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This Black History Month, let’s remember nature is for everyone

As Black History Month comes to a close, we want to highlight some stories on why protecting one another is indeed a climate imperative
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Bird renaming: a V-shaped formation of Ross's geese, seen from below against a cloudless sky

In 2015, the Movement for Black Lives dubbed February “Black Futures Month,” a forward-looking phrase that celebrates past visionaries who dreamed of a better future — and pushes us to honour their legacies by working to “imagine a world in which all Black people are free.” As Black History Month comes to a close, I wanted to invite Narwhal readers to carry the people and ideas in the stories we ran this year into the rest of 2024 and beyond. 

Yesterday, we published Manitoba reporter Julia-Simone Rutgers’ profile of photographer Billy Beal, who lived in the Swan River Valley at the turn of the 20th century. Beal was among the first documented Black pioneers in Manitoba and the first to settle in the valley, about 500 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. He was also one of the first photographers to document rapid changes on the Prairies that happened due to homesteading and colonization.

By all accounts, Beal was beloved by his community. That wasn’t always true for the activists, scientists and conservationists who spoke with reporter Serena Austin, who wrote about how Black environmentalists in Canada are building networks with each other across generations. “There should not be another generation of people … who have to fight the battle alone,” biology professor Maydianne Andrade said about creating the Canadian Black Scientists Network, and becoming a mentor to others. 

The community-builders Serena spoke with are purposely shaping history. Their efforts come out of a dedication to their work and each other, but for many of them, it’s also informed by incidences of anti-Black racism, big and small, experienced throughout their careers.

Photos of the 10 Black environmentalists in Canada in the story.

Photographer Ryan Wilkes’ vibrant photos of soon-to-be renamed warblers and hummingbirds are evidence of how old and pervasive that racism is. They illustrate Ontario reporter Emma McIntosh’s conversations with Black birdwatchers about the American Ornithological Society’s decision to rename birds named after people, some of whom were enslavers, colonizers or white supremacists

Many of the birders Emma spoke with have felt dismissed and occasionally unsafe while simply trying to enjoy the natural world. Their experiences ring true because unfortunately, The Narwhal received some negative feedback about the stories we published this Black History Month. One person was angry we published Emma’s story at all, saying (among other, less printable things) it was outside of our core mandate to report on the environment. 

I strongly disagree. Nature is for everyone, and dismantling the many barriers to accessing it is a climate imperative. As misinformation spreads like wildfire, preserving biodiversity doesn’t only mean sharing space — it means actually ceding space to people whose knowledge is often more useful than the types of “expertise” Western systems value. Genuinely working together to stave off the most urgent crisis of our time requires humility, and listening. 

Besides, “something that flies freely like a bird in the sky,” as birder Shontal Cargill put it to Emma, shouldn’t bear “this legacy through no fault of its own.” That legacy is humanity’s to carry, and to repair. As we work to protect the planet we all love and live on, let’s do a better job of protecting each other, too.

Take care and dream big,

Denise Balkissoon
Ontario bureau chief

 
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