Planetary health lens informs physicians’ view of environmental racism
Op-ed originally published in the National Observer
“It is clear that the community is suffering from decades of environmental racism and generational trauma.” These words laid bare the stark reality of the conditions and the implications for the people exposed to the Imperial Oil Kearl Mine toxic leak from tailings ponds. Ms. Carmen Wells of the Fort Chipewyan Metis Nation Association offered this observation in her testimony before the federal environment committee on April 24, 2023. The tailings and water seepage that occurred is a problem the community has expressed concern about for decades and have been on high alert since the spill last year.
First Nations have for centuries relied for survival needs on the Athabasca and Peace River systems where the tailings leak occurred. Wells observed, “The health of the land, water and community needs support.” Many nations in the region have requested an overall health and cumulative assessment of the community in light of the toxic exposures.
Alongside the calls from First Nations communities have been the calls from physicians. They too see the effects of environmental racism, including for their patients. With a planetary health perspective physicians recognize that a healthy environment is needed for human health. And they connect the dots to systemic racism and to the inadequate funding for medical research to document these realities. Comprehensive, long-term health studies assessing cumulative health impacts of these exposures, that pairs Western science with Traditional Knowledge while accounting for the ecological, social, cultural and Indigenous determinants of health, are needed.
Fortunately, a new strategy that will require increased health research into these factors is coming into force. In the wake of this most recent Imperial Oil leak, Bill C-226: The National Strategy Respecting Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice Act is poised for passage. This historic bill marks a milestone in the efforts of many to address environmental racism in Canada.
Environmental racism was first defined in the 1980s by Reverend Benjamin Chavis, former leader of the NAACP, as “… racial discrimination in environmental policymaking, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from the leadership of the ecology movements.”
While the definition is of American origin, the track record in Canada is filled with examples of injustices and inequalities for BIPOC communities. Chronic and persistent Mercury exposure causing neurotoxicity of First Nations communities in the English River-Wabigoon system in Ontario and the exposure of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation by mine-waste contaminated oil sludge holding ponds are modern cautionary tales. As is the experience of African Nova Scotians, living amidst hazardous exposures from landfills, incinerators, sewage treatment plants, refineries, pulp and paper mills, oil and gas extraction, and hazardous waste storage.
In Akwesasne on the ON, QC and US borders the people of the Kanienkehaka ( Mohawk) First Nation, are subjected to toxic exposures including PCBs – which have been found to be related to thyroid dysfunction, reproductive health harms, cancers, autoimmune diseases, mental health disorders, and more. The exposures are not fixed, but change over time, as PCBs degenerate and lose chlorine, making them lighter and then volatile. Aamjiwnaang First Nation surrounded by Chemical Valley in Ontario, where petrochemical industries emissions are dominant, toxic exposures are thought to contribute to high rates of cancer, birth anomalies, learning disabilities and a skewed sex ratio. In Northern BC, fracking operations are connected to childhood leukemia, cardiovascular diseases, neurological effects and respiratory illnesses. In Windsor, ON, particularly the west end where a higher proportion of racialized people are residents, people live in the shadow of the truck traffic of the Ambassador Bridge and industrial emissions from both sides of the border.
These are not just stories of Canadian history. Environmental racism perpetuates harm against Indigenous and racialized communities today and the hidden tailings leak is further evidence of this modern-day, ongoing scandal. Dr. Ingrid Waldron’s 2020 report Environmental Racism in Canada exposes the situation and provides recommendations for how to address the myriad of examples of the problem. Waldron’s work has been key to the development and advocacy for the passage of Bill C-226.
For physicians who have treated and advocated for people in impacted communities, the passage of Bill C-226 will be welcome news. They have long understood that health is more than an individual’s personal choice or genetic predisposition and is substantially influenced by environments. Despite this knowledge garnered in the practice of medicine in communities, the data documenting the extent of environmental racism in Canada has been lacking and in most cases only anecdotal evidence is available. Bill C-226 requires the Government of Canada to act to adequately study and assess environmental racism, to address existing hazards, implement measures to prevent and address harms with the consultation of affected communities, and support Indigenous people who choose to move to different sites within their homelands where they can connect with the land and waters in a healthy way.
Environmental racism is supported by upstream systemic factors – societal values and beliefs conforming to a capitalist economy, that humans do not have a right to a healthy environment in practice, legislation that does not fairly protect BIPOC and Indigenous communities, institutions whose siloed and competing mandates do not protect these communities and are not uniformly held accountable to the laws already in place, and programs that have been designed without input from all stakeholders. Environmental justice can occur if our values and beliefs incorporate a planetary health perspective, we substantively recognize that we have a right to live in a healthy environment, laws such as Bill C-226 are passed and enforceable, institutions support these laws, and programs reflect the links between the health of our planet, biodiversity, and human health. Indigenous and racialized people are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”, and their health trajectory will inform how well human-kind will fare in the concurrent climate and biodiversity crises.
Dr. Ojistoh Horn is a Mohawk / Haudenosaunee woman working as a family physician and is a Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) board member drawing on both Western and Traditional paradigms, working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous physicians across the country, with a clear eye on the effects of the environment and pollution on health.
Naomi Trick is a graduate of the Ethics, Society and Law program at the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and her research focuses on policy at the intersection of human health and the environment.
Jane McArthur is toxics program director at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), has a PhD in sociology with a specialization in social justice and has been an advocate for healthier, more just environments for over 25 years.