1. Thoughts on the March for Science

On Friday, activists launched an Environmental Bill of RightsAs Robert Devet reports in the Nova Scotia Advocate:

Representatives of several Black, Mi’kmaq and other communities spoke to exactly that lack of consultation and powerlessness that they encountered in the past, and are still experiencing on a daily basis.

Marlene Brown, a resident of Harrietsfield whose water is polluted by leaching recycling plant, reflected on the difficulties of simply finding out what is going on.

“It was only during a Court of Appeal that we found out that 120,000 tons of non-recyclable C&D debris was leaching from the site in the form of a plume that had been growing and growing for years,” said Brown. “If we had not gone to court we would never have discovered this.”

Raymond Sheppard’s story of a sequence of dumps and landfills in the Black community of Lincolnville echoed Brown’s sense of being stonewalled by government.

“During the last 50 to 70 years many people in the community developed illnesses. Today our community is on life support. The average age is 65 and older. Many have left, simply because there is a fear of our toxic environment,” said Sheppard.

“There is the mental, physical and spiritual aspect of environmental racism. Government goes after communities that can not put up any kind of resistance, the weakest link.”

Dorene Bernard of Sipekne’katik (Indian Brook) First Nation spoke not only of her fight to safeguard the Shubenacadie River system from the threat posed by Alton Gas, she also talked about the damage done to her community by a gravel mine affecting the aquifer that provides the community with drinking water.

“The water is contaminated,and people in our community have high levels of cancer and illnesses. The sandy gravel mine must stop, she said.

Louise Delisle, a resident of a black community within the boundaries of the Town of Shelburne, spoke eloquently of the devastation brought to her community by a town dump.

“This is a community of widows. Families in the South End of (the Town of) Shelburne are facing serious health and economical issues because of the deaths of so many Black men in our community,” said Delisle.

Image from halifaxmediacoop.

The ENRICH Project, created by Ingrid Waldron, is groundbreaking in the ways it brings together scientific and community knowledge, and understands environmental issues as rooted in broader issues of racial and social justice.

As the work to expose environmental racism makes clear, environmental issues intersect with colonial and racist histories, and with issues of poverty and accessible housing. Rather than seeing environmental issues in narrow ways — rhetoric centred solely on more recycling or creating “green industries” — The ENRICH Project pushes us to understand how pollution and environmental disasters are also bound up in the persistent issues affect poor and racialized communities: what one of Waldron’s conferences aptly titled our “toxic legacies.”

Advocates have recognized, for example, the connection between environmental issues and incarceration — not only do highly incarcerated communities intersect with the communities that are most vulnerable to pollution, but prisons themselves are usually placed in rural communities where there has been a loss of employment based in traditional industries.

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In Springhill, for example, downgraded from a town in 2015 due to population losses, the end of mining means that the prison has become the major economic generator in the town. This practice of generating profit from prisons, known as the prison industrial complex, means that communities who themselves face impoverishment become invested in punishment. As a former head of the inmate committee at Springhill described to me, when the prisoners got cable installed, the whole town got cable — the prisoners were paying not only for services within the prison but for the entire community, a community, of course, whose resources they are not permitted to access.

This cable was itself paid for out of the exploitive labour of prisoners who make on average less than $2 a day for their work, and whose pay has not increased since the mid-1980s. In Nova Scotia, this exploitative labour is disproportionately extracted from Black and Indigenous people, as well as people from other impoverished communities whose own collapse of industry has led to the addiction issues, crimes of desperation and poverty, and lack of resources for everything from education to mental health treatment that overwhelmingly incarcerates people.

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In this way, an environmental issue — the move away from coal — creates lack of opportunity, which is then compensated for by building a prison, which is seen to create employment in the community, either through opportunities to retrain as correctional officers (which in turn funds programs in corrections training), or through the construction contracts, etc.

The community also benefits from visitors to the prison — and conveniently, if you want to visit a prison in both the morning and the afternoon, you have to leave for two hours in between meaning that visitors end up visiting businesses, buying lunch, etc. and generally investing in the town.

At the same time, however, the stigma of prison means that while these visitors are major “tourist” contributors to the economy, there are no signs directing people to the prison or welcoming visitors to the prison, as prisons remain a “dirty secret” and are hidden from view even as they generate the major profits for the people who live around them.

