In the autumn of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire climate report (1) outlining the necessity of limiting global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius within 12 years to avoid the worst of irreparable climate chaos. While the fossil fuel industry and many decision makers of the West collude to carry on business as usual, falsely recycling the debunked jobs versus the environment argument to defend taxpayer billions spent on new pipelines (2), frontline communities resist ongoing threats to their livelihoods, community resources, and ways-of-knowing. As the Mi’kmaq perform ongoing acts of civil disobedience to protect the Shubenacadie River from underground natural gas taverns (3), the Wet’suwet’en Nation fight to protect their unceded land from the TransCanada pipeline (4), another battle being waged to halt the natural gas industry’s path of destruction. In Shelburne, African-Nova Scotians have collectively mobilized against a landfill that poisoned their community for decades (5), co-creating community knowledge as a form of resistance. Racialized communities have long borne the brunt of overt violence and more subtle forms of slow, intergenerational violence. Released in 2018 by Fernwood Publishing, Ingrid R.G. Waldron’s There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities provides a comprehensive introduction to the interlocking systems of oppression that create and sustain environmental racism in Nova Scotian environmental policy and decision-making and beyond.
Dr. Waldron, associate Professor at Dalhousie University and lead researcher and community organizer with The Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities, and Community Health Project (ENRICH), urges for a reclamation of the environmental justice movement and its intersectional tenets in Nova Scotia and Canada more broadly. In her book, she argues that the environmental justice movement has been co-opted and diluted by white environmentalists. The main tenets of environmental justice were first articulated in 1991 at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. following a decade of Black-led community organizing in the American South against the siting of toxic industries in Black and low-income communities. The Summit generated seventeen principles (6) that went beyond an anti-environmental-toxins focus to include “issues of public health, worker safety, land use, transportation, housing, resource allocation, and community empowerment” (7). Central to the Summit’s analysis was an understanding of environmental racism, or “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color” (8). Dr. Waldron further contextualizes environmental racism as intricately connected to settler colonialism, neoliberalism, and gender-based violence. She names the task of situating movements for environmental justice in the context of settler colonial nation-states such as Canada and the United States, where millions of Indigenous people were killed for the acquisition of land and its corresponding resources, and where survivors encounter ongoing and systemic dispossession from their land and cultural practices. This is essential work to do, and Dr. Waldron’s book is a solid start at unifying environmental justice efforts without omitting the specific and different ways in which Indigenous and Black communities are impacted by environmental racism and systems of oppression more broadly. Dr. Waldron’s analysis of neoliberalism and its shapeshifting forms further expound her call for an "anti-authoritarian" (Waldron, p. 9) approach to environmental racism, and Black feminist thought informs her analysis of environmental racism’s embodied, differential impacts across and between interlocking identities (9). For further syntheses, I would add the importance of noting hierarchies of sexuality and gender that in turn direct specific violence towards queer, trans, Two-Spirited, and gender nonconforming individuals in Indigenous and Black communities.
Dr. Waldron’s book argues that this multidisciplinary, historical perspective is omitted from Nova Scotian and Canadian environmental policies and mainstream environmental organizing, often placing the burden of proof on impacted communities to demonstrate how they’ve been not only unfairly but racially targeted. While skeptics of environmental racism may demand proof of intentionality in the siting of a toxic industry in a community of color, Dr. Waldron and other environmental racism scholars argue that discriminatory intent is not as important as discriminatory outcome. Furthermore, subtle and invisibilized manifestations of environmental racism can be brought to light when examining the spatial patterning of polluting industries (Waldron, p. 68). Dr. Waldron references a 1996 study (10) that found upwards of 45% of waste sites “located near communities where African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw communities were higher in number than the provincial average" (Waldron, p. 69). Lincolnville is one such African Nova Scotian community, where residents have mobilized against a toxic landfill for decades. Trash may be thrown “away,” but “away” is a real place, often home to a community. Toxic Waste and Race, for instance, a national study in the United States conducted by the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice, found that race was the most potent variable in predicting where waste facility sites were located – more powerful than poverty, land values, and home ownership - and most likely to impact Black Americans, Latinxs, Native Americans, and low-income communities (11).
