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Jim Maloney: “I was the product of environmental racism”

Thursday, March 16, 2017 20:27
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Panel examines neglect of Aboriginal, African Nova Scotian and poor white communities

Jim Maloney is the District War Chief for the Shubenacadie District and a leader of the Sipekne’katik First Nation-led movement in opposition to the Alton Gas caverns project. Traditionally, Mi’kmaq territory was and is split into districts which run as far west as the Gaspé peninsula and south into Maine.

“The whole idea of giving and sharing and gifting has been practised by my people for generations and generations,” he said. “We’ve been here for 12,000 years” — and suffering from environmental racism for at least four hundred years of colonial history.

Environmental racism refers to socially marginalized minority communities which are subjected to disproportionate exposure of environmental hazards, the denial of access to sources of ecological sustenance (such as clean air, water, and natural resources), or both.

Maloney apologized for having no handouts for those who gathered in the Weldon Law building to hear the panel on March 7: “But if you could see inside my brain, you’d see I was the product of environmental racism (for 71 years),” he says. “I have a reputation for being a professional pallbearer.”

Twenty-six of the 28 kids he went to school with are now dead, he explained. Based on the disparity between the life expectancy of an indigenous person compared with a settler, “we’re being cheated out of 25 years,” he says.

Maloney has worked in 235 First Nations communities in Canada and the US and has served as police chief for five. He was appointed the chief investigator on the Donald Marshall inquiry into the wrongful conviction of a Mi’kmaq man in the case of the murder of a black teenager.

“Federal and Nova Scotia courts use our resource money to fight us in court, then tell us it is illegal for us to have legal representation,” he adds. From 1927 to 1985 it was “open season on our people” — they couldn’t log, fish, or otherwise use their own land. In a similar stride, the government spent $400,000 per day on RCMP support for Irving Oil during the 2013 protests against fracking in New Brunswick but Maloney stresses that the people won in the end.

Maloney grew up with his father in a tar paper shack with a dirt floor. There was no dentist: “a doctor would put me in a headlock and rip my tooth out,” he recalls. He ate salt pork, molasses and grease and went to bed hungry at night, and went to school month after month in this fashion.

“I know how racism feels, how it smells and tastes,” he says in reference to the poverty of his youth.

But his people are victorious: “We’ve won over 98 per cent of Superior Court cases.” But things are getting worse in some respects: there are now more indigenous people in jails and more RCMP on reserves, with the added insult of “our own people arresting our own people,” he says.

Maloney maps out the inequality as follows: indigenous people have 28,000 square kilometers of reserve land in Canada; farmers have twice the amount – and companies like Irving own hundreds of thousands of acres.

What with Trump-era talk of walls and the expansion of oil power like Exxon Mobil in the U.S., Maloney urgently asked those gathered: “I want you to take down that wall.” In other words, his struggle is synonymous with First people’s and poor people’s struggles around the world.

Stuart Gilby is a lawyer who has worked exclusively on indigenous rights cases in Canada since he attended law school at the age of 42. He has written the literal book on environmental racism, and gave some examples during the panel: There is a high rate of cancer at Eel Ground First Nation, where not only old people but young people are dying. Water looks like gasoline at one point in the Miramichi River where the community is located, though it’s healing itself now and there are more fish.

Acadie First Nation in Yarmouth has had a junkyard serving as a dumping ground for abandoned car parts in their community since the 1960s.

Forestry is destroying indigenous culture and land.

“The department of the Environment is generally a joke!” he quips. “Lawyers have enabled this to happen for decades: lawyers who work for the government and industry.”

“Sometimes I feel ashamed to be a Canadian,” he finished. “Sooner or later, even Donald Trump is gonna have to realize climate change is not a myth.”

(Stuart Gilby is also the legal representative for the AFNCNB, the Indian Act chiefs in New Brunswick who have presided over and signed off on many environmentally destructive projects, including fracking and Energy East –editor’s note.)

Associate Professor of Nursing and panel organizer Ingrid Waldon referred to a Lincolnville resident to pinpoint environmental racism in Nova Scotia as the practise of locating “industrial waste sites next to African Nova Scotian, Native and poor, white communities.”

She added that Robert D. Ballard, so-called father of environmentalism, says the discrimination is deeply rooted in the history of excluding African American and indigenous people from jobs, particularly in the green sector, or in decision-making processes.

She said there was a strategic aversion when it came to speaking candidly about race, when compared to other factors such as class and income.

Most people know about the sad history of Africville, where African Nova Scotians were literally pushed to the margins and denied basic city services in the 1960s. Lincolnville first put up with one, then another landfill. North Preston and East Preston share a waste dump one kilometre away from both. Shelburne is known as the “Community of Widows” because of the anecdotal evidence of cancer – so much so that there are disproportionately fewer men in the area.

People believe their are links between illness and proximity to the polluting industries. Some say they cause learning disabilities and conditions such as autism. People in Lincolnville are afraid of drinking the water and this causes psychological stress.

Environmental racism is quite gendered: exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy pose risks postnatally. One such example is “Cancer Alley” in Sarnia where there has been a noted disparity between male and female births. In the 1980s, indigenous women were leaders in the reproductive justice rights movement to recognize such dangers to their health and children.

Other solutions include the campaign for legislation such as Bill 111 (An Act to Address Environmental Racism), youth-driven art projects, and government and student involvement.

Most of all, it takes people speaking up and sharing their own experiences, and their hopes for a brighter future. 

After the presentation, Sa’n Herney, gleefully quipped: “What is a treaty? I never signed a treaty, I didn’t have my tree-dee glasses on…” He did, however, have his metaphorical water goggles because he wanted to be able “to see a fish come right up to me and kiss me on the lips.”

Learn more about environmental racism through the ENRICH project:


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