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“I want to help people in ways that I haven’t necessarily been helped. It’s important to me to prevent some of the harm that I went through,” Julius Lindsay says. The director of sustainable communities for the David Suzuki Foundation says that in his nearly two-decade long career in the environmental sector, he has never worked with another Black person.
And, he says, that’s not uncommon. Black environmentalists share a love of nature and, often, a familial history of farmers and gardeners. But, unfortunately, another unifying experience is isolation in their field of work.
It can be hard for Black people to become environmental professionals when that requires expensive post-secondary education in fields they’ve been discouraged from pursuing. And even though environmental racism increases Black communities’ health risks and their exposure to climate change, it’s not always easy for them to focus on the issue when they’re just trying to stay afloat, considering all of the other ways systemic racism impacts their lives.
What that means, Lindsay says, is that “I’ve never had a mentor.” It also means constant work: on one hand, pushing non-Black environmentalists to give attention, time and money to issues affecting Black communities most; on the other, convincing people dealing with more immediate crises that climate action matters to their daily lives.
Though the community of Black environmentalists in Canada is small, it is definitely mighty. And it’s grown enough that those who never had a Black mentor are now able to fill that role for someone else.
That includes Lindsay, who is always connecting people: in 2020, he co-founded the Black Environmental Alliance, a group of environmental professionals aiming to address environmental justice issues and the lack of Black representation in the field.
“This is not a coincidence. It’s a pathway that I’ve been on, and I can’t be anybody but myself,” he says. “It’s really important that these things are part of my work.” Lindsay credits his Grenadian parents, whose revolutionary spirit taught him phrases like “each one, teach one,” for making him community- and family-focused.
Others whose achievements young Black scientists and environmentalists look up to include Ingrid Waldron, and her groundbreaking work on environmental racism, and Maydianne Andrade, the founder of the Canadian Black Scientists Network.
All across the country, Black environmentalists are leading initiatives to get their communities into nature, make sure they have clean water and help them understand the impacts of climate change and environmental racism on their lives.
Though the scope of their work varies, their stories are similar in many ways — including the inspiration they draw from others and a commitment to building connections that strengthen their communities. Here are some people doing just that.
In 2013, Chúk Odenigbo was an undergrad student in Kingston, Ont., taking a sustainability course where the final exam was to “do something to change the world,” he says. He put together a photo series called My Green Dream, highlighting the idea that humanity can re-integrate with nature without sacrificing modernity — since just going back to how things “used to be” in Canada wouldn’t be beneficial for most Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, Odenigbo says.
The series resonated with audiences and was eventually published by the United Nations, bringing Odenigbo, a PhD candidate in medical geography at the University of Ottawa, to the attention of the world. Now it’s his life’s work: teaching Black people to center nature for the collective wellbeing of people and the planet by helping them overcome barriers such as not knowing how to swim, or fearing being perceived as dirty or unkempt.
His mentor is researcher, professor and author Ingrid Waldon, who popularized the concept of environmental racism in Canada. Waldron centres Black people in her work, including in her groundbreaking 2018 book There’s Something in the Water, about environmental racism in Nova Scotia and the country at large. “In a country like Canada that for the longest time pretended that racism didn’t exist — that’s massive,” Odenigbo says. “She’s out here trailblazing.”
Waldron encourages disenfranchised residents advocating for their communities and supports young Black environmentalists, too. “She looks after her people,” he says. “There’s the inspirational side where she’s not just talking the talk, she’s walking the walk. But then there’s also the approachability side where if you need advice, if you want to share something, you get to touch base and that’s really exciting too.”
“I just found him to be an extremely bright, intelligent, young man,” Waldron says about Odenigbo in return. “I like the way he thinks.”
“Nobody has ever asked us before, ‘How do you think climate change is going to affect you?’ ’’— Nova Scotia activist Louise Delisle, on researcher Ingrid Waldron
Now a professor and the HOPE Chair in Peace and Health at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., Waldron began researching the concept of environmental racism nearly a decade ago. She was studying gentrification in the north end of Halifax, where many of the former residents and descendents of one of Canada’s oldest Black communities, Africville, now live.
Africville was historically neglected: the City of Halifax built a biohazardous waste dump, an infectious disease hospital, a slaughterhouse and a prison nearby, then ran a railroad extension right through the middle of the community. Then, in the 1960s, the city forced residents out of the area and bulldozed their homes.
