N.S. town councillor accuses residents of playing ‘racism card’ in battle over dump

A group of speakers in Halifax talked about why a Nova Scotia environmental bills of rights is important to them on April 21, 2017. Steve Silva / Global News

Race and small-town politics collided this weekend after one councillor in a small Nova Scotia town accused citizens of playing the “racism card” in a discussion over the placement of a dump within the city.

Rick Davis, a councillor for the town of Shelburne, made the comment in a Facebook post discussing the effects a dump has had on the local African Nova Scotian population.

“I think it’s time to stop playing the racism card,” wrote Davis.

READ MORE: Environmental racism plagues low-income and minority communities across Nova Scotia

For 70 years the Shelburne town dump received the region’s waste products. Everything from heavy metals to yard waste was dumped in its location at the south end of town. It’s an area that has been historically black. Louise Delisle, whose speech prompted Davis’ post, believes the dumps placement has caused irreparable damage to the people living there.

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“What are we supposed to do? We have to voice our opinions and we have a right to do so,” said Delisle.

The dump was only fully closed in December of last year but according to Delisle the male population in the south end of town has been suffering from a high rate of cancer for as long as she can remember. She thinks the dump is the cause.

Tom Jacklyn, a resident of the town, said he has lost a number of family members to cancer. Even though the dump is now closed that isn’t enough for Jacklyn who believes the well behind his house might be tainted.

“By putting some dirt over [the dump] what has really been done? It’s just lipstick on a pig,” Jacklyn said in a phone call on Tuesday.

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Environmental racism

In his post, Davis alluded to the fact he’d look at rescinding a ruling that closed the town’s dump to yard waste.

Jacklyn, whose back yard stream is fed from a water source near the landfill,  finds the notion of re-opening the dump to be ridiculous.

“Why would we be the only town in Canada to re-open a dump? Like come on,” he said.

Jacklyn added that the term “environmental racism” is a perfect example of what has happened in Shelburne.

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Environmental racism means that hazards, like toxic waste, pollution or dumps are placed near low-income or minority communities.

“[The city] put a dump there because it’s in the black community and they knew there would be no resistance,” said Jacklyn.

When reached for comment on Monday, Davis refused to speak about his post or his thoughts on the reaction to it.

Watch: Nova Scotia environmental bill of rights proposed

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Nova Scotia environmental bill of rights proposed

A push to find the truth

Delisle was speaking at the launch of a proposed environmental bill of rights for Nova Scotia. The bill would include a right to clean water, unpolluted air, and uncontaminated land where food is grown.

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“The facts are the facts, and they speak to the environmental racism this community has endured for so long,” said Delisle.

Delisle, as well as others citizens in the area, have written letters to the town’s mayor calling for Davis’s resignation.

On Wednesday their calls were joined by a coalition of environmental groups in the province. The Environmental Rights Working Group, whose members participated in creating the environmental bill of rights, called on Davis to apologize for his remarks.

“It is vital that Councillor Davis apologize for these remarks,” wrote Sadie Beaton of the Ecology Action Centre in a press release. “[The comments] perpetuate racist attitudes that make it difficult for marginalized communities across the province to have their voices heard.”

Even though Jacklyn said Davis’ comments don’t reflect the views of the city’s government or the majority of its people, the effects haven’t been hard to see. There is still a fierce debate on the role of race in the location of the dump.

“Basically, this issue is tearing the town apart,” he said.

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— With files from Steve Silva

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