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Black Residents Say Nova Scotia Is Racist About Where It Dumps Its Trash

Now a new law, known as the Environmental Racism Prevention Act, proposes changing that in the small Canadian province. If passed, it would be the first bill in the country that targets environmental racism specifically.

by Hilary Beaumont
Oct 1 2015, 4:50pm

photo via In Whose Backyard? documentary.

"I'd say every second person in the black community has one type of cancer or another," retired nurse and Lincolnville resident Mary Desmond tells VICE News matter-of-factly.

"They've got prostate cancer, they've got stomach cancer, they've got breast cancer, they've got throat cancer."

For years, Desmond has questioned whether cancer in Lincolnville, a nearly 100 percent black community in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, is connected to a first-generation dump that was placed in the community in the 1970s.

At a meeting in 2010, Desmond says residents of the rural area were told the unlined dump was leaking. Desmond and other residents believe it could be contaminating their well water, although there is no scientific evidence that the dump is making people sick.

"I told them already, I will not drink the water down here," she says, instead opting to haul two big bottles of water home weekly, despite her bad back.

"My husband would drink the water, and I buried him two years ago."

He died of lung and bowel cancer, though he was a non-smoker.

Guysborough County, where Lincolnville is located, is 95 percent white. In 2004, struggling with out-migration and desperate for tax revenue, the county volunteered to house another dump. In 2006, the province granted their wish, and the county gifted a second dump to Lincolnville, despite universal opposition from residents.

Desmond says the government's intentional placement of the two dumps in Lincolnville is environmental racism — and she's not alone.

Across the historically segregated province, predominantly black and indigenous communities are increasingly voicing their concerns over dumps and other environmental hazards in their backyards.

A 2002 Dalhousie masters thesis found that more than 30 percent of black Nova Scotians live within five kilometers of a landfill. A 1995 empirical analysis of Nova Scotia found there was no statistical basis to prove race was a valid indicator of environmental racism, but when the study looked at 16 specific "areas of concern", it found "there is a relationship between the location of waste sites and a number of black communities in Nova Scotia." 

A new bill could change that.

Bill 111, also known as the Environmental Racism Prevention Act, is the first bill in Canada that targets environmental racism specifically. Proposed by a provincial politician and an academic studying the phenomenon, the bill goes to its second reading this fall.

Related: Quebec Has Several Places With Names Containing the N-Word — For Now

The bill proposes creating a panel to consult the public on environmental racism in Nova Scotia and prepare a report to the ministers for the environment and the Human Rights Act.

"This is without a doubt the first ever bill in Canada. It's a private member's bill, but … the first ever bill to look at the issue of environmental racism ever in Canada," sociologist Ingrid Waldron tells VICE News.

Waldron, a professor at Dalhousie University's school of nursing, has been researching environmental racism in Nova Scotia since 2012. She surveyed African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaq communities, including Desmond's, and has started mapping industrial hazards in relation to them.

Preliminary results show that predominantly indigenous and black communities live closer to hazardous sites, Waldron said.

"When people are very dubious about the issue of environmental racism, my way to address that is to say, we're looking at that scientifically."

Waldron called up government officials, and eventually made contact with Lenore Zann, a New Democrat provincial politician, who suggested tabling legislation to address the issue.

"I wanted to do a bill that would be easy to say yes to," she explained over the phone last week.

Instead of outlawing environmental racism, the bill would commit the government to examining the issue closely.

In Nova Scotia, the Liberal party holds a majority, with the New Democratic Party in third place. That's why Zann has been soliciting cross-party support for the bill. With a small degree of interest from the Conservatives and Liberals going into the bill's second reading, she is optimistic. "That's the kind of support you need to push a bill forward," she said.

Desmond said she was "quite happy" to hear about the proposed legislation. "At least this is a little political voice," she said.

It's not just a problem for Lincolnville, she pointed out. "People think it's just a problem in this community … but the taxpayer has to pay for us getting sick also."

If passed, the legislation will put pressure on the government to review their environmental impact assessment process, and force them to explain why Lincolnville, for example, is the best place to put a dump.

"It kind of forces them to look at, how are you doing environmental impact assessments?" added Waldron. "Are you actually thinking about the issues of poverty, income insecurity and race when you do that?"

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont