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Strategies of Resistance: Battling against Environmental Racism and for Environmental Justice

By Gabrielle Jolly

In an interview with Peter Mansbridge from CBC News in March 2016, David Suzuki claimed that we have fundamentally failed as environmentalists. This is a worrying statement coming from an acclaimed environmental activist, yet difficult to deny given the consistent need for public protest and outcry over things like the placement of a pipeline or waste facility. The environmental movement inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 has been a long uphill battle. Individuals and communities half a century later are still forced to challenge the dominant discourse of industrial development that denies the right to a healthy environment. 

Landscape of Sacred Headwaters, BC
Sacred Headwaters, BC Photo taken by Sarah Leen, 2014

Take the #NoDAPL Solidarity Weeks of Action that recently took place last month, for example. The Camp of the Sacred Stones and Red Warrior Camp, two protest camps in North Dakota defending against the construction of the $3.78 billion, four-state Dakota Access Pipeline, called on allies across the United States to take action on the companies and supporters of the pipeline. The two week-long solidarity campaign saw support come from all over the country with pop-up protests and rallies and the #NoDAPL trending on social media. The pipeline is still planned for construction as protests continue gaining strength.

#NoDAPL has gained international attention, but the truth is that communities and people around the globe have endured and fought against centuries of colonialism as their land was forcibly taken and permanently altered.

Just as environmental threats have changed with the times, the environmental movement itself has evolved over the past decades. It is much more common to hear terms like environmental racism and environmental justice, emphasizing that this is now a human rights and social justice issue and not just an issue for those crazy ‘tree huggers.’ Not only do terms differ but so do the means of mobilizing, but one thing remains clear: the voices of these communities and individuals are only getting louder and they will not stop until they are heard.

Blockades in Northern British ColumbiEnvironmental Justice Movement: Interconnectedness of environmental health, socio-economic conditions, and racialized discrimination. Environmental Racism: Disproportionate burden of exposure to environmental risks/hazards experienced by socially marginalized communities.a
British Columbia, the place I call my home, is a Canadian province known for its pristine waters, mountainous landscape and abundance of natural resources. If you travel north, it is better known as the province taken over by major industrial development projects. Over the last decade or so, Indigenous communities in Northern BC have been bombarded with different industrial development projects such as liquid natural gas (LNG) plants and oil pipelines. In violation of the International Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO-169) and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), such “projects” are placed in remote areas with little to no consultation with the local communities. It is not an exaggeration to say these industries are slowly destroying the land alongside the peoples who live there. Midori Campos, an environmental activist who has supported many different mobilization efforts in and around Northern BC, explains that the protest against these large-scale projects is based around the premise of land sovereignty: “there is definitely systemic racism, especially towards Indigenous communities…almost all large energy projects and companies, and Government, do not pay attention to Indigenous Sovereignty.” In Campos’ experience, terms like environmental racism are not often used by Indigenous communities to mobilize against industrial development projects. Instead, simply put, they mobilize “to protect what is rightfully theirs.”

The Klabona Keepers are a group of Tahltan Elders in Northern BC who continue to protect the Sacred Headwaters on Tahltan Land, a region where three of the largest salmon-bearing rivers — the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine — meet. This region, comparable in size and splendour to the Grand Canyon, is a wonder of geography. The Sacred Headwaters gave birth to the great civilizations of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and is home to the Tahltan people. “That’s un-treaty land,” Campos states, “and this is their sacred space. Every single year there are two or three companies that come in and the same group of people try to kick them out. The Klabona Keepers are demanding “more authority and more control over their land.”

Tahltan First Nation Elder at Mount Klappan protests
Tahltan First Nation Elder at Mount Klappan protests. Taken by The Canadian Press, 2013

But it is not easy. Many Indigenous communities in Northern BC are struggling economically and socially due to centuries of maltreatment by the Canadian government, so sometimes the community accepts development projects for short-term economic growth. Campos explains, “it’s so difficult in these northern areas where you just don’t have the numbers the city does. Forming connections with these places, that’s what makes it so meaningful to stop these projects.”

But the Tahltan Elders, a relatively small group, have successfully used blockades since 2005 to stop both Shell and Fortune Minerals from entering the Sacred Headwaters. “What really does make a difference is people on the ground costing the companies money by blockading,” Campos says. For two months in the spring of 2016, a small group occupied their land in protest against Site C Dam, and likely would have remained longer if it weren’t for a Supreme Court order forcing them to leave. The Unist’ot’en camps, built seven years ago, are still protecting Wet’suwet’en territory against a number of pipeline projects, and the Lax Kw’alaams First Nations have been occupying Lelu Island for over a year now in a stand against Pacific Northwest LNG.

Community-based action research in Nova ScotiaForming Connections with these places, that's what makes it so meaningful to stop these projects.
On the other side of the country in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ingrid Waldron, a professor at the University of Dalhousie, raises awareness and spearheads a major project against environmental racism. Through her project, “Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health” (ENRICH), Waldron makes sure people are aware that environmental racism is a reality for many African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw communities in Halifax. A proud black woman, Waldron has always been aware of the in “your face forms of racism,” but says she became aware of the subtler, albeit systemic, forms of racism and inequality through her graduate and post graduate studies.

