The Canadian Environmental Justice Movement Needs Black Lives Matter

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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.

Last summer, Black Lives Matter (BLM) solidified its place as the new civil rights movement. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and the racial outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic, heighten North American’s awareness of ongoing systemic racism.  BLM was there; ready to take to the streets with their face masks and to make specific policy demands. Since its emergence in 2013, BLM has become a recognizable social movement in a few short years.  Earlier claims from opposition that “all lives matter” are quieter in the context of greater consciousness of White privilege and critiques of performative allyship.

Black lives also matter in terms of the environment. In Canadian urban centres, Environmental Justice (EJ) problems, including the vulnerability to climate change; heightened  Covid-19 risks that Black, Indigenous, and poor communities experience due to poor housing; precarious service sector jobs; a reliance on public transit; and  the prevalence of food deserts in their communities.  When White and affluent city dwellers craved more space to physically distance, they had the options and the resources to take up cycling in cities or to head to cottages and other wilderness.  Much has been said about Black folks also being birders, hikers, and fishers. But, the very fact that blackness needed to be highlighted and celebrated in nature points to its alignment with White spaces.

Here, I argue that BLM picks up where the civil rights movement of the 1960s stalled in the United States and, in Canada, it fills the gaps of a less unified civil rights movement. The 1960s, civil rights movement focused on opening up access and challenging entrenched forms of segregation in neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. However, once in these institutions Blacks lacked mobility and encountered entrenched racism that had not changed.  Likewise, in Canada, civil rights and human rights policies halted in the 1980s with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms  (1982)and the Multiculturalism Act (1988).  A critical reading shows that these ground-breaking Canadian policies maintain status quo power relations by advocating colour-blindness and racial neutrality. The ideology of colour-blindness implies that racial difference should not be seen and promoted, but instead replaced by claims that all actors are the same regardless of race and the view that race is not a factor. Racial violence, often state sanctioned, in its many forms remains systemic in institutions leaving room for the work of BLM.

The civil rights movement in the US and its ties to Black communities have been crucial to the naming and labelling of environmental injustices. Starting in the 1980s, Black folks mobilized to challenge a different type of racial violence, in terms of the high burdens of environmental risks in their communities and their lack of participation in urban development processes. Black leaders became impromptu environmentalists by broadening notions of environmentalism and drawing on civil right methods of activism, such as sit-ins, protests, and letter-writing campaigns. The focus on equity allows EJ to perceive environments to including workplaces and urban contexts, rather than limited to notions of wilderness. This has broadened environmental concerns and what counts as environmental knowledge.

From the perspective of social movements and activism, Canada has lacked a strong civil rights movement to serve as a platform for organizing and protesting environmental injustices.

From the perspective of social movements and activism, Canada has lacked a strong civil rights movement to serve as a platform for organizing and protesting environmental injustices. The Canadian environmental justice (EJ) movement has remained locally oriented having to draw on disparate mobilizing across various Indigenous communities, trade unions, some social justice organizations, and progressive environmental studies programs. As an anomaly, the recent 2019 film based on the book by Ingrid Waldron, There’s Something in the Water, has raised awareness across Canada and internationally of the shared colonial histories of Black and Indigenous Mik’ma people in Nova Scotia that made them vulnerable to environmental injustices. The environmental problems that Black and Mik’ma people deal with does not exist in a vacuum, but their land and bodies are vulnerable to pollution in all senses. The lack of large-scale Canadian EJ mobilizing has limited the potential for the broad coalition-building with health, gender, labour, LGBTQ2+, and immigrant movements that has occurred in the US.

Since the Canadian arm of BLM has emerged, the movement has adopted an intersectional lens.  Much like the 1960s-civil rights movement, BLM protests in the streets are critical moments of resistance and the face of BLM in Canada is increasingly diverse. BLM seeks to make connections across different institutions (policing, education, and health care) as part of a critique of systemic forms of anti-Black racism. BLM helps to challenge colour-blindness; claims to race neutrality;  and interest convergence. Going beyond past civil rights initiatives, BLM advocates for achieving inclusion for Black people into institutional power and systemic changes across institutions to address concerns such as racism in organizational content and, hiring and promotion practices.  In this regard, BLM has much to bring the Canadian EJ movement. A Canadian EJ and BLM partnership would provide the EJ movement with tools for large-scale activism in favour of transparency and accountability in all institutions and a critique of White spaces. In turn, BLM would benefit from an understanding of how the social relations of oppression affect Black folks, include environmental marginalization.  As argued by David Pellow, freedom from racial violence for Black people is dependent on healthy and resilient ecosystems that include both social and natural processes.

Photo credit: Image by Patrick Behn from Pixabay
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Dr. Cheryl Teelucksingh is a Professor in the Sociology Department and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies at Ryerson University. Her numerous publications and funded research projects over the last twenty years have focused on examining the relationship between environmental justice in Canada and concerns for racialization in the urban context

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