Environmental Racism and the Climate Emergency: An Interview with Ingrid Waldron

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This is the fourth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.caNiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

There’s Something in the Water

Edward Dunsworth: Thank you, Dr. Waldron, for speaking with ActiveHistory.ca today. Your 2018 book, There’s Something in The Water, about environmental racism against Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia, has done exceptionally well. Currently in its third reprint, it also was the inspiration for the documentary film of the same name, co-directed and -produced by movie star Elliot Page, that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 and is now streaming on Netflix. Could you tell us a bit about how the book came about?

Ingrid Waldon: I had planned on writing a book, but perhaps not so soon. Since starting the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health Project (ENRICH) project in 2012, I’ve been keeping detailed notes. [Editor’s note: ENRICH is “a collaborative community-based research and engagement project on environmental racism in Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian communities.”] So I knew that I would use that at some point, but I was planning on a different type of book that would look at the challenges of doing community based research, in general. I was approached by the publisher of Fernwood about writing a book on environmental racism in Nova Scotia. And I thought about it and said yes.

The book talks about the ENRICH project, the challenges of community-based research, and the health impacts of environmental racism, all within the context of settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and neoliberalism.

An important goal of mine with the book was to give voice to the Black and Indigenous communities I engaged. I wanted their voices to be at the forefront. Many of the chapters include direct quotes from them that articulate their experiences and their thoughts on the issues.

ED: Tell me a bit about the response to the book and how it eventually led to the documentary film.

IW: Well, finally having the book out was really exciting. I did the typical book launches in Nova Scotia and Montreal. The Montreal book launch in 2019 was huge – like 400 people – and they ran out of books. The book has been selling well, despite the fact that Fernwood is a small publishing company.

One morning in late October of 2018, I noticed that I had a new follower by the name of Elliot Page. At the time, I did not realize that it was the actor. So I didn’t think anything about it. And then three weeks later, I noticed that the page was extremely busy and that Elliot Page had been promoting my book to his followers. I thought, is this the actor from Juno? From Inception? I said, “No, this couldn’t be.” I’ve never had any celebrity follow me or anything like that. So this was a bit of a shock. But of course it was the Elliot Page. So I reached out and sent him a direct message to thank him for promoting the book, and we began to exchange messages. Eventually we spoke over the phone and began bandying about ideas about how Elliot could support this work.

After meeting with Elliot and the three Mi’kmaq women in the film, the grassroots grandmothers, we decided to create a series of short videos that we could post on social media to raise awareness about environmental racism. So in April 2019, Elliot came up and he travelled to the communities and filmed interviews over six days. When Elliot and Ian Daniel, the co-director, showed me a rough, partially completed version of the film, I said, this is emotional. There are people crying. I don’t think we’re going to do justice to these stories by posting ten-minute clips online. I said to Ian Daniel and Elliot Page that I really thought we needed to do this justice. This is an important topic. And they all agreed.

I started talking about the Toronto International Film Festival – you know, “go big or go home.” We almost missed the deadline. But we got it in and the film was of course accepted.

In September, we all went down to Toronto for the festival, including most of the women in the film. Elliot was kind enough to bring us all down.  And I can’t tell you how exciting it was. We spoke with media from around the world. It was just a rush.

And I would say that beyond the excitement for me is just the impact that it has had, in terms of people reaching out to me and offering to support the communities in various ways. When I left the premiere of the film at TIFF, I was walking to my hotel and I had literally three people stop me on the street to offer to pay for the well in Shelburne.

ED: What were some other impacts of the film?

IW: Three main things happed after the film was screened at TIFF. I’m not going to say they were only due to the film – I’m not taking anything away from the [decades of organizing by] Mi’kmaq, Indigenous, and Black community members. But I questioned why these things didn’t happen before. It demonstrates the power of the media.

First of all, after the TIFF screening, Nova Scotia’s government announced that the pulp mill that had been pumping effluent into Boat Harbour in Pictou Landing First Nation since 1967, would close at the end of January 2020, which did happen.

Second, [related to the longtime efforts of Mi’kmaq communities to halt the Alton gas project] in March of 2020, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia ruled that consultations with the community regarding the project had been insufficient and ordered the Nova Scotia government to go back and consult the community for 120 days.

And third was Elliot Page’s gift of a new community well to the Black community in Shelburne.

All these things have transpired since the film, and once again, I’m not taking anything away from the [Mi’kmaq and Black] communities and their grassroots mobilizing, but the power of film, the power of media, the power of celebrity, I think put all of this in place in many ways. Everything that we’ve all been doing is also significant. Community-based research for me as a professor, community mobilizing, grassroots resistance, marches, petition signings, letter writing campaigns, all of that is important. But what I’ve learned is that everything has to go hand in hand. And it also has to include legislation. People always say to me, what do you think is most important? Is it the grassroots mobilizing? Is it the policy? I always say it’s all of them, it’s never one thing.

