When civil war broke out in Uganda in 1979, Yuga Juma Onziga, his wife, and their five-year-old daughter fled to Sudan. Forced to abandon his uncompleted forestry degree in Kampala, Onziga and his family battled against a mountain of paperwork, finally arriving as landed immigrants in Toronto in January of 1984. Even after graduating in 1990 from the University of Guelph with an honours degree in agriculture, life was still an uphill battle. Onziga lacked the "Canadian-ness" that most employers demanded, and to this day he struggles to find paying work in his field of expertise and interest.
Onziga's experience is not unique, even in a city like Toronto that is largely defined by its ethnocultural diversity. About one half of Toronto's citizens immigrated to Canada, where over 100 languages and a range of races, religions, and lifestyles coexist. Yet even the city's environmental movement fails to reflect its colourful complexion. As tackling issues such as global warming becomes more and more critical, organizations and groups that work towards improving the environment (be it through education and outreach, protest, research, or direct action) are now being criticized for under-representing visible minorities.
Onziga responded to the insufficiencies of existing approaches by founding his own resource centre and advocacy group, the Environmental Centre for New Canadians, in November 1993. Since its inception, the Centre has striven to give a voice to the opinions of those social pluralities, economic differences, and cultural preferences that have been largely absent from mainstream environmental activism. Onziga himself has gone one step further than the traditional activist approach by addressing how race and pollution are inextricably linked.
"Whether Latinos, Native Indians, or Blacks, people come together at the Centre around issues that impact coloured communities disproportionately: lead, asthma, and transportation issues," says Onziga. "We bring them together by organizing planting activities in parks, solid waste removal initiatives, and learning walking tours in areas of interest."
One basic barrier to full civic participation in environmental activism, according to Onziga, is the framing of environmental topics. Issues like global warming are often discussed in such broad terms that people don't see how they are affected by it or how they can make a difference on an individual level. In other cases, environmental concerns are too narrowly defined, focusing on middle-class issues and related betterment strategies. How can you help reduce fuel emissions, for example, when you can't even afford a car? And why assume that everyone already has background knowledge about the issue of exhaust pollution to begin with?
"Instead, these things need to be addressed in terms of their impact on human health," says Onziga. "Also, using acronyms is a problem. NEE, PB, OCO2 — what are these things? Unless you have some sort of chemistry background these things mean nothing, and that's on top of existing language barriers."
Many members of the Centre are often on fixed incomes and can't afford to concentrate on anything beyond their immediate needs. As a result, the people who are often most affected by environmental degradation — including those communities that live in contaminated industrial areas — are rarely heard from, simply because they don't have the time to speak their minds or to find out about when and where to express their opinions. According to the United Way, all 20 of the poorest ethnocultural groups in the GTA are non-European.
"One of the main reasons that there's this stereotype that environmental activism is a white, middle-class movement, is because these are the people that have the time, energy, and resources to participate," says Onziga.
By understanding the limitations that may affect one's ability to participate in environmental action, Onziga and his fellow activists have been able to formulate strategies to encourage increased participation, create appropriate forums for effective social interaction, and develop pragmatic communication tools. The Centre translates pamphlets into a range of languages, including Somali, Kiswahili, and Spanish; helps new immigrants understand their rights and obligations; encourages ecological stewardship; and educates local communities on reducing household energy consumption. When promoting community outreach, education, and communication, the Centre embraces a culturally sensitive approach suited to the varied social and cultural contexts of the communities it represents.
While existing government and activist policies focus on ecological preservation and rehabilitation, few have yet to address the importance of inclusion. As in the example of th Kyoto Environmental Conference in Montreal in 2006, minority activists like Onziga end up missing important events because they are uninformed, not to mention under-funded. Consequently, the communities they represent are under-represented in the wider environmental movement, and their innovative approaches to preservation, rehabilitation, and communication go unnoticed. The result is that the community is disconnected from the conversation.
Achieving environmental justice — the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, or income in the development and enforcement of green laws and policies — will require the commitment and cooperation of regulators, other environmental groups, and ethnocultural communities. On top of reinforcing principles of sustainability, networks based on equity and social justice are necessary to strengthen environmental actions. Restoring and preserving natural resources and habitats extends well beyond land, water, and wilderness to include community and public service development.
We must all equally share the benefits and risks of environmental policies and, says Onziga, "recognize that as long as there is a diversity of plants, animals, and people, there should also be a diversity of ideas."