Investing in punishment in turn pushes the expansion of the prison industrial complex, which is fuelled by racism and poverty. As the #NOPE report on prison expansion identifies, this prevents politicians and communities from truly committing to restorative and transformative justice, as profit depends upon creating more and more criminals and incarcerating more and more people.

Prisons themselves are environmental disasters, as the huge security apparatus required to maintain them also is a giant carbon footprint. As I pointed out last week, Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (Burnside) is leased by the province from Citigroup, which is owned by Hawthorne Capital, which is invested in the development of Birch Cove, and also has investments in oil companies. Investment in prisons is therefore directly tied to environmental destruction and climate change.

This (lengthy) example of how environmental justice also encompasses issues of racial justice, criminalization, and incarceration, forms an important context for the March on Science, taking place on Saturday in Halifax in solidarity with marches across the United States and the globe.

The Root features an incisive article on how, in Washington DC and other major organizing sites, the planning for the March for Science exposed “liberal racism”:

For the past three months, the scientific community, which is largely white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied and male, has been fiercely debating the political nature of the march in the face of a Trump regime, leaving scientists from marginalized backgrounds feeling … well, further marginalized. In response, scientists who identify as women, disabled, queer, trans, people of color, etc., converged around the hashtag #MarginSci to take their racist and sexist colleagues to task.

The article details the ways in which rhetoric about remaining “apolitical” and simply “celebrating science” was used to shut down calls for more inclusivity in the march — for example, pointing out that these scientists didn’t march for NODAPL or for clean water in Flint, Michigan, or in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and only become mobilized once their funding is threatened by Trump.

Critics from the science community point out that scientists bear responsibility for legacies of ableism, for example, which impacts how people with disabilities are still treated in society. Engineers and scientists build the bombs that lead to refugees fleeing and being banned at borders. Engineers design the detention facilities. Racism and sexism in academic programs and in labs directly lead to underrepresentation of racialized people and women.

As well, rhetoric around “objectivity” and “rationality” is used to deny experiences of racism (demanding impossible evidence to “prove” racist experiences), and are used to silence women who speak out about misogyny.

Rhetoric around science and “fact” has been used to resist indigenizing the university and to characterize Indigenous knowledge as less valid, or used to support suppression of anti-racist protest (“numbers don’t have race”). This language of objectivity is often subjectively wielded by white males in the name of “fact” (or “suppressing free inquiry”) to deny racism and experiences of oppression.

In Canada, scientists vehemently opposed Harper, and there has been a tradition of scientists in resistance, and so the critique of scientists only recently mobilizing is less trenchant. The Halifax march centres environmental issues, and recognizes Indigenous people and their leadership on land and water defence, as well as the existence of environmental racism. These are encouraging signs of the scientific community recognizing their solidarity with wider issues of social justice.

Scientists possess a powerful voice and authority in society, one usually denied to people from marginalized backgrounds. Scientists also have the ability to use research to help benefit these communities. As the organization around environmental racism demonstrates, science issues are not confined to labs — they are issues of social justice.

For example, we may think of police checks as either an issue of law, or something taken up largely by Black communities. However, scientists should consider how the data gathering practices generate faulty “evidence” of criminality which is then used against our communities.

As police chief Jean-Michel Blais said openly at the community meeting at the North Branch Library, racial profiling is used to create disproportionate checks upon Black people. If you are checking a higher percentage of Black people than white people, you are more likely to find evidence of criminal behaviour in the population you stop more. Despite recent studies confirming that white people do more drugs, for example, Black people are more likely to do time for drug arrests.

This data is in turn used to generate a map of criminal activity, which is then in its turn used to direct police more to these “high crime” areas, which leads to the cycle of Black people having more contact with the police, and so on.

This use of data generated through a false hypothesis — that Black people are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, and therefore that policing requires Black people to be disproportionately stopped, surveilled and incarcerated — should be resisted by scientists. Mobilizing around racial profiling and police checks is not a separate issue from the issue of “bad science.”

