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Ingrid Waldron fights environmental racism in Nova Scotia

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In 2012, an activist from Lincolnville, Nova Scotia, told Ingrid Waldron about how the landfill near his community affected residents’ health.

Waldron, an assistant professor of nursing at Dalhousie and a sociologist, studies the sociology of health and wellness and the social determinants of health.

That case kicked off the Enrich Project the same year. Waldron studied other Nova Scotian communities near toxic facilities. Like Lincolnville, these communities were home to black, native, or working-poor residents. Waldron helped build a team that included community members, health professionals, students, and academics. The group visited several communities to hear residents’ concerns. They shot a 20-minute documentary and created a map highlighting the troublesome sites. Waldron met with government officials and agencies to share what she learned.

In 2015, she met with MLA Lenore Zann, who introduced private member’s Bill 111, An Act to Address Environmental Racism. The bill didn’t pass, but Waldron hopes another MLA will put it forward again this spring.

What is environmental racism?

There are two components to it. The first is the notion that many polluting industries and other environmental hazards tend to be located disproportionately in Indigenous communities, Aboriginal communities, black communities, and the working poor. The second component has to do with the fact that communities close to these facilities don’t have a lot of power to resist the siting of these facilities… They have trouble getting the government’s ear on the issue, organizing, and getting the resources to fight these facilities because of their social standing.

What are some examples of environmental racism in Nova Scotia?

When I think of African-Nova Scotian communities, I think first of Lincolnville. They’ve had a landfill since 1974, a first-generation landfill. It was removed in 2006 and replaced with a second-generation landfill. East Preston and North Preston share a dump. Shelburne has a dump about two kilometres away.

What do people not understand about environmental racism?

People who are not affected by it feel that these industries are just sited somewhere and it’s not specifically in these communities. I am saying that we think these places don’t have value or that they can’t fight back. That it’s easier to place them there instead of a place like Halifax where you have people with more power who would fight that. And the other is, people asking, “Well, do you want to put it in my community? Do you want to put it in a white community? It has to go somewhere.” No, I am not asking them to do that, but the people in Lincolnville would say there’s such a large landmass, they’d question why it’s so close to our community.

Was there one particular community that piqued your interest in a bigger study?

I think Pictou Landing because that is the most serious case. When I started the project, I met an activist who was very active on the Pictou Landing Boat Harbour issue. Speaking with him in 2013, I was struck by how serious it was. He told me about the number of family members and neighbours who passed away. He saw how on his friend’s skin he could see rashes and skin disease from the cancer. It was very raw and visible.

How do these communities fight back?

Certainly, the Indigenous communities have done quite a bit on the issue. Lincolnville, they have been kind of fighting the landfill for quite some time, the last time in a big way was in 2009 where in Nova Scotia Environment was involved and the Office of African Nova Scotia Affairs was involved and it just fizzled out. I think at some point, because people get tired, you lose the resources, you lose momentum. It kind of fizzles out, which is where I came in. One of the individuals involved in the Lincolnville campaign approached me in 2012 to take on this project because he felt it had burnt out in a way and he thought an academic project would perhaps would give it more visibility and more traction.

What is the most surprising thing you have learned about environmental racism since you started studying it?

I didn’t know it was Canada-wide. It took me awhile to acknowledge the fact that it was systemic. I didn’t want to go out there saying, as a researcher, that there was a legitimate concern. It took me a while to say this is a real systemic issue and not just a few pockets of people saying the same thing. As I continue the project, I see there are issues in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.

Is environmental racism a part of the bigger picture of systemic racism?

That’s what I say when I talk about it. It’s just one of many forms of racism that manifests within historical forms of oppression in Nova Scotia. We have a history of a unique kind of racism here that is the same in many areas.

What does everyone need to learn about environmental racism?

Nova Scotians are hesitant to talk about racism, they are scared of that word. Environmental racism seems so personal that it’s hard for people to accept. To think that someone is putting a hazardous site in black and Indigenous communities is harder to grapple with. I would like for people to acknowledge and validate it, as something that is real. We are looking at creating an environmental bill of rights, federal and provincial. It’s about the specific communities I look at, but it’s about all Nova Scotians having the right to clean air, water, and soil. My involvement is about making sure race is central. I think empowering black and Indigenous communities to address the issue and rise up and speak on their own behalf, although I find that challenging, is much more crucial. People are much more passionate about an issue if they do it themselves than if I do it for them.

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