By Patricia Lane & Ingrid Waldron |National Observer | February 6th 2023
These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity. In honour of Black History Month, today we highlight the climate justice work of Ingrid Waldron.
Dr. Ingrid Waldron supports Black, Indigenous and other racialized and low-income communities to join and enrich the conversation about climate change. I spoke with her about her journey from disinterest in the climate crisis to leading engagement.
I am a professor at McMaster University, where I hold the HOPE Chair in Peace and Health. I study the health and mental health impacts of climate change and environmental pollution on low-income, Black, Indigenous and other racialized people in Canada.
How do you engage people?
I began showing up in these communities in Nova Scotia learning about their concerns, attending events and developing relationships. This allowed me to collaborate with them on environmental pollution and contamination. In 2021, in partnership with ClimAction Services, we held well-received workshops on climate with 40 people from three African Nova Scotian communities.
At first, many participants indicated climate change was not a top-of-mind issue, but the workshops helped them to better understand its implications for their lived experience of flooding, housing insecurity or needing more support during a major weather emergency.
They identified community strengths — including solid relationships, innovative coping strategies and strong networks — that allowed them to survive and create community in the face of multiple catastrophes. But these are people who do not feel heard by decision-makers, and they are intensely aware that things could be better. Once it was clear the conversation would be rooted in what was important to them, they were keen to discuss the scientific and systemic causes of extreme weather events, deepen their understanding of how colonialism and capitalism have decreased their ability to protect their communities and identify their future needs.
I am hoping to build on those workshops with a significantly larger group of African Nova Scotians across the province.
New laws are needed to require governments to provide statistics on environmental impacts by race and to address compensation. In 2020, with Naolo Charles, I co-founded the Canadian Coalition for Environmental & Climate Justice to push for legislation to address pollution, contamination and climate change devastation in Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities across Canada. In collaboration with many others, we campaign to support Bill C-226, developed by former politician Lenore Zann and re-introduced in Parliament by Elizabeth May in February 2022.
If passed, it will be the first environmental justice legislation in Canada.
What makes this work hard?
Positive change in this work happens frustratingly slowly. Incremental changes like the introduction of this bill are mostly invisible to the public. It can feel like nothing is happening. I was hopeful that the 2019 climate marches would catalyze faster movement, but I see now that change is slow and fatigue can undermine progress. My work seeks to connect marches and other forms of civil disobedience with policy and legislation, public education, research, publications, multimedia, community capacity-building and interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral partnerships to bring meaningful change faster than if we work in silos.
How did you get into this work?
When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a dentist like my father and working in a clinic alongside him. As an adolescent, I planned a career in mental health, but McGill’s undergraduate courses offered no discussion on how race, culture and other identities shape psychology or illness and I lost interest. After I graduated, I spent a few years working 9 to 5 but, realizing I was not working to my potential, I took a master’s degree researching academic underachievement of Black youth in Canada. My PhD focused on the mental health impacts of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination on Black women.
My entry into environmental justice came by chance in 2012 when an activist asked me to research environmental racism in Nova Scotia. Since I knew virtually nothing about environmental issues, I hesitated, but I could see the health impacts and it looked like an interesting challenge.
As I delved deeper, I saw that corporations have more licence to pollute and damage low-income communities made up of Indigenous and racialized people. I began to shift my research.
Linking environmental racism and climate change has been a slow process. Public figures tend to discuss climate change in technical language and I saw climate activists as overzealous scolds, likely to reprimand you for drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. But the young people coming into universities wanted to talk about it, and when I held events to allow that to happen, hundreds would come. As a sociologist, I want to study this phenomenon and broaden its participants.
What gives you hope?
I am hopeful by nature and inspired by the young people I have mentored. They are passionate and smart and they are not giving up.
What do you see if we get this right?
We are building important pathways to justice for those too often most directly affected by climate change but with the fewest resources to contend with it.
What would you like to say to young people?
Take the time you need to recharge, but keep going. If you can make your passions relevant to the lives of others, they will join you.
How about older readers?
Climate change impacts all of us, young and old. We must all engage in the conversation and consider the ways we can address it. It should not be seen as a burden that only young people have to bear.