Canadian Environmental History: We Need to Talk More about Race

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This post is part of an ongoing series called “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History.” This series examines the intersections of race and environment in Canada’s past and asks how human-nature relations are affected by ideas of race and racism.


Sometimes at conferences you hear something that wakes you up, the academic equivalent of jumping into the cold ocean or drinking a stiff cup of coffee. At the last in-person ASEH in Columbus, Ohio, I had two of these moments. The first was attending the panel presentation on the Syllabus Project, an initiative of Nancy Langston and others to expose the fact that environmental history syllabi tend to omit the work of women and people of colour. The second was Teona Williams’ talk, “For Peace, Quiet and Respect: The University of Chicago’s Role in Police Conflict on the Southside of Chicago, 1940-1990,” a brilliant analysis of how a university police force shaped the use of public spaces in the adjacent Hyde Park neighbourhood, sometimes through notorious incidences of police brutality directed at African Americans. Both of these presentations got me asking tough questions about how I teach environmental history, and how we as practitioners address (or ignore) issues of race and racism more broadly in our field.

After the Syllabus Project panel, I was energized. Here was a group of colleagues raising the absolutely crucial issue of how we represent our field to students, and they had made it relatively easy to address the problem by creating a group Zotero library featuring a huge selection of work by women and scholars of colour. Since I have addressed issues of race in my research work, surely my syllabus already reflected the diversity of scholars in environmental history, right? I would fly home, file my travel claim, and then make the few adjustments needed to adjust my course reading lists. As it turned out, the travel claim was the easy part; I was shocked to find out that 80 percent of the readings on the syllabus for my third-year environmental history survey were written by white men. Part of this was a product of my own complacency about a course that had been successful with students over the years. If you get good course evaluations, why mess with what works? So my syllabus still resembled (with small updates every year) the one I started with at York University as a PhD Student in the year 2000 – lots of Cronon, Crosby, and McEvoy, and not enough new scholarship representing the diversity in the field. Yes, I had taught environmental racism and Indigenous environmental history as topics, but the 80 percent white male figure was a blow to me, one that highlighted my own culpability with systemic racism and sexism in university teaching. I made major changes for the Fall 2019 semester, achieving gender parity in the course (and also in another fourth-year seminar), and adding the works many non-white scholars. For an environmental historian in my age bracket, there was something almost frightening about hitting the delete button on the “The Trouble with Wilderness” citation in your syllabus (the essay, I would argue, is still relevant and valuable), but it was also liberating to blow up the canon and populate the list with a newer generation of more diverse scholars (happily, in one case, one of my former graduate students), and to think about how my students would experience a more equitable (and thus more accurate) representation of works within our field.

Teona Williams’ talk on the University of Chicago police force also changed the way I thought about environmental history, and forced me to think about my research priorities in the latter half of my career. Williams argued that the focus on environmental racism as a manifestation of siting decisions for waste siting facilities has detracted from other ways of thinking about how other manifestations of systemic racism (in this case police surveillance and brutality) shape the urban environment in predominantly African American neighbourhoods. Her work prompted to me to ask how well Canadian environmental historians have done developing similar analysis in their own works. That answer, I think, is that we have probably not done all that well. There is no question environmental historians in Canada have produced solid work on race and racism as manifest in parks (national, provincial and in some case city parks), resource development (and particularly its impact on Indigenous communities), and some work on urban pollution and Indigenous communities, such as Michelle Murphy’s Indigenous-led project on refinery pollution at Sarnia and the adjacent Aamjiwnaang First Nation. At the same time, there has been very little work on the environmental history of Black communities in Canada. Much of the work that does exist has been done by scholars outside the field of history such as Cheryl Teelucksingh, Andil Gosine, and Ingrid Waldron [1]. Ellen Page and Ian Daniel’s documentary There’s Something in the Water (based heavily on Waldron’s book of the same title, now airing on Netflix), documents several case studies of environmental racism in Nova Scotia that have not yet received any kind of scholarly historical analysis, even though the issues at most date back decades. Teelucksingh has argued that histories of environmental racism and environmental justice have proceeded differently in Canada than the United States, partly because the geography of racialized neighbourhoods is different in both countries, and partly because there has not been as strong a civil rights-based environmental justice movement in Canada. And yet, she suggests that, to understand the breadth of environmental racism in Canada, scholars should examine a range of environmental issues that affect the urban environment of racialized neighbourhoods, including policing, access to green space, and inequitable sanitation services [2].

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests of the past two months have prompted calls to address systemic racism on many fronts, from changing the names of sports teams to defunding the police. There are many ways our field can respond, bringing in more Black history into our courses (an area still too often omitted even from general Canadian history material), and moving our research agenda toward issues of systemic racism that affect urban environments, as Teelucksingh and Williams suggest. We might also push our research more toward issues of urban pollution, telling stories about the many polluting refineries, factories, and chemical plants in urban areas that have eluded our attention, tracking how many of them may have carried dire consequences for racialized neighbourhoods, and narrating how those communities have responded with creative activism. Beyond urban issues, there are ample opportunities to tell stories of Black Canadians in rural communities, and how environmental racism of one form or another (access to land, water, capital, etc.) might have affected their communities. Although we have several analyses of racism within the early conservation movement in Canada, more could be done to analyze questions of racism and exclusion in the environmental movement of the last fifty years. As a more collective endeavour, we need more discussion among Canadian historians (at the CHA and in online venues) about how to encourage more participation from scholars of colour in the field of environmental history (a conversation that has been happening among our U.S. colleagues for several years). The field of environmental history has experienced an astonishing renaissance of growth and creativity in the last two decades. Now is the time to harness that energy to bring issues of race and racism to the forefront of the field.

Image by Leonhard Niederwimmer from Pixabay

[1] Andil Gosine and Cheryl Teelucksingh, Environmental Justice and Racism in Canada: An Introduction (Toronto: Edmond Montgomery Publications, 2008); Ingrid Waldron, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publications, 2018).
[2]  Cheryl Teelucksingh, “Dismantling White Privilege: The Black Lives Matter Movement and Environmental Justice in Canada,” Kalfou 5, no. 2 (2018): 304–12.
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