Waldron made the ongoing environmental racism in Nova Scotia the core of her book, which garnered wide attention. In 2019, it became the basis of a documentary she co-produced, bringing There’s Something in the Water to a wider audience. Now she’s working to pass Bill C-226, the national strategy respecting environmental racism and environmental justice act, which she co-wrote with former Nova Scotia MLA Lenore Zann. If the bill passes, Canada will commit to studying the relationship between race, socioeconomic status and environmental risk, and financially compensating those who have been adversely impacted.
Waldron credits activist Louise Delisle as a mentor. The two met in 2016, when Waldron was recruiting a community facilitator for a project on how African Nova Scotians perceived environmental racism and its health effects. Delisle grew up in another historic Black community in Nova Scotia, Shelburne, which made a good case study because like Africville, it too was near an operating dump.
“I really loved Louise, I just loved her manner, her personality,” Waldron says. “She had never heard of environmental racism, but she did know that something was going on in her community with that dump nearby.”
Delisle has vivid memories of the flames, smoke and ash that came from the Shelburne dump, and worrying as a little girl that the fires there would spread and burn down her home. As an adult, she moved back to Shelburne to take care of her ill mother. Seeing the dump was still in operation led her to start digging. Later on, community members discovered discarded oil at the dump was leaking into the ground, which Delisle believes has impacted drinking water.
Just months after she met Waldron, Delisle and other community members founded the South End Environmental Injustice Society, or SEED, setting out to fight the dump in earnest. “What they’ve done since then is just stunning,” says Waldron. The group worked to get the dump closed and get homeowners new wells.
“A lot of this was Louise. I’m just amazed by her energy, her persistence, her strength,” Waldron says. “I’m amazed that she’s my mentor.”
Delisle calls Shelburne, “a community in mourning all the time.” She knows of many people who have died from lung diseases, strokes and multiple myeloma, a rare type of cancer of the white blood cells, illnesses she believes are linked to environmental contamination and racism.
“There are still people who do not and will not admit that there was an issue. But the group that we started, we’re on fire about this,” Delisle says. “That’s why I love Ingrid so much because [she] picked up the ball and decided, ‘okay, let’s do some research about this. Let’s work and try to find out what’s happening.’ ”
Waldron works extremely hard for the Black community, Delisle says. “This is something that’s never happened. Nobody has ever asked us before, ‘how do you think climate change is going to affect you?’ “
Zamani Ra is a mother, an environmental studies student and a tenant representative in her Toronto Community Housing building. In 2017, after noticing her neighbourhood was being impacted by erosion and flooding, she began organizing sessions to inform residents about climate change and what they could do to try to address it.
That’s also when she founded Circular Environmental Education (CEED) Canada, which aims to make climate action “simple, convenient and culturally relevant,” through workshops and consulting services. In 2022, she won a grant from the City of Toronto aimed at helping women fund local climate initiatives.
Ra calls her mother, Violet Morrison, her mentor. It’s a term she also thinks applies to other relatives, including grandparents, aunts and uncles who were farmers or “land people,” as she calls them. “I just feel like it’s the most honorable thing to do,” she says.
“[Elders] have some really valuable lessons for us to pick up and continue with,” Ra says. “The practices of farming and planting can help people better conceptualize the importance of only taking what you need, and of generosity and reciprocity.”
“The spirit of that, the energy of that is very important to me, and it’s created who I am,” she says. “This is not new for us, the language might be new, but this is not a new practice for us at all.”
“It makes you feel good when you see people doing what Zamani would tell them … listening and taking it at face value.”— Violet Morrison, mother, on Zamani Ra
Morrison, who moved to Canada from Jamaica in 1978, says she learns from her daughter in turn. Before Ra started CEED Canada, Morrison didn’t know much about climate change or what it meant to be “environmentally friendly.” Soon realizing that “we do so much to pollute the environment,” she’s now vigilant about things like separating recyclables and compostables from the rest of her waste and trying to educate others about doing the same.
“There’s so much to learn from her,” Morrison says about her daughter. “It makes you feel good when you see people doing what Zamani would tell them [in her workshops]. At least they’re listening and taking it at face value.”
“We have to do the work and make the world a better place for younger people that are coming up, and teach them what to do and how to do it.”
Kiana Bonnick describes her work at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Womxn of Colour Durham Collective as bridging gaps between climate change adaptation and community development. The goals of the programs she’s developed for the collective are to build a sense of community for Black and racialized women in southern Ontario’s Durham Region, and to better understand the relationship between racialized people, Indigenous people and the land.
