HALIFAX, NS – The stench. The smoke. The hazardous materials. And the question of what all of this doing to their health.
It’s a list that Shelburne resident Louise Delisle rattles off when she talks about the decades that people living in a predominantly black and poor community in the south end of Shelburne had to endure when the town dump was located in their community.
From 1949 to 1990 residential, industrial, and sometimes medical waste, from eastern Shelburne County was brought to this dump, which later became a transfer station until it was finally closed in December 2016.
Delisle calls the location of the dump environmental racism.
While it’s not been proven, the group that Delisle is a member of – the South End Environmental Injustice Society – believes the dump contributed to the high rates of cancer or health issues they’ve seen among the people who lived close to it.
“Every time you turn around there’s somebody with cancer or an auto immune disease or breathing problems,” she says.
The group Rural Water Watch, which does work in conjunction with ENRICH –is a collaborative community-based project investigating the cause and effects of toxic industries situated near Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian communities – is carrying out water testing in the community.
“These water tests are going to be something that answers a lot of questions for us,” Delisle says.
The Nova Scotia NDP says when it comes to environmental racism there are many questions to be explored. Which is why on Sept. 13 MLA Lenore Zann – who is the NDP’s environment spokesperson – introduced a bill in the Legislature called An Act to Redress Environmental Racism.
This isn’t the first time Zann has introduced a bill on this topic. There was one in 2013.
“It brought it to the public attention, which was very good. We got to second reading so I got to debate it on the floor of the House, but it did not pass by the Liberals. I reintroduced it twice more and it has not passed,” she says.
“This time we’ve changed it and updated it to include and address issues that the communities have become more vocal about – like, for instance, the health concerns like cancer and other concerns, along with mental health concerns and the lowering of property values in communities where there is an environmental racism aspect of some kind, be it a dump or a toxic waste site or a major industrial polluter.”
The new NDP bill calls for the establishment of a panel to explore environmental racism in the province and provide recommendations to address it. Among the members of the panel would be members of the African Nova Scotia, First Nations’ and Acadian communities.
“I think that with public pressure and the public being as vocal as possible, writing to the premier, writing to the minister of environment, that we have a better chance of having it passed,” Zann says, saying while many examples of environmental racism date back to long ago – such as the Shelburne one – there are present-day examples, such as the North Pulp wastewater lagoon near the Pictou Landing First Nation.
“I’m hoping that in light of that particular issue the government will be more open now to addressing this issue across the province in communities who have been, for years, saying this is a problem,” Zann says. “Perhaps they didn’t call it environmental racism at the time, but now we actually have a name for what it is.”
Asked if she thinks the government’s reluctance in the past to support the bill may stem from potential financial implications down the road – if compensation becomes an issue – Zann feels that’s probably been part of it.
“I think that’s sadly on their mind and I think that it’s time that we realize that there are some things that are more important than a balanced budget and when it comes to people’s lives, and health, and quality of life,” she says.
Lynn Jones, a long-time community and human rights activist, says anyone looking at environmental racism solely in monetary terms is taking too narrow a view. She says there is a bigger picture.
“It includes financial compensation, but it also involves looking at the health of people and there’s several other factors, education, training, infrastructure. It recognizes how communities have been under privileged in many areas,” she says.
The Halifax resident, who was raised in Truro, is pleased another version of the environmental racism bill being introduced by the NDP, particularly since she’s worked with the party in the past on this issue.
“I’m really encouraged by the fact that the party hasn’t given up,” Jones says. “If the government thinks we’re going away on this issue it looks like we’re definitely not, so I’m excited.”
Jones points to a past example of environmental racism when a town dump in Truro was located not far from a black community. Eventually – albeit not for a long time – the dump was moved.
“But guess where they moved it, to another black community,” she says.
In 1997 Jones was vice-president with the Canadian Labour Congress, which introduced a national anti-racism task force report. A section of that report dealt with environmental racism and things that should be done to address it. More than 20 years later Jones says it is still an issue needing to be addressed.
“Hopefully one day we’ll have a huge success,” she says.
It’s what Delisle in Shelburne hopes for too. While they’re still seeking answers – and maybe one day compensation will also become part of the fray – they’re really hoping history never repeats itself.
“If this NDP bill goes through, hopefully that kind of thing won’t ever happen again,” Delisle says.