Desmond Cole at the Toronto Police Services Board. Image from global

We can also remember that the people of Africville were victims of environmental racism in the placement of the dump and other toxic facilities in the community, and that the destruction of that community also destroyed social ties and practices that still impact the community today, and are one cause of issues like gun violence as communities lost their social solidarity. This is another example of how the criminalization of Black people is connected to broader scientific concerns.

The recent incident of police brutality alleged against a man with disabilities — among other things, the victim is hard of hearing and was unable to process police commands — demonstrates how issues of criminalization and human rights violations by the justice system also disproportionately impact people with disabilities. As one commentator pointed out, disability is seen as a “lack of co-operation” and people are punished.

The long history of institutionalizing people with disabilities connects to the growth of prisons and the treatment of people with disabilities within them. As Paul Vienneau has recognized, fighting for rights for people with disabilities also includes addressing issues of accessibility within the justice system and within prisons. Again, issues of accessibility are also issues confronting engineers, making disability rights central to STEM community mobilization.

Image from halifaxmediacoop.

Scientists should also recognize that while scientific racism has been long debunked (the idea that Black people are less evolutionary advanced, have lower IQs, are more prone to criminal behaviour, etc.) these narratives are still openly and subtly used to justify the oppression of Black people and influence stereotyping of Black people. Scientists should work to help Black people and communities dismantle this rhetoric by pushing back against these stereotypes, which are still felt in ideas about policing, in why we are sentenced more harshly and seen as less rehabilitatable, why we are suspended from school at higher rates, etc.

Scientists also must, as addressed by scientists in The Root article, recognize the ways that research is used by oppressive institutions. Engineers, for example, who participate in designing and building solitary confinement cells, are participating in practices declared to be torture by the United Nations.

tings chak’s work challenges architects to think about their complicity in designing immigration detention centres.

Scientists can also work with anti-war activists to challenge arms races, nuclear armament, and the myths around “precision strike” technology, which somehow seem to result in schools and hospitals still being bombed. As it is the research of scientists and engineers that creates these weapons, the science community shares responsibility in challenging the increasing militarization (particularly in Halifax, the most militarized city in Canada.) The presence of scientists at marches and rallies challenging this unchecked militarization, which not only results in deaths of people, but massive environmental damage, would be welcome.

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Those in the medical fields should be concerned about the constant reports of health care abuse in prisons and jails, including male prisoners in Burnside being strip-searched every time they go for methadone (a daily practice that leaves prisoners feeling degraded, dehumanized, and unwilling to go for medical care), the arbitrary cutting off of medication, or the overmedicating of prisoners (often due to contracts with pharmaceutical companies), reports of diabetics denied insulin in a timely manner, and prisoner accounts of inadequate health care including lack of access to basic services that lead to minor health problems becoming debilitating. All health care professionals should care about issues like pregnant women reporting being shackled, or prisoners being taken to health appointments in bright orange — a public humiliation that leads to many refusing medical care.

In the attempted deportation of Fliss Cramman, a desperately ill woman who was shackled to her hospital bed as she awaited deportation, the strong advocacy of her doctor, Alex Mitchell, who named Cramman’s treatment as “inhumane,” was crucial in the fight to have Cramman remain in Canada. Women’s Wellness Within is an organization led by nurses, doulas, and other healthcare professionals to provide pre-natal and mothering services to incarcerated women. These are models of advocacy that can encourage medical and scientific communities to see these issues as central.

The medical community should strongly oppose medical malpractice in prison contexts, and work to identify these issues, and to promote human rights in health care for prisoners. Participating in torture, such as supporting solitary confinement, is harmful, and doctors and nurses must actively oppose these practices and refuse to collaborate in them. No licensed health professional should be able to maintain their licence while practicing in ways that violate the human rights of prisoners.

Issues such as housing may not seem to be connected to science, but when we think about rhetoric around women living in poverty — for example, the idea that “those women” just have too many children they can’t afford and therefore deserve to be poor — we can see this issue tied to broader issues of reproductive justice. Poverty impacts access to health care, as was revealed in a recent study by Dalhousie University. Advocacy around the special diet allowance for recipients of assistance as well as the human rights violations of people with disabilities on assistance are other issues that should be taken up by those marching for science.

