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

File photo
A man walks into a Cargill meat processing factory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Alberta meat plant, site of COVID-19 outbreak last year, to get vaccination clinics

Nearly half of the 2,200 workers at the Cargill facility contracted the novel coronavirus and two employees died last April

Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, left, Grand Chief Arthur Noskey, centre and Chief Aaron Young during a meeting with First Nations Chiefs and Grand Chiefs in Edmonton. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta must retract Forest Act before it becomes law: Treaty 8 grand chief

‘We are asking (the government) to pull this back and consult with us,’ says Arthur Noskey of Treaty 8 First Nations

Alberta’s largest school board says it will not use the United Conservative government’s draft elementary school curriculum pilot this fall. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)
Calgary school board says no to United Conservative draft school curriculum

Other school boards including Edmonton Public, Edmonton Catholic, Elk Island Public, Wild Rose, Medicine Hat Public, Medicine Hat Catholic and Lethbridge Public have also rejected it

Alberta reported its highest number of daily COVID-19 cases since December 16 on Friday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Alberta reports 1,521 additional COVID-19 cases, 674 new variant cases

Daily case total the highest since mid-December

A cross made out of hockey sticks at a makeshift memorial is silhouetted against the setting sun at the intersection of a fatal bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., on Monday, April, 9, 2018. A virtual tribute is planned to mark the third anniversary of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
VIDEO: Humboldt Broncos team to be honoured on third anniversary of fatal bus crash

16 people died and 13 were injured when a semi-trailer ran a stop sign into the path of the hockey team’s bus

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

Vancouver’s park board general manager issued a new order Friday restricting tents and other temporary structures from being set up in Strathcona Park after April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver park board issues order to restrict tents in Strathcona Park

The order issued Friday restricted tents and other temporary structures from being set up after April 30

Stettler’s own Renegade Station is kicking off the spring season with a brand new single - to be released April 9th. (Photo submitted)
A brand new single is on the way from Stettler-based band Renegade Station

Free Free Free hits all streaming platforms on April 9th

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau waits for a virtual meeting to begin with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ottawa, Friday February 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Ottawa mulls exempting more workers from Canada-U.S. border shutdown: Garneau

Canada-U.S. border has been closed to people travelling for vacations and other non-essential visits since March 2020

A worker smooths concrete at a construction site in Toronto on January 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
Economy adds 303,000 jobs in March, unemployment rate falls: Statistics Canada

Figure released this morning outpaced the 259,000 gain seen in February

FILE - This file photo dated July 10, 1947 shows the official photograph of Britain’s Princess Elizabeth and her fiance, Lieut. Philip Mountbatten in London. Buckingham Palace says Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died aged 99. (AP Photo/File)
Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, dies at 99

Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16

Campbell River city council will continue its 2020 policy of waiving late fees and NSFs. (Mirror File photo)
53% of Canadians teetering the brink of insolvency: survey

A majority of Canadians admit they’re just $200 away from not being able to pay their monthly bills

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney listens as the 2021 budget is delivered in Edmonton Alta, on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Kenney faces criticism from doctors, his own caucus, over new COVID-19 health rules

Alberta now has more than 10,000 active cases, about 43 per cent are variants

Most Read