I was struck last week by Nova Scotia’s new environment minister Margaret Miller’s response to Coast editor Jacob Boon’s question about the legacy of environmental racism in this province and how Nova Scotia can better protect marginalized communities. Her response that the province does not have to “look at any segment or any part of our community as different than another” is the kind of “colour-blind” sentiment that enables Nova Scotia Environment to continue to avert its eyes away from the ways in which its policies and actions disproportionately impact indigenous and African-Nova Scotian communities in this province. The colour-blind ideology that Margaret Miller espouses fails to acknowledge the very real ways in which racism manifests individually and systemically and, consequently, legitimizes practices that maintain the racial order in this province.
As a professor who has been leading the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health Project (ENRICH) over the past few years, I often hear from those who are stubbornly unwilling to acknowledge the reality of racism in this province. I always find it curious when people seem to have no problem acknowledging greater vulnerability and disproportionality when discussing class, income, poverty and/or gender (for example, the fact that women and children are among the poorest group in Canada), but are seemingly unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge vulnerability and disproportionality experienced by non-white communities in this province and in Canada. Similarly problematic are those individuals whose limited understandings of the ways in which race, class, income and other social inequalities intersect lead them to attribute environmental injustices and other inequalities experienced by non-white peoples solely to class and income.
Margaret Miller’s comment that “When you talk about environmental racism, I think we need to look after everything in our province,” grossly misses the mark. In stating the importance of looking after our environment, she fails to acknowledge the importance of looking after our people, particularly those whose lives are impacted the most by polluted and contaminated air, water and soil. She also suggests that the environment (coastlines, scenery, natural resources) operates as an independent, disconnected force somewhere out there, without any relationship or interaction with actual human beings—some of whom experience the environment as positive and some of whom experience it as harmful.
Her comment that “we have to respect the environment in all areas of our communities” smacks of the kind of sentiment expressed by those who declare that “all lives matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It negates the fact that polluting industries and other environmental harms are more likely to be sited in indigenous and African-Nova Scotian communities in this province, resulting in these communities’ greater exposure to health risks. So, while it is true that “all lives matter” and that all peoples (regardless of race, culture, income and class) should have the right to clean air, water and soil, the reality is that some lives seem to matter less because they bear the brunt of the many environmentally hazardous activities that currently operate in this province. It is high time we move beyond surface-level discussions about racism in this province.
Why is it so difficult for some people to make the intellectual leap necessary to understand and empathize with the realities of those with whom they do not share a similar racial identity?
What most concerns me about Margaret Miller’s statement, however, is how her views will serve to maintain the status quo and ensure that the official sanctioning of harmful poisons and pollutants in indigenous and African-Nova Scotian communities persist. The truth is, as long as Margaret Miller and others in her department continue to espouse a colour-blind approach by denying the racial character of environmental decision-making, environmental racism will never be addressed in this province.
Therefore, I leave it to the new minister of environment to reflect on this quote from humanitarian and retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire: “Are all humans human? Or are some more human than others?”