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Children play on a baseball field.
Aamjiwnaang children celebrate Indigenous peoples’ day on the community baseball field across from Ineos Styrolution. (Laurence Butet-Roch), Author provided (no reuse)

Meaningful engagement is the key to achieving Bill C-226’s goal of ending environmental racism in Canada

Every day is a good day to reflect on our shared responsibility to improve our relationship with the environment, and to consider how some communities are disproportionately more affected by environmental destruction than others. While such reflection is always important, it is especially pressing as the Aamjiwnaang First Nation declares a state of emergency in response to ongoing environmental pollution.

Canada can take an important step towards correcting ongoing and disproportionate environmental harms, and preventing more communities having to take such drastic steps, by enacting Bill C-226.

Introduced by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, the purpose of Bill C-226 is to “develop a national strategy to…advance environmental justice and to assess, prevent and address environmental racism.” The bill also calls for the strategy to be informed “[in consultation or co-operation] with any interested persons, bodies, organizations or communities…”.

Bill C-226 passed in the House of Commons in March 2023. It is now before the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.

In his recent testimony in support of Bill C-226, Aamjiwnaang Chief Chris Plain elaborated on how his community’s location in Canada’s Chemical Valley — near Sarnia, Ont. — makes it a “sacrifice zone.” At the same time, as Aamjiwnaang leaders remind us, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Bill C-226 — if well-implemented — should bring an end to the creation and maintenance of zones of sacrifice, including in the race to exploit the critical minerals in northern Ontario’s so-called “Ring of Fire.”

As community-engaged critical policy scholars dedicated to interrupting the entangled mess of colonialism, sexism and racism in public policy, we have spent more than a decade working alongside and as members of affected communities to better understand community well-being and respond to factors — including environmental destruction – that undermine well-being.

Drawing on our past and ongoing research and collaborations, and on relevant Senate testimony, we suggest three things that must happen for C-226 to meet its ambitions.

A report on Canada’s “Chemical Valley” produced by Vice.

Meaningful engagement

First, the plan to develop the strategy must be guided by evidence about meaningful and inclusive engagement practices.

The Bill’s preamble states that “discrimination in the development of environmental policy would constitute environmental racism.” But what does non-discriminatory engagement look like? At its core, it centres community knowledge and expertise.

As CanArctic Inuit Networks COO Madeleine Redfern’s testimony before the Senate committee highlighted, “meaningful participation of minorities throughout the process…[including] how one engages and where [is essential] ….” It is essential that meaningful engagement be guided by the valuing of agency, the recognition of knowledge and expertise, and the provision of adequate resources to enable participation.

Read more: Indigenous consultation is key to the Ring of Fire becoming Canada’s economic superpower

As Aamjiwnaang member Ada Lockridge explains in her poem I Didn’t Know, community members living in close proximity to heavily polluting facilities often become activists (and experts) when they learn that existing policies will not protect them.

Those responsible for implementing Bill C-226 will benefit from taking the expertise of community members like Lockridge seriously.

Planetary health

Second, the strategy must adopt a broader view of planetary health to understand the complexities of environmental racism. Intersectionality — a term coined in 1989 by American civil rights activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw — helps us consider how people’s identities intersect with systems of power to create patterns of privilege and oppression.

As the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Women’s Healthy Environments Network noted in their submissions to the Senate committee, environmental hazards and harms are not experienced equally.

It is beyond dispute that factors such as gender, income, and ability structure the benefits and burdens of resource extraction and development.

People paddle a canoe down a river.
Aamjiwnaang community members paddle downstream to their home along the St. Clair River near Sarnia, Ont. (Laurence Butet-Roch), Author provided (no reuse)

Understanding environmental racism through an intersectional lens requires gathering data about environmental exposures that is separated by factors such as gender, age, income and ability. It also requires thinking creatively and concretely about how to include multiple forms of evidence in environmental policy and planning, including quantitative, qualitative, collaboratively produced, and storied data and knowledge such as oral testimony for decision-making. An example of this includes Indigenous evidence and testimony shared in relation to the Transmountain Pipeline Expansion.

A multifaceted intersectional lens can help make sure the unique experiences of women, 2SLGBTQ+ people, children and others are appropriately documented. It can also help to disrupt ongoing issues with data colonialism, including in Chemical Valley.

Using a broader planetary lens also means increasing respect for all humans and non-humans. As Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Health Diana Lewis noted at a recent panel about environmental justice, it is time to stop treating certain lives as disposable.

Designing justice

Third, the strategy should be stewarded by multi-jurisdictional, community-driven leadership. We suggest that principles of design justice and policy justice are useful for realizing this commitment. These principles require humility from research collaborators, political representatives and public servants alike.

The strategy’s development and implementation should also take place in collaboration with affected communities. The bill’s preamble highlights the Government of Canada’s commitment to engaging with communities to assess and prevent environmental racism. As such, the federal government should convene and fund critical conversations, listen to community members and leaders and develop recommendations with them.

Read more: Flipping Indigenous regional development in Newfoundland upside-down: lessons from Australia

As the Canadian social scientist Ingrid Waldron reminds us, dismantling environmental racism and allowing environmental justice to flourish is a critical matter of public policy that affects all Canadians.

Successfully implementing Bill C-226 requires inclusive engagement, a planetary health lens and multi-jurisdictional, community-driven leadership.

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