Environmental racism has been a long neglected issue in Halifax, and many racialized communities fear that history may be repeating itself. In the 1960’s, Africville, an African Nova Scotian community, was forcibly relocated by the City of Halifax after having been home to a variety of environmentally damaging structures such as a slaughterhouse, an infectious disease hospital, railroads and the city’s dump. These industrial developments had been rejected by the white community and thus, placed in Africville. A half a century later, a similar situation is currently happening in Lincolnville, another African Nova Scotian community.

Industrial landscape with smokestack polluting the air
LEAN sues ExxonMobil over unresolved air pollution. Image from leanweb.org blog post, 2016

A local African activist from Nova Scotia brought the issue of environmental racism to Professor Waldron’s attention, and since then, Waldron and her team have worked with African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw communities to raise awareness about environmental racism and to address the concerns that these communities face on a daily basis. Waldron approaches issues related to the right to a healthy environment first and foremost by getting people to talk about environmental racism. “People [primarily white Nova Scotians] didn’t know what environmental racism was, they didn’t want to know about it. They heard the term racism and — here in Nova Scotia, people don’t want to talk about racism — it made them anxious. [But now] I have seen a shift… [white Nova Scotians] are just very casually, and without any fear, using the term environmental racism.”

Through community-based participatory action research in the form of workshops and public engagement events, Waldron is creating a space in which the conversation about environmental racism is becoming more recognized as a serious issue in Nova Scotia, by both black and white communities. “I don’t cloak it [environmental racism] in the environmental justice language, I just say racism. I need to be honest…It’s not just about the environment, it’s about racism in Nova Scotia in every single sector of society and environmental racism is connected to that.”

It's not just about the environment, it's about racism in Nova Scotia in every single sector of society and environmental racism is connected to thatWaldron believes that the efforts made by the ENRICH project, a collaborative community-based project investigating the cause and effects of toxic industries situated near Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian communities, and local community members must be geared towards policy makers who are by and large, white. “I think black people — and of course Indigenous people — know all about racism,” she explains. “I’m targeting white people who either don’t understand or see the problem.”

One of the main issues is that “Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotians want to be heard, they are tired of being put upon, they are tired of people not listening, they are tired of people not caring, they are tired of not being consulted.” Waldron continues to explain that “this issue of power…that you are perhaps under-educated, you are of lower class and you are also a racial minority group…they [impacted communities] feel that those three things contribute to government not caring where they place these industries.” The mobilization efforts made by these communities in collaboration with the ENRICH project strategically use the term environmental racism in order to generate powerful political and social change.

Photos of city, "My Neighborhood is Killing Me"
Connecting the Dots: Confronting Environmental Racism in Nova Scotia event posting at Dalhousie University, 2015

Practical support services in Louisiana
Down south in Louisiana, USA, perhaps best known for its diverse culture, music, and food, the state also has a history ravished by exploitation and the prioritization of industry over land and people. “Louisiana has a very long and unfortunate history of prioritizing industry and the economy over health and community in many ways, says Michael Orr, communications director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). “For 300 years, we’ve sort of been the poster child for exploitation of resources and people.” Over the last several decades, LEAN has been supporting communities all around the state to protect people’s right to a healthy environment. The organization focuses on providing practical services to communities to help improve their lives in an immediate sense, ranging from public education about permits and laws that should serve to protect to conducting environmental impact assessments and initiating litigation when needed. Their mission is to provide support and practical services to any community member who asks for help, and to ensure that their voices are included in the decision-making process.

"You can call it anything you want and we can write a report and call it environmental racism, but how does that help the people who are experiencing it?" - Michael OrrAlthough LEAN is working on issues that could be referred to as “environmental racism” or “environmental justice,” Orr doesn’t believe that these terms are beneficial to their mobilization efforts. When organizing efforts “get bogged down in the terms, inevitably it becomes a sort of political argument and semantics argument about, ‘well is it really racist, is it political? You can call it anything you want and we can write a report and call it environmental racism, but how does that help the people who are experiencing it?

This is not to say that Orr doesn’t believe in the persistence of environmental racism, he simply believes the term itself is academic and not immediately useful to impacted communities. “Louisiana was built by slaves and has yet to fully overcome the inherently racist system from which we came. We are still a plantation economy producing great riches for few and great suffering for many.”

For Orr, people in Louisiana don’t have endless amounts of time to debate or politicize the issues; people are being directly impacted on a very real and hazardous level. The main point for Orr and LEAN is to find solutions to these immediate problems and mitigate the hazards people are facing today. Perhaps even more importantly for LEAN is the method of creating change — collective action where citizens and similar organizations mobilize together in resistance.

From the Pacific to the Atlantic and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, people are mobilizing for the right to a healthy environment. Whether it is framed in the language of land sovereignty, environmental racism, or an impending threat to life — individuals, communities and organizations are speaking out and speaking loud. My point is not to simplify the complexities of issues related to human beings and the environment, but rather an attempt to explore the different approaches and strategies of resistance by people who battle against powerful industry forces. Perhaps David Suzuki is wrong in saying that environmental activists have failed. Frankly, they have persisted, and perhaps it is the rest of us who have failed to heed their call.


Gabrielle Jolly is an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University located on the unceeded territories of the Coast Salish peoples in Vancouver, Canada. Having grown up in an area where mountains, forests and the ocean were at her doorstep, Gabrielle has an inherent need to discover the diverse relationships that people have with the environment and how on a broader scale, these relationships influence the way in which agents and structures function within societies. She is currently completing a degree in International Studies with a focus on International Development, Economic, and Environmental Issues. She is a sister, a daughter, a student, and an outdoor enthusiast.

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