. Addressing environmental racism is an imperative aspect of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. At the same time, Bill C-226 will offer protection from environmental racism to Black, racialized and low-income communities, who also suffer significant harms from environmental injustices. In due course, Bill C-226 will benefit all Canadian communities by providing the opportunity to be better protected.

I urge you all to support Bill C-226 and to pass it without delay.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

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