ED: You’re not a historian in the strict disciplinary sense of the word. But you have a rich historical perspective in the book: in a broad sense, by bringing in the histories of colonialism and slavery, but also in a more localized sense, engaging with the histories of Afro-Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities and the racism they faced. From your perspective, why is a historical perspective important to understanding environmental racism?

IW: The first reason, with respect to environmental racism or any issue, is the tendency for some people, typically white people, to say, “Yeah, but that was in the past. Why can’t they just get on with it?” My response to them has always been the past is the present and the present is the past. Using an example from my book, it’s important for people to understand why, for example, Black communities live where they live in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotian Black communities are very different from other Black communities in Canada. They’re the oldest Black community in Canada; they’ve been here for about 400 years. They are descendants of Jamaican Maroons, Black Loyalists from the United States, and others. When they arrived in Nova Scotia, they were given poor quality land, which made it difficult for them to engage in agriculture. And that’s the land where landfills and dumps and other environmentally dangerous projects tend to be located. So we have to understand the history of African Nova Scotians in order to understand why they live where they live and why environmentally dangerous projects have tended to be placed in their communities.

ED: Turning to the question of the climate emergency, what lessons do the history and contemporary practice of environmental racism in Nova Scotia and Canada hold for how we as a society approach the climate crisis?

IW: The disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities is connected to environmental racism, which people are largely not discussing. When you look at environmental racism, Indigenous, Black, other racialized communities are impacted because of the structural inequities that they already face. They are racialized, they’re low income, they live in isolated communities, they suffer from income insecurity and poverty and food insecurity, housing insecurity, public infrastructure inequities. So those social determinants of health actually create exposure, make them more vulnerable, make them less likely to be able to fight back because of their lower socio-economic and socio-political status.  Those same social determinants also expose them to the climate crisis. Think back to Hurricane Katrina. You have low-income African American communities who have to stay in hostels for months because they were living in areas with low-quality public infrastructure, roads, housing, and so on.

Once I started to look at the framework of climate justice, I realized that environmental racism and climate change should not be discussed independent of the other. But race, whether or not people want to talk about it, is central. Not just race, but also gender, socioeconomic status, poverty, social class – all the social determinants of health are central to discussions on climate change and environmental racism.

I respect the environmental scientists who talk about greenhouse gas emissions and so on. We need to hear about that. But what is problematic to me is that we’re not hearing the other side which I just talked about. We need to have a conversation in Canada about the fact that central to both environmental racism and climate change are the inequities, the longstanding, historically embedded inequities that racialized communities experience.

ED: How are Black and Mi’kmaq communities and organizations in Nova Scotia building the climate crisis into their analysis and political work?

IW: Indigenous communities, from my perspective, have always had a holistic understanding of the environment. Indigenous communities have an Indigenous epistemology or ecological knowledge that doesn’t see a separation between human beings, animals, plants, water, air. So, an Indigenous epistemology understands that if you desecrate the land by placing environmentally hazardous projects in their communities, then you negatively impact the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical health and well-being of individuals. Everything is viewed as interconnected in Indigenous epistemology.

Traditional African philosophy also has a holistic understanding of the world. Although it has been challenging to engage Black communities in environmental issues, that is starting to change as I am seeing more Black youth joining and starting initiatives focussed on environmental racism and climate justice.

Climate change is going to impact all of us. So I’d like to see more Black communities, not just in Nova Scotia, but across the board, be more engaged in this issue. And I think part of the reason why they haven’t been is that the movement is very white. [With both environmental racism and climate change], the scholars are typically white, the people who write books on these issues are white, and for Black people looking at this, they’re like, “I don’t think I have a place in this.” So that’s why I’ve done the work that I’ve done.

I don’t think mainstream environmentalists’ focus on greenhouse gas emissions is engaging to a lot of people. People don’t understand their place in that issue. It pushes people away to some extent; even those who are highly educated.

[Dr. Waldron and I closed our conversation by talking about climate change adaptation in Black communities in Nova Scotia. Dr. Waldron explained that despite all the intersecting vulnerabilities faced by Afro-Nova Scotians, other characteristics of those communities position them well to adapt to changing environmental conditions.]

IW: The Black communities I have met over the years in Nova Scotia love their community. There is a great sense of community solidarity, which I admire. That sense of solidarity often comes from a place of marginality. Out of marginality comes great things. In my work, my goal is always to build on community spirit and resilience to develop capacity in communities that have long been on the margins.

Thank you to Megan Coulter for her work transcribing this interview.

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Edward Dunsworth and Daniel Macfarlane

Edward Dunsworth and Daniel Macfarlane are historians with shared interests in Canada in the world, the climate emergency, and the white hot Toronto Blue Jays.

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