Although discussions around Canada’s histories of segregation have tended to focus along lines of ethnicity, language, and immigration status, Dr. Waldron argues convincingly for specific attention to race in Nova Scotia. Dr. Waldron notes how colorblindness ideology and whiteness as a normative construct contribute to skepticisms of environmental racism (Waldron, p.10 - 11; p. 50). She argues that "strategic inadvertence (12)" (Waldron, p. 2) in addressing racial disparities has obscured the disproportionate, embodied environmental violence racialized communities face in Nova Scotia. She argues that because whiteness is embedded in institutions and policies as the normative standard by which other experiences are judged, systemic racism can be particularly difficult to see, especially for those without lived experiences of racism. This brings up larger questions regarding how power operates and how power-holders maintain control of the narrative by relying on entrenched norms and beliefs enforced by ideologies of white supremacy and patriarchy. The #MeToo movement is a recent example of how victim-blaming can be used by perpetrators and their allies to silence truth in an attempt to maintain the status quo, in which calls for accountability are stymied by attempts at discrediting and counter-calls for "evidence of harm caused." It is unsurprising, then, that skeptics of environmental racism would rely upon these same tactics, calling for proof while altogether missing the main point (strategically so, one could argue). This calls to mind James Baldwin in A Letter to My Nephew (13) published in 1962, as he considers his nephew’s life unfolding in the segregated United States: "Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity." I interpret Baldwin to say this: People in positions of power will always attempt to re-frame calls for justice to best protect their interests. This says more about the dehumanization of power-holders than the worthiness of those speaking truth to power, for dehumanization is prerequisite to the willful ignorance that allows such injustices to be maintained (14).
Dr. Waldron provides a range of case studies detailing ongoing acts of resistance to environmental racism and neoliberal assault faced by Black and Indigenous communities, highlighting voices that ground the theory presented in lived experiences. As noted by Dr. Waldron’s work with ENRICH and commitment to participatory action research (Waldron, p. 23; p. 33 - 36), it is clear that this book is intended for a life off the shelf, to put theory into action for the goal of social justice. The voices that speak through this book reflect a larger pattern of political processes and decisions that fail to meaningfully solicit community input. This is not coincidental, but rather reflective of how environmental exploitation and institutionalized racism occur alongside, or rather, are neccessitated by the strategic instrumentation of exploitative neoliberal economic policies and projects. Africville is a stark example of such in Canada, a Halifax community settled by Black refugees migrating to Nova Scotia in the midst of the War of 1812. As historian Harvey Amani Whitfield (15) notes, American slaves were promised freedom in exchange for fighting alongside the British. Since its inception, however, the City of Halifax deprived Africville of basic community infrastructural essentials, grooming Africville through neglect for the eventual siting of a slew of toxic fossil-fuel-based industrial development; later, under the auspices of an "urban renewal campaign," Africville was razed and residents bulldozed out of their homes (Waldron, p. 84). Under neoliberalism, land, water, soil, and other aspects of the natural world enter the market-state; they are no longer public commons to be cared for but commodities to be privatized and exploited. In such a system, the negative social and health impacts of business are often externalized to communities left vulnerable from violent legacies of colonization, enslavement, and forced migration. These communities often become locked into intergenerational poverty and disenfranchisement as a result of ongoing neo-colonial assault, arriving in the form of land-grabs, incarceration that fractures families (Waldron, p. 61 - 62), and displacement via gentrification (Waldron, p. 62 - 65) that "modernizes" neighborhoods for white up-and-coming elites. When the main objective of neoliberalism is the commodification of everything in the pursuit of serving the free market, this does not preclude flesh-and-blood bodies. Rather, neoliberalism’s maintenance demands upon the exploitation of bodies deemed "expendable," often coded as such through racialization, hierarchies of gender and sexuality, and class-based violence. One only needs to look at the complex interplay across borders of enslavement, forced migration and broken promises, and modern neoliberal strategies of urban renewal and gentrification to see the impact of state violence on Africville residents and their descendants.
Dr. Waldron’s professorship lies in the School of Nursing at Dalhousie University, and she furthers her analysis of state violence through her scholarship on the physical and mental health impacts of environmental racism. Drawing from a structural determinants of health framework, Dr. Waldron argues that the standard tools of biomedicine cannot capture the impacts of ongoing settler colonialism and predatory neoliberal strategies in producing intergenerational trauma. This perspective is particularly interesting when considering the growing turn of psychiatry and neuroscience towards the isolation of particular molecules in treating mental illness, rather than a holistic understanding of health that considers a person within their socio-political environment. The analysis Dr. Waldron draws to place individual health in its full biopolitical context should be standard textbook curriculum for any med student in Nova Scotia and beyond.
As scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang note in their must-read article (16), decolonization is not a metaphor. As both the title and main thesis of their argument, Tuck and Yang’s analysis pairs well with Dr. Waldron’s attempts to situate environmental justice within a framework of settler colonialism. Tuck and Yang speak to how metaphorizing and abstracting decolonization points at settler moves to innocence focused more on alleviating settler guilt than interrupting and transforming the structures that enable the maintenances of settler colonialism. They remind us that "[settler colonial] violence is not temporally contained in the arrival of the settler but is reasserted each day of occupation" (17). Settler colonialism’s ongoing historical project becomes more visible in instances of overt threat, such as the ongoing, heroic fight of the Mi’kmaq to protect the Shubenacadie River from natural gas caverns (Waldron, p. 76 - 78). Yet the question remains: as visibility of Indigenous struggles grows — whether through public apologies for federally-run boarding schools that sanctioned Indigenous cultural genocide (18), or the seeming ubiquity of opening land acknowledgements at progressive events — are these gestures actively contributing to the project of decolonization? Tuck and Yang argue: "Until stolen land is relinquished, critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism" (19).
In all, Dr. Waldron provides a compelling argument for re-centering race in co-opted movements for environmental justice in Nova Scotia and Canada at large, while drawing larger questions around how to build and unify movements without omitting the ongoing legacy of settler colonialism, nor the unique struggles Black communities face. No group of people is a monolith — diversity in language, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and immigration history all speak to this — though the primary benefactors of neoliberal white supremacy may prefer we shy away from specificity. Dr. Waldron’s descriptions of resistance in Indigenous and Black Nova Scotian communities point to a diversity of identities, experiences, and tactics for struggle, making these case studies some of the book’s most valuable highlights. These stories and voices implore a deeper research into the tactics of resilience and resistance in these communities, and also suggest that Indigenous and Black environmental justice struggles, as well as frontline struggles everywhere, should be forefront in the minds, hearts, and actions of policymakers. Until policy decisions are specific and action-oriented in addressing racialized histories of state violence — neither evasions nor mere symbolic gestures towards progressivism — community mobilizations will force policy makers everywhere to pay attention. Environmental justice is climate justice, too, and many Indigenous and other frontline communities are already leading the “just transition" (20) away from fossil fuels, away from the neoliberal practices that have necessitated systemic racism and other forms of state violence. The climate clock is ticking, and this doesn’t mean that histories of genocide and enslavement can be swept under the rug. Rather, centralizing these histories and their corresponding voices is integral to crafting the new world we want manifested.
1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C.”, <https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/>
2. CTVNews.ca Staff, "Trudeau defends decision to buy Trans Mountain pipeline at town hall,"
4. Cecco, Leyland, “Pipeline battle puts focus on Canada’s disputed right to use indigenous land,” The Guardian, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2...>
5. Ore, Jonathan, "’A community of widows’: How African-Nova Scotians are confronting a history of environmental racism," CBC, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/features/facing-race/a-community-of-widows-how-african-nova-scotians-are-confronting-a-history-of-environmental-racism-1.449795
6. EJNet.org, “Principles of Environmental Justice,” <https://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html>
7. Bullard, Robert. "Environmental Justice in the 21st Century," in Debating the Earth: the Environmental Politics Reader. Edited by John S. Dryzek and David Schlosberg, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 431-448. For more on the history of the environmental justice movement, see also: Bullard, Robert D. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston, Massachusetts (Boston: South End Press, 1993), p. 432.
8. Ibid, p. 439.
9. Dr. Waldron references the contributions of Patricia Hill Collins (1990) to the framework of intersectionality, as well as bell hooks (1981) to Black feminist thought; also see Kimberlé Crenshaw’s "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics" (1989); Crenshaw first used the term "intersectionality" in the context of black women navigating the particularities of the American legal system.
10. Fryzuk, Lori Anne. “Environmental Justice in Canada: An Empirical Study and Analysis of the Demographics of Dumping in Nova Scotia,” Masters Thesis, Environmental Studies, School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax (1996).
11. Bullard, p. 431.
12. Dr. Waldron attributes this concept to Professor Michael Eric Dyson, who wrote about Barack Obama and strategic inadvertence in The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (2016)
13. You can read Baldwin’s full essay-letter here: https://progressive.org/magazine/letter-nephew/
14. Classic texts on colonization and colonizer mentality include Aimé Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialism (Discourse on Colonialism) (1955) and Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre (Wretched of the Earth) (1961).
15. Whitfield, Harvey Amani, "’We Can Do As We Like Here’: An Analysis of Self Assertion and Agency Among Black Refugees in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1813-1821." Acadiensis, vol. 32, no. 1 (Autumn 2002): 29-49, at p. 32.
16. Tuck, Eve and Yang, K. Wayne, "Decolonization is Not a Metaphor, " Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40, at p. 3.
17. Ibid, p. 5.
18. Bartlett, Geoff, "Tearful Justin Trudeau apologizes to N.L. residential school survivors," CBC, <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newf...>
19. Tuck and Yang, p. 19.
20. Indigenous Environmental Network, “Green New Deal Must Be Rooted in a Just Transition,” <http://www.ienearth.org/green-new-d...> .