Toxic water, industrial pollution, high cancer rates and discrimination in Nova Scotia’s Black and Indigenous communities have prompted four inspiring women on an ongoing journey to challenge environmental racism. They hope to provide justice and healing to impacted communities.
Ingrid Waldron is a sociologist and director of The ENRICH Project, the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health Project. Waldron wrote the 2018 book, There’s Something in Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities. The book inspired the 2019 documentary, There’s Something in the Water. The documentary, viewable on Netflix, features Waldron and three other women combating environmental racism in their communities: Michelle Francis-Denny, Dorene Bernard and Louise Delisle. On May 13, the women spoke on a panel organized by St. Thomas University’s School of Social Work.
Waldron told the audience of future social workers and the public that the book has three objectives: firstly, to shift the way we understand environmental justice while understanding the conditions of why we need justice in the first place. Secondly, to view the impacts of environmental racism on the spirits, minds, and bodies of Indigenous and African Nova Scotian people. Lastly, to document and address the long-lasting history of struggle, grassroots resistance and mobilizing knowledge while addressing environmental racism.
Waldron is interested primarily in the holistic approach to health that addresses structural inequities. Through her book, she connects health issues as the outcomes from residing near polluted environments and emphasizes the historical and colonial conflict that enables environmental racism.
To define environmental racism, Waldron quoted James Desmond of Lincolnville: “The practice has been locating industrial waste sites next to African Nova Scotian, Native & poor, white communities; communities that don’t have a base to fight back.”
According to Waldron, communities lack the economic and political resources available to privileged communities to challenge environmental racism. She also explained how the environmental movement has been guilty of environmental racism.
“The communities that are most impacted by environmental racism are typically the communities that are not on the decision-making board, whether or not we’re talking about an environmental organization or the Nova Scotia Department of Environment. The people sitting around the tables, making the policies, do not reflect the populations on the front line. They’re not protecting the most impacted populations,” Waldron said.
The first case of environmental racism examined at the panel on May 13 was Boat Harbour, a body of water on the Northumberland Strait in Pictou County, Nova Scotia that has been polluted with dioxins, mercury and other toxins released from the Northern Pulp Mill. The Boat Harbour Remediation Project wants to return Boat Harbour to its original state as a tidal bay. Boat Harbour is known as A’se’k by the Mi’kmaq people who historically used the area for fishing, clam digging and hunting.
Michelle Francis-Denny is the community liaison coordinator for Pictou Landing First Nation. Her job involves communicating with community members, chief in council, government workers, consultants and contractors in assisting with the opening of an alliance of communication between stakeholders on the Boat Harbour Remediation Project. Her work is dedicated to returning Boat Harbour to A’se’k and to community healing after decades of loss.
“Nobody cared about Boat Harbour until it was going to impact the strait, the non-indigenous communities and the non-indigenous fisheries,” Francis-Denny explained at the panel discussion.
On April 30, a ministerial order forced the Northern Pulp mill to stop releasing effluent into Boat Harbour. A celebration was in order: Denny and her community members printed t-shirts with A’se’k written on them. They hung the t-shirts in their home windows to celebrate community healing during the COVID-19 quarantine.
“It was about us; it was about our healing and our decades of grief,” Francis-Denny said.
“One day, we had a fog roll into our community, and we usually can smell the fog the day before. We woke up one day, and the community was full of natural fog, and people did not even smell it,” Francis-Denny explained.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Francis-Denny as the clean-up procedures for Boat Harbour will be extensive.
Following Francis-Denny’s remarks on the panel, Mi’kmaq grandmother, water protector and water walker, Dorene Bernard shared stories of how environmental racism has affected her community.
Bernard has 20 years of experience as a social worker and is a survivor of Shubenacadie residential school. The 2017 Chair of Social Justice of the Cody International Institute, Bernard is more than equipped in tackling environmental racism in her community. In 2007, she founded the grassroots grandmother circle, bringing the grassroots together, promoting cultural teachings and healing for Mi’kmaq communities.
Bernard said her community lost their water for four months in 2012 because of the activities of mining company Shaw Resources. Due to a 99-year lease signed in 1965, Shaw Resources has access to mine on the community’s land. Bernard is concerned that the mining activities will harm her community’s aquifer.
Bernard who joined the panel from her car as she was taking part in a water walk then shared her community’s struggles with Alton Gas.
In the rural Nova Scotia community of Brentwood, Alton Gas is proposing to store natural gas in underground caverns. Alton Gas plans to create caverns by using water from the Shubenacadie River to flush out natural salt deposits. Bernard said the proposal was devastating news for her community.
“Consultation didn’t happen at all with the people,” Bernard said. According to Bernard, residents of Sipekne’katik First Nation had no idea about the gas storage project until 2015 even though it was in the works since 2007.
Besides court battles, Mi’kmaq land defenders and allies took direct action.
“We occupied the front of the gates so they couldn’t proceed work,” Bernard explained. The community built a treaty camp as well as a treaty truck house, making their presence known on the Shubenacadie River.
In March, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court said that the Nova Scotia government failed to adequately consult the Sipekne’katik First Nation over the natural gas storage project when it granted approval for the project in 2016. The court ordered the province to resume consultations with the Mi’kmaq community.
“Currently, with COVID-19, consultation has not taken place and we are still on the river opposing the Alton Gas project and future fracking in Mi’kma’ki,” said Bernard.
Following Bernard’s talk, Louise Delisle, an organizer for environmental justice for black residents of Shelburne, spoke.
Delisle is with the South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED) and she has organized for an environmental bill of rights, clean up of the Shelburne town dump, and for black residents of Shelburne to have safe drinking water.
“I believe the key to finding the way to change and help the community grow is through research,” Delisle said.
Delisle addressed the shocking rates of cancer in her community. She believes the cancers are linked to the leaking of toxins from the town’s dump that operated in her community from the late 1940s to the 1990s.
Ellen Page, a Nova Scotia-born actor and film director of There’s Something in the Water, has worked on donating a well to the residents of the south end of Shelburne. After many council meetings, Delisle said she is happy to announce her town’s approval to install the well.
“We still have to keep providing proof for racism and we still have to fear the backlash of more accusations and excuses,” said Delisle. Delisle noted that the African Nova Scotian community, specifically in rural areas, have shorter life spans, lesser income, limited access to education and limited political participation.
Waldron hopes that her book makes visible the people fighting environmental racism and inspires others to confront environmental racism: “I want a young, black, Indigenous young woman to see these women on the front line, strong women leading the cause, and say, I can do that as well.”
Cortney MacDonnell is an environmental action reporter with RAVEN (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment), a research project based at the University of New Brunswick.