It should come as no surprise that a person’s racial and ethnic identity affects their lived experiences in various ways, including shaping their socioeconomic, health, and safety outcomes. In major Canadian metropolitan centers like Toronto and Vancouver, this is evident in the overrepresentation of racialized individuals within the cities’ homeless populations. However, the relationship between homelessness and environmental racism in Canada is less obvious. 

This blog will explore the impact of experiencing homelessness while facing various environmental hazards like pollution and  extreme weather events in racialized communities. As the effects of climate change accelerate, there is a dire need for government intervention, especially in these communities.

Pollution levels and extreme weather events are escalating globally. In Canada, climate change is occurring at more than double the global rate. If significant action is not taken, Canadians will continue to experience the effects of climate change, including air pollution, severe storms, flooding, forest fires, and extreme temperatures for years to come. But not all Canadians are affected equally. Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism where Indigenous, Black, and other racialized and low-income communities are more likely to live in proximity to industries causing pollution and environmentally hazardous activities. This results in greater exposure to harmful chemicals and, subsequently, a higher prevalence of adverse health outcomes in these communities.

Case Study: Chemical Valley 

Though some may disagree with the idea of environmental racism, there is clear evidence of it occurring across Canada. One example is an area near Sarnia, Ontario, known as Chemical Valley. Chemical Valley is home to Canada’s Aamjiwnaang Peoples. This area contains more than 60 industrial plants, accounting for 40% of Canada’s chemical industry. In 2016, the area surrounding Chemical Valley, which represents less than 40 square kilometres of Ontario’s territory, accounted for 10% of the province’s total emissions. 

In addition to its harmful impacts on the health and well-being of the Aamjiwnaang Peoples, this pollution “hot spot” also has long-term adverse effects on the environment. The concentration of chemical industries near the ancestral lands of the Aamjiwnaang Peoples, coupled with a historic underrepresentation of the Aamjiwnaang community in policy-making positions, is a clear indication that environmental racism is occurring in Canada.

Relationship Between Environmental Racism and Homelessness

The impacts of environmental racism are magnified for racialized individuals experiencing homelessness. One of the many relics of Canada’s colonial and racist past is the overrepresentation of racialized groups experiencing homelessness in Canada. This population is already at a higher risk of experiencing various adverse health outcomes, including contracting sexually transmitted infections and the human immunodeficiency virus, as well as hepatitis, tuberculosis, and mental health issues. Additionally, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be exposed to temperature and weather extremes. The outcomes are exacerbated when combining the effects of being part of a racialized community and experiencing homelessness. This creates a toxic cycle that continually puts racialized groups at a disproportionate risk of experiencing both homelessness and environmental racism. Not only is this cycle difficult to escape, but government efforts to regulate homelessness are often counterproductive as they further entrench these individuals in experiences of homelessness by criminalizing and displacing homeless communities. Furthermore, efforts to address climate change often fail to account for those most vulnerable to its effects. 

Canada’s key statute on toxic substances, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), was enacted over two decades ago. It intended to “[protect] human health and the environment from pollution and toxic substances.” However, it has primarily been ineffective at addressing environmental racism and its intersection with homelessness. 

In June 2022, the Senate approved a long-awaited update to CEPA, Bill S-5. For the first time in Canadian history, the Bill adopted the UN resolution that humans have a right to a healthy environment. It also requires that the government consider whether there is a vulnerable population that the substance impacts when determining if a substance is considered toxic. Taken together with two other recently introduced bills, Bill C-226, an Act respecting the development of a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and Bill C-230, an Act respecting the development of a national strategy to redress environmental racism, there are promising developments in the fight against environmental racism. Although the development of these Acts is a step in the right direction, more substantial steps must be taken with a particular focus on re-thinking and shifting the focus of Canada's environmental protection laws. The government must develop a clearly articulated mandate to consider the detrimental impact of environmental extremes on racialized individuals experiencing homelessness in Canada.

The issues of homelessness and environmental racism can not be solved by thinking in silos. In order to end the destructive cycle, we must find the courage to think more broadly and deeply about interconnections and go beyond words to action.