Photo: Kiernan Green

Students and activists speak out about environmental racism during Disorientation week

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By Kiernan Green

Students and community members gathered on Sept. 20 to discuss issues about gentrification, environmental racism and the commercialization of the green-movement.  

The Disposable Communities event was part of DisOrientation Week hosted by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU).

Susan Nyaga, president of the RSU, said the panel was an opportunity to look at environmentalism from an intersectional point of view.  

“We’re not just talking about the white perspective on environmentalism,” she said. “We’re actually talking about communities that are affected at a disproportionate rate, and how racism involves itself in the ways in which environmentalism plays out.”

Coty Zachariah, Leticia Boahen and Chief Linda Debassige of the M’Chigeeng First Nation shared their experiences with an intimate crowd in the Tecumseh Auditorium.

Zachariah, the first Afro-Indigenous national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, began the panel on the topic of gentrification.

By a show of hands in the audience, all of those in attendance had heard of gentrification, but very few understood why it was an issue.

He described gentrification as the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.

“What defines middle-class taste? I know that class is based around income, and I guess taste is what people in that income bracket desire. Does that mean that the desires of the lower class don’t matter?” said Zachariah.

Zachariah has had experience with gentrification growing up in Leslieville.

“There are boarded up windows and signs for new condominiums that are on the way. On the signs are really happy pictures of people that are having a great time. I didn’t recognize any of the faces,” he said.

“My community and all communities deserve to feel like they are a valued part of Canada and [that they are] not being left out by some vision for profits,” he said.

Boahen is the director of Black Creek Community Farm at the corner of Jane Street and Steeles Avenue W. The farm began as a means for those in the Jane and Finch community to take control over food access and distribution.

She started a conversation about the commercialization of the environmentalism movement and the disproportionate prices between organic and conventionally grown produce as an example.

Boahen said that because organic foods cost so much more, lower-class families do not have the same access to the environmental movement.

The dangerous proximity of the Line 9 oil pipeline to Jane and Finch residential buildings, and drinking water advisories for Indigenous communities below the territories were discussed as other examples of environmental racism allowed by the government.

Debassiga, Chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation, spoke about the placement of low-income or minority communities in the proximity of hazardous or degraded areas.

A study of M’Chigeeng’s water intake from Lake Huron recently showed a high percentage of chemicals found in birth control, according to Debassiga.  

Posters about the drinking water advisories in First Nation communities stand in front the Egerton statue for the It’s Not Just H20 event. Photo by: Nicole Brumley

The day before the Disposable Communities talk, the RSU hosted the It’s Not Just H20 event to raise awareness about the 153 drinking water advisories in First Nation communities.

A recurring message throughout the evening was that educating yourself on self-sustainability, garnering a basic understanding of capitalism and engagement in local politics are important steps towards being environmentally conscious.

Michaela Adjei-mamu, a second-year social work student, attended the panel Wednesday evening.

“As someone who has a very minimum knowledge in what it means to provide for the environment and sustain the environment, [the panel] felt like a first step,” she said.

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