A sign for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Resource Centre is located across the road from NOVA Chemicals in Sarnia, Ontario on April 21, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Craig Glover

A sign for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Resource Centre is located across the road from NOVA Chemicals in Sarnia, Ontario on April 21, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Craig Glover

Mapping project illuminates links between poor environment, historical racism

Socioeconomic status a key driver for environmental racism: poverty stops people from being able to move out of poor-quality environments

A new tool that measures the environmental quality of any urban street in Canada — and maps it out in colour — illustrates vividly the many neighbourhoods in the country that have poor environment scores, neighbourhoods that are often home to racialized communities.

GoodScore assesses air quality, street greenness, amenities, transit and recreation on a scale of 1 to 100. The prototype tool was made for the public and policy-makers alike “so people can create evidence and stories that will illustrate inequity,” says Eleanor Setton, the Victoria-based managing director of the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium.

“Bad” neighbourhoods have hazards that are linked to poor mental health, cancer, asthma, diabetes, and low birth weights.

Homes in the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve, nestled in the midst of petrochemical plants in southwestern Ontario, most often record scores under 10 and appear in blazing red on the map. The neighbouring city of Sarnia shows scores of 50 and above and is presented in less alarming colours of tan and blue.

“This is systemic racism,” says Scott Grant, the air-quality expert at Aamjiwnaang First Nation, as he looks at the red-covered map of the community. “It’s a sensitive topic too, because the community doesn’t want to be seen as a horrible place, and it isn’t, it’s a wonderful community, friendly people. It’s just patently unfair what they’ve had to endure.”

Pollution has been harming people in the community for decades, “and people don’t even think about it. This would not be allowed in Oakville, Ont. It would not be allowed in Montreal. There’s no way, and yet it’s happening here,” says Grant.

Setton and her team have found that Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver all have more impoverished households in neighbourhoods with lower walkability, lower streetscape greenness and worse traffic-related air pollution. They note the health impacts of these features are linked to diabetes, lower physical activity and poorer birth outcomes.

Poor people living in poor-quality neighbourhoods experiencing poor health isn’t revelatory, but when it intersects with race, those impacts can be exacerbated, says Ingrid Waldron in her book “There’s Something in the Water.” She explores the long history of environmental racism, such as Africville in Nova Scotia, a Black community that experienced years of industrialization and marginalization.

Waldron explains that socioeconomic status is a key driver for environmental racism: poverty stops people from being able to move out of poor-quality environments, but sociopolitical factors also contribute. These communities can have less political clout in anything from local city planning — such as where the new sports facility will be built — to decisions on large-scale projects.

Waldron points out examples where public hearings are held in places community members can’t easily get to and only in English, or require technology and internet access.

Actor Elliot Page eventually turned Waldron’s book into a documentary, which premièred at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and now is available on Netflix.

John Williams, a member of the WSÁNEĆ Nation on Vancouver Island, has lived both on reserve in Tsawout and within the nearby cities of Victoria and Sidney, and was curious how they would compare in GoodScore. His reserve address has a score of 49, while his current address in Sidney scores 55.

“That’s not a huge difference,” he says, but he and his family did decide to move out of Tsawout into the city. “Here in Sidney, I live in between two schools within walking distance, but in Tsawout there isn’t a school.” Says Williams, who has a school-aged daughter, “We spent a lot of time on the bus getting to places.”

Tsawout is an example of a relatively well-resourced First Nations community, though it wasn’t always that way. Williams says its health centre, recreation facility, and several playgrounds were all built within the past 10 years or so.

Lenore Zann, a Nova Scotia Liberal MP, has made it a goal to tackle environmental racism, introducing a private member’s bill that would require the environment minister to produce a plan to redress it.

With support from the Liberals and New Democrats, the bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday and is headed to a committee for close study.

“Like systemic racism, environmental racism has been ignored for far too many years. The time has come for us to redress the past and make sure they don’t continue,” Zann says.

Waldron and Zann worked together on Bill C-230, hoping an executive order from U.S. President Joe Biden that includes efforts to curb environmental racism south of the border will bolster support in Canada.

Canada needs a national strategy using “data that looks at the links among race, gender, education, employment, income, health and environmental harms, as well as other factors,” Zann says.

Setton and her team have been doing just that. GoodScore is a prototype they will continue to develop over the next three years with a grant from the federal government.

“What can public health people learn from using these data? Visualizing them, intersecting them with low socioeconomic indicators and seeing where we need to change, where we need to prioritize our efforts,” Setton says. “It’s really about setting priorities using mapping.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in the Kootenays. Illustration: BC Centre for Disease Control
Highest weekly number of new COVID-19 cases in 2021 for Nelson

The Nelson local health area had 13 new cases in early April

ANKORS held a small demonstration outside Nelson City Hall and the courthouse Wednesday to mark the five-year anniversary of the province declaring the toxic drug supply crisis. Photo: Tyler Harper
‘We’re all supposed to take care of each other’: 5 years of toxic drug supply crisis marked in Nelson

Over 7,000 people have died in B.C. since the crisis was announced in 2016

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
105 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

Just over 8,000 new vaccine doses administered in the region for a total of 158,000 to date

School District 8 says a COVID-19 exposure has occurred at Nelson’s Rosemont Elementary. Photo: School District 8
Class at Nelson’s Rosemont Elementary in isolation after COVID-19 exposure

It’s not clear if any students or teachers were infected

Commercial trucks head south towards the Pacific Highway border crossing Wednesday (April 14, 2021). The union representing Canadian border officers wants its members to be included on the frontline priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine. (Aaron Hinks photo)
CBSA officers’ union calls for vaccine priority in B.C.

Border officers at ports including South Surrey’s Pacific Highway should ‘not be left behind’

Demonstrators at the legislature on April 14 called on the province to decriminalize drug possession and provide widespread access to regulated safe supply across B.C. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Rally calls for decriminalization, safe supply on 5th anniversary of overdose emergency declaration

From 2016 to the end of February, 7,072 British Columbians died due to overdose

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 1, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps to 1,168 Wednesday, nearly 400 in hospital

Now 120 coronavirus patients in intensive care, six more deaths

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Moss covered branches are seen in the Avatar Old Growth Forest near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, B.C. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. blockades aimed at protecting old-growth forests reveal First Nation split

Two Pacheedaht chiefs say they’re ‘concerned about the increasing polarization over forestry activities’ in the territory

Richmond RCMP Chief Superintendent Will Ng said, in March, the force received a stand-out number of seven reports of incidents that appeared to have “racial undertones.” (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
‘Racially motivated’ incidents on the rise in B.C’s 4th largest city: police

Three incidents in Richmond are currently being invested as hate crimes, says RCMP Chief Superintendent Will Ng

A still from the video taken of a violent arrest on May 30, 2020 in downtown Kelowna. (File)
Kelowna Mountie charged with assault for caught-on-camera violent arrest

Const. Siggy Pietrzak was filmed punching a suspected impaired driver at least 10 times during an arrest

A screenshot from a Nuu-chah-nulth healing song and performance created in collaboration between Hjalmer Wenstob and Timmy Masso. (Screenshot from YouTube)
VIDEO: Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation brothers produce COVID-19 healing song

Hjalmer Wenstob and Timmy Masso share dance and inspiration.

Most Read