Climate action leaves behind the most vulnerable

Inclusive environmental justice needs to be considered at Queen’s

Aja Rowden touches on the climate movement’s history of disregarding the needs and efforts of racialized peoples. 

At the intersection of race and poverty, you’ll find the marginalized communities who are affected most by the climate’s rapid changes.

From last summer’s plastic straw debate to the recent federal election, combating the climate crisis has risen to the forefront of newspapers, corporate social responsibility reports, and lecture discussions. Almost weekly, you can find events on campus related to sustainability and the environment, from Sustainable Investing 101 or Common Ground Coffeehouse’s reusable cup giveaway to the Sustainability Week clothing exchange.

While these initiatives all encourage individuals to actively participate in the discussion of the climate crisis, they don’t do enough when they fail to consider how the intersection of race and poverty shape the climate justice movement.

The climate crisis and how we choose to fight it is inherently political. Race and socioeconomic status matter when we talk about the environment.

Environmental justice places the changing climate as a political and ethical issue tied to race, socioeconomic status, gender, citizenship, sexuality, and other identities.  

Institutional racism means both the causes and results of the climate crisis hit marginalized people the hardest. It allowed the construction of oil refineries and the practice of toxic dumping beside Indigenous reserves, now known as Chemical Valley, in Sarnia. It allowed the development of a garbage dump in the heart of Africville, a primarily Black community nestled in Halifax. It’s the same reason that, while Greta Thunberg deserves her praise, equally talented racialized activists like Xiye Bastida, Vic Barrett, and Leah Namugerwa are sidelined.

The environmentalist movement has historically been racist and continues to be almost exclusively dominated by white leaders. For example, John Muir, one of the founding fathers of environmental preservation and the Sierra Club, described the Indigenous people of Yosemite, the Miwok, as “most ugly” and “altogether hideous” people who “had no right place in the landscape.”

Ironically, it was the Miwok who nurtured the beauty of Yosemite Valley that Muir valued so much. Muir continues to be hailed as one of the original environmental heroes. However, like almost all of our country, Indigenous peoples existed in the space long before the Yosemite Valley was called the Yosemite Valley, and fought to protect their land from exploitation.

The band of Miwok called the Ahwahnechee “extinct” in the 19th century, according to Yosemite Valley History. However the US government evicted the Ahwahnechee from the valley in 1851, 1906, 1929, and 1969.

The Walkerton Tragedy is another example contrasting, and therefore proving, how the efforts and well-being of Indigenous peoples are ignored when we take environmental action. Walkerton, Ontario witnessed the death of seven townspeople after the drinking water supply became contaminated with E. coli bacteria due to substandard water filtration processes. This became a pivotal moment in drinking water legislation, and the multi-barrier approach was introduced to the Ontario Safe Drinking Act.

Five years later, conversely, the Kashechewan Cree First Nation band near James Bay, Ontario was exposed to E. coli due to the location of a water treatment intake pipe downstream from a sewage lagoon. The water required chlorination shocking, but the problem was exacerbated by poorly trained workers and an apathetic government when that chlorination reached dangerous levels. The Kashechewan developed skin irritations, and were eventually evacuated by the Ontario government.

The evacuees presented cases of scabies, parasitic diseases, impetigo, and other skin conditions associated with E. coli and chlorine.

This could have been avoided if our government had paid any attention to how marginalized people are exponentially harmed by the climate crisis and related preventative measures.

The emergency was well-documented by Health Canada and the water supply was on a boil water advisory for two years. Both federal and provincial governments were aware of the dangerous situation.

Unfortunately, they did nothing to solve the problem.

It’s often the case that, even as we progress environmentally, we leave behind racialized communities. As young people, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are serving the needs and uplifting the voices of all Canadians. We can start right here at Queen’s.

Climate justice must be incorporated into our campus’ collective attitude to adequately address how systemic issues of racism and colonialism impact people and our environment.

We all have the privilege to attend this post-secondary institution. With this privilege, it’s therefore our responsibility to use our educated platforms to identify the racism, colonialism, and classism that exist to lift up so few while silencing so many.

Formal education and terminology already act as a barrier to many Black and Indigenous activists, leaving their voices out of rallies, published titles, and conferences alike.

That’s why it’s up to Queen’s students to scrutinize where and from whom we get our information from within discussion of the climate crisis, as well as how we participate in further silencing the struggles of these marginalized communities.

For instance, when we talk about not wanting to bring children into a world overrun with pollution, we must think about how the Aamjiwnaang women don’t have that choice. Aamjiwnaang women living in Chemical Valley have a 39 per cent miscarriage rate, double that of the nation’s average, because  of their nonstop exposure to pollutants.

We must consider how our demands for a cleaner future must include demands for a cleaner present for those who don’t have the time and luxury to demand it for themselves.

We also need to consider how shaming people for not participating in veganism and vegetarianism risks becoming colonial and culturally insensitive discourse. While there’s no denying the meat industry is responsible for a shocking amount of greenhouse gas emissions, the practice of eating meat itself is not what is killing our planet.

Indigenous persons have long been advocates for animals. When animal activists advocate that they are the “voice for the voiceless,” they reproduce settler colonial discourse and ableism. Arundhati Roy, a human rights and environmental activist, writes that “there’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced.”

Issues of animal cruelty and lack of sustainability in farming cattle don’t arise from the production of meat alone. They are instead a result of the dangerous separation between ourselves and the environment, which began after settler colonialism and the birth of the industrial meat industry.

Indigenous persons reject this discourse, claiming no spiritual difference between themselves and the animals they hunt, further proving the authentic respect they have for their game. Implying their lifestyles need to be drastically altered for the climate movement is insensitive, ignorant, and unnecessary.

I congratulate every vegan and vegetarian out there, but remind them to consider this when championing their chosen dietary restriction as a saviour of our environment. Indigenous peoples have long been consuming meat sustainably while simultaneously upholding respect for animals.

We can no longer continue to fight the climate crisis without considering who exactly we’re fighting for and against. Our society’s longstanding history of silencing those who have always protected the planet extends to today’s activism.

Climate justice starts here at Queen’s. It’s up to us, as individuals, to be better.

Aja Rowden is a fourth year Global Development Studies major with a minor in Environmental Science.


This opinion has been updated to reflect the correct events of the described case of the Walkerton Tragedy.

The Journal regrets the error.

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