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Echoes of Systemic Racism and Settler Colonialism in Canada: Police Brutality and Environmental Racism

Written by Riyana Karim Hajiani

· Advocacy Stories

In May of 2020, the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, Minnesota, incited a  mass outburst of protests to confront the ongoing issue of police brutality against Black Americans in the United States. These calls for justice echoed across the American border, sparking a similar outburst in Canada. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests quickly filled Canadian streets in response to Floyd’s murder. The momentum of these protests led many Canadians to re-evaluate the country’s “boy scout” reputation against the backdrop of the deaths of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people by police in Canada such as Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Ejaz Ahmed Choudry, D’Andre Campbell, and Chantel Moore. 

In Canada, Black and Indigenous peoples are disproportionately arrested and jailed, fatally shot, and bear extreme violence at the hands of police. The Ontario Human Rights Commission found that a Black person in Toronto is at least 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by the Toronto police compared to a white person. Between 2007 and 2017, Indigenous peoples represented more than one third of people shotto death by RCMP officers and over 30 percent of federal jail admissions, despite that Indigenous peoples only represent 4.1 percent of the general Canadian population. What is clear is that visible minorities in Canada, particularly Black and Indigenous peoples, fall victim to a system of policing that targets bodies based on race—not justice.    

However, trends of police brutality are not isolated. Rather, police brutality points to a larger issue that plagues Canadian society: systemic racism. That is, that the very fabric of Canadian society rests on the systematic discrimination of racialized people. For Indigenous peoples in Canada, this refers to settler colonialism that continues to reflect contemporary inequalities and discrimination patterns which work in favor of the Canadian government’s political goals and land use. Systemic racism is reflected in access to housing, education, employment, economic status, health care, and the carceral system, among other social structures. Wherein people, based on their racial, ethnic and other identities, are systemically vulnerable to oppression. Bearing that in mind, police brutality is a symptom of systemic racism.     

So, what about the Environment?   

Environmental (in)justice and systemic racism are linked as an overwhelming amount of research indicates that racialized groups are overtly burdened by the effects of climate change. This link is described as environmental racism. In Canada, Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental and health hazards because these groups are morelikely to live near toxic pollution (or “impact zones”) such as landfills, sewage facilities, and chemical facilities that emit airborne and waterborne pollutants. Despite that people of colour contribute less to air pollution than their white counterparts.    

Take for example Asubpeeschoseewagong NetumAnishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation), where in 1962 to 1970, a pulp and paper mill (ownedby Reed Ltd. and Great Lakes Forest Products Limited) located in Dryden, Ontario dumped 10 tons of toxic mercury into the Wabigoon River that is located upstream of the First Nations community. Contaminating the river system and the fish supply—a staple food source and a part of the Grassy Narrows culture. Currently, upward of 90 percent of Grassy Narrows people suffer from symptoms of mercury poisoning such as brain and kidney damage and early death.    

Shelburne, a predominantly Black community in Nova Scotia, was a toxic dump site for industrial, medical, and residential waste in 1950. This dump was in operation until the 1990s, when it became a transfer station for appliances and empty oil barrels until 2016. As a result, an in ordinate number of community members suffer from cancer. “It was like living in a garbage can, basically”, says Louise Delisle, a member of the Shelburne community and a founding member of Rural Water Watch, (an NGO focused on water monitoring in Lincolnville, Shelburne, and other marginalized communities).        

A common thread   

While environmental justice and police abolition are separate movements, advocates are humming a similar tune—that is to rally against racism. This is because police brutality and environmental racism go hand in hand as they are both symptoms of systemic racism and settler colonialism in Canada. The intersection of which is demonstrated by the use of policing and RCMP to silence environmental movements, particularly those led by Indigenous peoples. For example, at the anti-Coastal GasLink pipeline protests in the Wet’suwet’en territory, RCMP officers were instructed to use “as much violence toward the gate as you want” against Indigenous land defenders blockading construction. Protesters also reported verbal abuse and derogatory words specifically directed at Indigenous peoples.    

With that in mind, environmental planning must go beyond emissions targets and direct structural change that involves anti-racist, decolonial, and intersectional policies such as police reform in order to meaningfully alleviate conditions of oppression faced by racialized communities across Canada. That is to say, green innovation is not enough to tackle climate change. Rather Canadians must consider the role of whiteness as an instrument that generates and perpetuates issues in policing, pollution and climate change.   

We must do better. Because systemic racism kills.