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

Police are looking for the driver of this truck after it nearly hit a group of kids in Esquimalt on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Police)
Victoria police looking for driver of truck that nearly missed kids before crashing in Esquimalt

The truck’s driver, a man, fled the scene after the truck crashed into a house’s fence

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: Lookout Lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

A driver stopped by Saanich police following a road rage incident on April 15 was found to be impaired, in violation of a license restriction and in a damaged vehicle. They received a 90-day driving prohibition and a 30-day vehicle impound. (Saanich Police Traffic Safety Unit/Twitter)
Driver stopped on Pat Bay Highway after road rage reports fails breathalyzer test: police

Several witnesses reported driver to Saanich police, school officer intercepted

Police escorts for Victoria bylaw workers entering encampments in parks will continue for this month, after council approved a $25,000 budget request from VicPD. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria bylaw staff encampment work to include police escort through April

Taxpayers to see modest increase in property taxes for 2021

Victoria’s bylaw restricting businesses from providing most plastic checkout bags came into effect on April 15. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
Victoria’s bylaw banning plastic bags back in effect

The bylaw restricts businesses from providing most plastic checkout bags, charges for alternatives

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you have a plan in place in the event of a tsunami?

Tsunamis have claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people between 1998… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 13

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

The District of Sooke will continue to flower with Communities in Bloom. (Pixabay)
Sooke will bud but not bloom in provincial competition

Council scales back participation in Communities in Bloom

An armed officer walks outside Cerwydden Care on Cowichan Lake Road near Skinner Road Wednesday, April 14 around 5:30 p.m. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Police standoff at Duncan apartment ends peacefully

Officers surround building as homeowner held in apartment for nearly four hours by adult son

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Hwy. 4 was shut down in both directions for 10 hours on March 23 as a rock bluff was blasted as part of Kennedy Hill’s ongoing construction. Commuters can expect five more 10 hour closures on five consecutive Wednesdays beginning April 28. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Five 10-hour Pacific Rim highway closures planned in the next 6 weeks

Closures needed for rock blasting as part of the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project.

Bulldogs forward Stephen Castagna flips the puck into the Clippers zone during a game on Oct. 24. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Island BCHL game postponed due to ‘potential positive’ COVID-19 test

Nanaimo Clippers team suspends activities, players isolating pending further test results

Most Read