Indian Brook used to have the best water for miles around, said Dorene Bernard. But no one likes to drink it now.
The change came in 2012, when the community’s water table was contaminated by digging at the nearby Nova Scotia Sand and Gravel pit.
The community was issued a do-not-drink advisory, and the Department of Indian Affairs began shipping water into the community. But the root cause of the problem – the pit located in the community’s backyard – was never addressed.
“What they needed to do was stop mining,” said Bernard. “What they did was negotiate a deeper well.”
Indian Brook’s water isn’t the only environmental issue to affect First Nations people in Nova Scotia, Bernard told the crowd filling the auditorium at the Central Library on Tuesday night. There’s a long list of such issues, from the effluent lagoon at Boat Harbour, located on the doorstep of Pictou Landing First Nation, to the placement of industrial sites and landfills near Membertou First Nation
But while the pollution is scattered around the province, the sites all have at least one thing in common: All are instances of environmental racism, said Bernard.
At the opening of Tuesday’s event, Ingrid Waldron, director of the ENRICH project, one of the organizations hosting the event, said that in Nova Scotia environmental racism means the disproportionate location of polluting and environmentally harmful sites near communities of colour and low-income communities.
Mary Desmond experienced this directly.
In 1974, a first-generation landfill was opened only a kilometer away from the African Nova Scotian community of Lincolnville, where Desmond lives. A second-generation dump was opened nearby in 2006, and receives waste from municipalities around the province. Residents have been noticing high rates of deaths from cancer in the community for years, including that of Desmond’s own husband.
But the location of these landfills isn’t for lack of space, said Desmond.
“[Guysborough county] is over 1 million acres of land. Now tell me why, with all that land, they would have to put a landfill one kilometre away from an African Nova Scotian community?”
It’s an uphill battle for Lincolnville’s shrinking pool of residents to get any traction in their fight against the landfill. The last new home was built 50 years ago, said Desmond, and of those remaining in the community, most are seniors.
“There are not that many people in Lincolnville anymore, we have no political power,” she said. “We are defeated. We are downtrodden and we do need help.”
This lack of power people and communities have in the decision-making process regarding environmentally harmful sites is itself a manifestation of environmental racism, said speakers Tuesday.
In Nova Scotia, the nature of the planning process exacerbates environmental racism, said Carolann Wright-Parks. Wright-Parks is Director of Community Economic Development and Strategic Engagement with the Halifax Partnership, but she said she was also speaking at the event as a member of the African Nova Scotian community of Beechville.
The Otter Lake Landfill is just kilometers away from Beechville, she said, and the Lakeside Industrial Park was built without consultation, “in the centre of the community,” in 1994. These decisions not only affect the physical health of residents, said Wright-Parks; they also threaten the well-being of the community by accelerating out-migration.
There are better models for making planning decisions, she said. One such mechanism, called Community Benefit Agreements, have been used in other municipalities — such as Vancouver, when it was making decisions about its Olympic Infrastructure, and Toronto in the planning for its light rail system — and provide communities with a legally binding way to hold governments and developers to account.
But the process used in Nova Scotia merely pays lip-service to consultation and doesn’t provide these guarantees, said Wright-Parks; therefore communities such as Beechville suffer.
“Engagement for the sake of engagement is really not worth anything. There has to be more tools up our sleeve to be able to get this done.”
This past year has seen cause for cautious optimism on environmental racism. In the spring, NDP MLA Lenore Zann introduced a private members bill called An Act to Address Environmental Racism.
Although that Act — which had been a collaboration between Zann and the ENRICH project — didn’t make it past first reading before the legislature closed, Zann said to those attending the event Tuesday evening that she would be reintroducing the act when the House opens in the Fall.
The act stipulates that the province create a panel to examine the issue of environmental racism through public consultations and develop recommendations to address it. It is the first of its kind in Canada.
In April, the government also announced that it would set aside $50 million for the cleanup of Boat Harbour, with the closure of the treatment facility set for 2020.
But Zann emphasized that without sustained pressure from the public, even these gains could be lost, as she notes is already happening with some of the promises the government has made about Boat Harbour.
In the 1990s, plans to build a landfill in East Lake were cancelled after residents of Preston, supported by several community and environmental groups, successfully mobilized against it, alleging that environmental discrimination had informed the placement of the site.
As Tuesday’s event drew to a close, attendees were encouraged to build on that network of solidarity by talking to one another about solutions in the face of a legacy of environmental racism.
“We have to start somewhere,” said Bernard. “We cannot stand back.”