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When people advocate for marches and rallies to be more inclusive — similar to debates around the women’s marches — the pushback is often that this is “making the march about something else.” Rather than being a derailment or distraction, however, conversation about how groups can recognize intersections between movements is key for building effective solidarity and resistance movements. Thinking about police checks, or incarceration, or poverty in relation to a March for Science is not a special interest, or “trying to do too much,” or irrelevant.

The least powerful in society are expected to carry by far the largest burdens of protest and labour towards justice. It is crucial that those with authority, power, titles, education, and financial and social privilege understand how their concerns actually connect to those of marginalized people, and to advocate together with these communities. We tend to see certain issues “as a Black issue,” or only the concern of Indigenous people, or conversely, to see a march for science as not being “about” Black people or for us.

Scientists from marginalized communities or backgrounds are both members of their communities and scientists, and therefore supporting scientists also means recognizing that scientists also come from criminalized communities, or refugee communities, or communities without clean water, and that therefore these are fundamentally issues for scientists. And in turn, representing scientists as more than just white males is important in drawing more people from these communities into these fields.

I am happy to go to a march in solidarity with scientists, but like others I ask, where are the scientists going to be the next time the Black community marches for justice? Hopefully, they will be beside us then too.

Many individual STEM people are involved in social justice causes, but what is needed is not only the participation of individuals, but the systemic recognition that these issues are central. It is crucial that not just individual practitioners care about prisoner rights, but that health care for prisoners and the recognition of the human rights violations going on are taken up by the powerful bodies that regulate medical care, licences, and practitioners. It is not just that a scientist cares about poverty, but that scientists as a group recognize the importance of being in solidarity with impoverished communities and working with them. More than individuals, we need scientific institutions to speak up against racial profiling, or housing deficits, or incarceration of women, recognizing and understanding these issues not as optional extras, but fundamentally issues of science.

Scientists also need to resist to co-optation of the language of “evidence,” “rationality,” “free expression,” or “objectivity” by those with racist, homophobic, and misogynist agendas. Too often this language is used not to advance science, but as a cover for attacking oppressed people and delegitimizing our protests.

The mobilizations in response to Donald Trump will be most effective if we use the energy of these marches to build long-term movements in mutual support of each other. The advocacy of the scientific community around climate change and environmental racism is important, and the continued engagement of scientists with broader social justice movements will be not only welcome, but necessary.

2. Royal Canadian Meme Police

I was curious about what the Nova Scotia RCMP are doing with their time given their delay in sending evidence to the lab resulting in the staying of charges in the sexual assault case against Behrang Foroughi-Mobarakeh. We know the Halifax Police are too overwhelmed by policing legal graffiti to get their evidence exhibits in order, but what about the RCMP? How do they occupy themselves?

So I went for a look at the RCMPNS Twitter.  It is…kind of batshit. Along with the expected reports of crimes and general policing updates, as well as throwback photos of old-timey officers, whoever runs the account loves animal memes, unlike the staid and professional staff at the Halifax Examiner who would never use a gratuitous cat meme.

From the RCMP Twitter:

If you lose your phone, your information can be exposed to whoever finds it. Make sure you keep them locked and your passwords hidden. (2/2)

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2017

#TrafficTuesday – visit & for road conditions, closures
& advisories before hitting the road

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 18, 2017

#TrafficTuesday – Sometimes you’ll feel like a snail driving the speed limit but at 80 km/h, you’re more like a horse @ top speed. (1/2)

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 11, 2017

These animal memes have now craftily lured me into sharing police tweets, a prime example of the co-optation of cute or funny animals for propaganda purposes. Enjoy.

This photo of an ISIS member with a kitty is what showed up when I googled “propaganda kitten.”

Editor’s note: El Jones is an important and strong voice in the community, and we at the Examiner are proud to host her work every Saturday. To help us continue to provide Jones with this platform, please consider subscribing to the Examiner. Just $5 or $10 a month goes a long way. Or, consider making a one-time contribution via PayPal. Thanks much!

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. If there are no objective facts or truths, if the meanings of words can be changed, if there are multiple ways of knowing (rather than different levels of analysis and different perspectives), there is no way to have a conversation and all that is left is deciding who is in control through violence.