There’s a direct link between the strength of a community and their resilience to the impacts of climate change, she explained. “The stronger a community is, the more networks they have, and particularly, the more aware of the services in the community they are,” the more adaptable and resilient they’ll be.
Bonnick discovered her mentor, Laurian Farrell, during her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. At the time, Farrell was the North American regional director of the Resilient Cities Network, which helps cities prepare for the impacts of climate change, and make sure their resilience plans are equitable. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow, she’s doing what I want to do,’ ” says Bonnick, who began following Farrell’s work.
“One could go crazy doing this work. Knowing that I can get on a call with them every once in a while — I look forward to it.”— Laurian Farrell, deputy commissioner, bureau of coastal resilience, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, on Kiana Bonnick and Julius Lindsay
Their paths finally crossed when Julius Lindsay called the first meeting of the Black Environmentalist Alliance.
Farrell is currently the deputy commissioner in the bureau of coastal resilience at New York City’s department of environmental protection. “It’s just amazing to see someone … who has done this work with municipalities, who has worked with conservation authorities, who is now living in New York and also brings her identity in the work that she does,” Bonnick says. She officially asked Farrell to be her mentor in 2023.
As a Black female engineer, Farrell says she also never had a mentor or professor who looked like her, which is why she agreed to be Bonnick’s mentor. “I’m really impressed with Kiana for her being able to go out and seek support,” says Farrell. “It’s something that I was missing that I didn’t even know I was missing until later.”
Farrell has learned that mentoring is a two-way street, “you get as much out of mentoring as you give,” she says. And getting to know Bonnick has given her hope that young Black environmentalists will build upon and better the work that her generation has started.
“One could go crazy doing this work,” says Farrell. “Knowing that I can get on a call with Julius and Kiana every once in a while — I look forward to it.”
Peter Soroye spent much of his childhood outdoors, which helped develop his passion for conservation. Eventually, it led him to a PhD researching the effects of climate change on bumblebees and butterflies. He’s now a conservation biologist in Ottawa with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, identifying key areas for preserving biodiversity.
His mentor is biologist and professor Maydianne Andrade, who is also the first Black environmental researcher he ever remembers meeting. Having grown up in one of the few Black families in North Bay, Ont., Soroye says he didn’t know of many Black scientists at all until Andrade got in touch with him.
“I remember out of nowhere getting an email from Maydianne, and it was just so supportive,” he says. “Regardless of all the things she’s doing, she’s paying attention to everybody and seeing what’s going on.”
That email came when Andrade was reaching out to Black scientists to join the Canadian Black Scientists Network, which she co-founded after the police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in 2020. Now a professor in the biological sciences department at the University of Toronto, Andrade’s openness about the challenges she’s faced and how she navigated them has been “essential” for Soroye.
“There should not be another generation of people like him who have to fight the battle alone.”— Maydianne Andrade, biological sciences professor, University of Toronto, on Peter Soroye
“I’m really happy with where I am, and I definitely count her among the people that have helped to make that happen,” he says. Andrade’s many accomplishments include making science accessible, including as a host of The Nature of Things. “There are rare people like Maydianne who have a larger legacy as a scientist and as a person,” Soroye says.
For Andrade’s part, she says she was initially impressed by the quality of Soroye’s research and ability to defend it when it was inevitably debated. “His interviews with the media show that he clearly cared about outreach to the public and speaking in the language that was going to be compelling to the public,” she says. “Just everything about him was impressive.”
Andrade also didn’t have many Black role models. As a university student in Vancouver, she wasn’t surprised not to see many Black professors. But when she moved to Toronto — the city with the largest Black population in Canada — and still didn’t see Black professors, she was shocked.
Andrade’s main focus of study has been on how and why black widow spiders have evolved to have their extreme mating habits. Along with the Black scientists network, she co-founded the Toronto Initiative for Diversity & Excellence, a group of University of Toronto faculty working to advance equity, diversity and inclusion efforts.
Starting the organization has taken a lot of volunteer work, Andrade says, but is worth it so people have a space to discuss their experiences, including systemic and casual racism at work.
“It was people like Peter that made me realize it was worthwhile,” she says. “There should not be another generation of people like him who have to fight the battle alone.”
Updated on Feb. 8, 2024, at 1:39 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add that Kiana Bonnick develops programs for the Womxn of Colour Durham Collective as well as working with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
Updated on Feb. 12, 2024, at 4:39 p.m. ET: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Laurian Farrell’s name.
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