I’ll be live blogging from the Over the Line symposium today, a one-day symposium on race, place, and the environment that brings together experts from the US, Canada, and Nova Scotia. This exciting event is meant to generate a conversation about the spiritual, environmental, and physical damage caused to black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities. I’m a co-investigator on the SSHRC Partnership Grant supporting the symposium along with several others, organized by our principal investigator Dr. Ingrid Waldron, who has become a local expert on environmental justice. Waldron heads the ENRICH (Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health) Project. If you want to check out Twitter, participants are using the handle #overthelinehfx.
We started out last night with an energizing public lecture by Dr. Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Bullard is the founder of the environmental justice movement in the United States, starting with his involvement in the Whispering Pines Sanitary Landfill case in Houston in the late 1960s. He got involved in the case, which involved siting the landfill in a middle-class African American community, through his wife, the lawyer who represented the community, and has now published 18 books on environmental justice. A packed audience at Ondaatje Hall on the Dalhousie campus listened to his history of the fight for environmental justice and the effects on African American, low-income, and Hispanic communities. He finished with photos showing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey on the city, with wealthy as well as low-income neighbourhoods affected. The low-income areas on the east flood every year, with the majority of the flood mitigation support going to the high-income area on the west. Bullard showed many slides of the health trends, poverty and income trends in the US, with the south showing up as the most environmentally degraded, low-income, and least healthy. He stated that it was no coincidence that the civil rights movement and the environmental justice movement both started in the south.
Today’s keynote speaker at our free event at the Halifax Public Library is Dr. George Lipsitz, professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He opened by stating that this is no ordinary time: the protest at Standing Rock, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, challenges to Canada 150 and so many others are in his words “the manifestation of a greater upheaval that is on the way.” He compared the protests to waves, which have long fetches: they started days, weeks, and months ago, they have built up force and represent a collective, cumulative process in history. We’re at a moment when a new generation is mobilizing for change: “a crisis that distills a complex history”, not people with their backs to the wall but people whose backs have been pushed through the wall. From this, Lipsitz anticipates a break which will lead to new policies, people, personalities, and perspectives. Social movements produce new knowledges, teaching us how people without resources become resourceful. Equity-oriented collaborative community-based research works with groups in motion and can help support social movements.
We’re also pleased to have the fantastic Charla Williams as our host for today’s event. Charla has an extensive background in employment equity and is the chair of the Halifax African Nova Scotian Employment Network. She is also, as one participant stated, “a magical person who can somehow keep everyone on track and make sure things run on time.”
Community Organizing Panel
Panelists on the Community Organizing panel included Raymond Shepard, Stephen Thomas, and Dr. Deborah McGregor. Shepard spoke about his experience growing up in Lincolnville, a predominantly black community in Nova Scotia, and the history of community activism that exists there. Thomas’ work as Energy Campaign Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre is helping communities transition to clean energy, and he gave a few examples of local Indigenous communities who are building solar energy farms on their territories using their own local skills and expertise. Dr. McGregor spoke of an Anishnaabe understanding of environmental justice, and how difficult it was to translate stories, topics, practices, and ideas into English and vice versa.
After moderating the Community Organizing panel, I’m back listening to the incredible Umoja Cultural Diversity Drummers, a group of African Nova Scotians who performed using beats from Indigenous, Middle Eastern, and African musical traditions. It provides an integrative conclusion to our first panel, which was also introduced by Indigenous drummer and spoken word artist Richard Simon Taylor.
For the Research Panel, our speakers are Dr. Michael Mascarenhas, Louise Delisle, Dr. Cheryl Teelucksingh, and Dorene Bernard. Mascarenhas, a professor at UC Berkeley, has published a book called Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege, and Environmental Racism in Canada. He spoke of a presumed new emphasis on humanitarian efforts (e.g. tsunami relief, hurricane relief) which still involve discrimination: NGOs decide who gets relief and who does not, and there’s a major increase in the number of NGOs worldwide with less government aid going to communities. Even once access to water is enabled, taps and wells are kept locked so that communities have limited hours in which to gather it. In the US, half of black communities in Michigan have lived under emergency management, which means that their schools, parks, and other institutions come under private management. Even though Mascarenas feels that we’re increasingly blaming the victims affected by environmental hazards, residents and communities are often doing their own research and presenting their own data to governments.
Dorene Bernard is involved in the Truth and Reconciliation process as a member of the Mi’kmaq community. Just seven of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada have now been completed. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and around the world has been similarly slow. Bernard spoke of the Alton Gas Project, and the lack of consultation and false resource mapping process of the Mi’kmaq community during the Environmental Assessment process. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court has returned this flawed process to the Minister of Environment.
