By: Maggie Chang
Imagine life without clean tap water, how difficult it would be to cook, bathe, and clean. Now imagine living this way for decades. Believe it or not, this is a reality for several communities right here in Canada – according to the Human Rights Watch (2016), a non-profit that reports on and advocates against Human Rights abuses, there were 133 boil water advisories across Canada in 2016. The common denominator? They are all in First Nations reserves.
The phenomenon of communities of colour disproportionately bearing negative environmental burdens is known as environmental racism (Maclean, 2003). Environmental racism, particularly in water management, is not only detrimental to affected communities of colour, but irresponsible and potentially hazardous to Canadians and the world at large. To protect water quality, Canada needs to introduce policy that addresses environmental racism.
One community that is an excellent illustration of the dangers of environmental racism is Grassy Narrows. For decades, the First Nation Anishnaabe community in Northern Ontario has been suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning (Ilyniak, 2014; Simpson, DaSilva, Riffel, & Sellers, 2009). In humans, mercury can cause a slew of alarming symptoms including impairment of vision and speech as well as the loss of coordination, accelerated degeneration of the body, and birth defects (Ilniak, 2014). In the 1960s a paper mill leached thousands of kilograms of mercury into the water, leading to extremely high levels of mercury in the area’s fish, an important resource for the Anishnaabe to practice their culture, generate income, and achieve food security (Ilyniak, 2014; Simpson et al., 2009). Pollution problems persist as logging companies’ activities continue to seep mercury into the area (Ilyniak, 2014)
As if that wasn’t enough, the community has several problems with their tap water as well. Not only is it 120 times cloudier than Ontario guidelines, but other dangerous chemicals like radioactive uranium and potentially carcinogenic DBPs, disinfectant by-products, were also detected, spurring the community to declare a state of emergency in 2015 (Porter, 2015).
So how does this relate to everyone’s water security? Simply put, none of these water issues stay in a vacuum. High levels of water pollution in Grassy Narrows can spread to other areas. Dispersion can occur through various natural processes which are difficult, if not impossible, to stop. Additionally, all freshwater sources need to be protected. According to the United States Geological Survey (2016), only 0.03% of the world’s water is easily accessible surface freshwater held in lakes and streams. Canada is no exception to the need to protect water. The Canadian government (2012) indicates only about 7% of Canada’s freshwater is renewable.
Grassy Narrows also exhibits the indirect ways environmental racism is harmful to water and the environment at large. When tap water is unsafe, people turn to bottled water; the government did just that for Grassy Narrows in response to the 2015 state of emergency, trucking in bottled water from Winnipeg to help meet the residents’ needs (Porter, 2015). Disposable plastic water bottles are manufactured and shipped using millions of gallons of oil each year (Hawkins, 2009), supporting an industry famous for its problematic contributions to pollution and climate change. The trucks used to transport the water also contribute carbon dioxide emissions. Another important component to remember is that humans are not the only ones at risk. The contaminated fish suffer as well as any other animals that feed on the fish and interact with the water.
Opponents may argue the economics. It’s true the upfront costs and logistics of establishing participatory processes to deal holistically with environmental racism, as well as more tangible tasks of updating infrastructure to better protect people may seem a deterrent. Others might also argue that monitoring of environmental racism may retract money and resources from more pressing issues. These views, however, ignore the fundamental way environmental racism is tied to all Canadians. Reducing the pollution woes of Indigenous communities means less exposure for everyone. Additionally, in terms of human potential, not addressing environmental racism is extremely costly. Robert Smith (2014), of the University of Ottawa’s Smart Prosperity Institute, established in a 2014 report that a conservative estimate of the cost of air and water pollution for the year in terms of human capital was $9.655 billion.
Secure access to clean water and the protection of water resources is a complex issue, and solutions must reflect the same complexity of perspectives. It’s easy to see how science and technology can contribute, but the role of justice cannot be forgotten. The world is vastly interconnected through both globalization and different interacting components of the environment.
By protecting marginalized groups' right to a safe, clean environment, not only does that uphold justice, but it provides protection for everyone.
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