Louise DeLisle of the South End Environmental Injustice Society spoke about environmental racism in Shelburne. SEED is a community-based non-profit group located in a mostly low income, African Nova Scotian community. They were recently successful in having a 90-year-old landfill removed from Shelburne. Through the ENRICH Project, they participated in research on the health effects of the landfill, where waste was often burned, and water pollution in their community. They are now advocating for more research on the potential links to the town’s high rate of cancers, asthma, chronic fatigue, and depression.
Dr. Teelucksingh, professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Sociology, spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement and its link to racialized communities in Canada. Blacks represent just 2.9% of the Canadian population, but 10% of the federal prison inmate population. Activists have called for the end of the carding process in Ontario, after they showed that 27% of those carded were black youth. The Black Lives Matter movement protested the death of a Somali man in Ottawa in August 2017 by disrupting public space in Toronto. She is using critical race theory to link the Black Lives Matter and environmental justice movements: the need to reject colour blindness and race neutrality, critique claims of meritocracy, and recognize a convergence of interests (e.g. making all of our institutions more inclusive so that Indigenous, black, and other community members are all involved in decision-making).
The final group of panelists are Dr. Carolyn Finney, a professor in geography at the University of Kentucky, Vanessa Gray, a community organizer from Sarnia, Halifax journalist Tristan Cleveland, and Dr. Meinhard Doelle, an environmental law professor at Dalhousie.
Dr. Finney talked about home and being visible/invisible in our home communities, and how easy histories can be erased. Policies have embedded bias and privilege, as do the institutions in which they are developed. The Homestead Act (1862) allowed European settlers to obtain 160 acres of land for a pittance set the precedent of stealing land, power, and privilege. In developing policy and working with communities, we have to unearth unwritten stories and histories and commit to relationships where mutual learning is the goal. Looking for innovative projects and connecting them through communities of practice, building relationships and reciprocity, embracing conflict (one person’s conflict is another’s revolution), committing to the process. She mentioned The Next 100 Coalition, a coalition of faith and civil rights organizations, environmental justice activists who developed and led a national conversation on public lands, which led to a presidential memorandum right before President Obama left office.
Dr. Doelle discussed four legal reforms in Canada right now: the Environmental Protection Act, Environmental Assessment Act, Fisheries Act, and the National Energy Board Act. The report on the review of the Environmental Protection Act talks about substantial environmental rights, which could protect vulnerable communities and effect the siting and regulation of polluting industries. It recommends a new stipulation on state of the environment reporting, which can identify areas/communities that are affected. The review report also explicitly acknowledges environmental racism and that standard forms of consultation are not appropriate or sufficient in culturally distinct communities. Environmental Assessment Act review was much weaker, and we’re now waiting for a draft bill. In the Fisheries Act, the policy review has addressed fair access to resources, especially for Indigenous peoples. The National Energy Board Act review has less relevance for Nova Scotia, but on a national level there is a lot of conflict between local communities and large energy companies. In Nova Scotia, the provincial government is dragging its feet on reviewing the EA process (first enacted in the 1980s).
Tristan Cleveland discussed historic communities in Nova Scotia: Africville and Membertou, an Indigenous communities in Sydney that is now self-sufficient through its international business certification. While Africville was systematically dismantled, Membertou was able to stay together and thrive. He also discussed jobs accessible to transit, which are scarce in the African Nova Scotian communities of Linconville and Preston, and the growth rate in Halifax that is pushing out traditional communities.
Vanessa Gray is from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Canada’s chemical valley, where the US-Canada border bisects the traditional territory of her people. She characterized governments as unnecessarily violent when Indigenous peoples are defending land, air, and water with their lives. This is part of systemic violence that includes residential schools and missing and murdered indigenous women. Aamjiwnaang is affected by the international petrochemical companies located along the river, where there is a 39% miscarriage rate (compared to the national rate of 15%) and toxic substances above the levels specified by the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy. Gray and her colleagues were arrested and charged with mischief in their protest against Enbridge’s Line 9, but luckily the charges were dropped.
Sadie Beaton from the Ecology Action Centre and spoken word artist Abena Amoako-Tuffour ended our day with five-minute summary and powerful piece about the themes we’ve discussed today.
What an inspiring, challenging, and emotionally resonant day of discussions and learning from each other! I’m hoping that Ingrid is successful in her goal to bring together people from different backgrounds and disciplines to act together for more environmentally just communities.