An Interview with Ingrid Waldron, Author of There’s Something in the Water, on Fighting Environmental Racism, and Winning
Watching There’s Something in the Water, a Netflix documentary by Elliot Page and Ian Daniel based on Ingrid Waldron’s compelling book, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities, it is striking that the three communities profiled–each fighting polluting projects by large corporations and/or local government–have all since had significant wins. The dump in Shelburne was closed and the community installing (with financial support from Page) a new well; the pulp mill at Boat Harbour is shut down; the Alton Gas project at Shubenacadie River was halted.
In a recent conversation with Atlantic Books Today managing editor Chris Benjamin, Waldron explains that the topic of environmental racism found her, rather than the other way around. But with openness, persistence and consistency she was worked long and hard with and for the communities it impacts. She is strategic and determined to spread the word and share people’s stories of environmental racism. Here in full is Waldron’s interview.
Chris Benjamin: Can you tell me a bit about your influences growing up and as a young academic? What shaped your thinking?
Ingrid Waldron: I was born in Montreal to Trinidadian parents. With my family I lived in various places during my childhood. Of course Montreal and then Ottawa and then I was able to get some insight into my parents’ culture when I was around 11–I went to Trinidad and spent five years there then returned to Montreal and did CEGEP, then went to McGill University.
After my undergraduate I was like, ‘I’m tired of school.’ I was tired of the large psychology classes, tired of the exams. I said to my mother very definitively, ‘I am not going back to school; I will not be doing graduate work. Just so you know.’
I didn’t go back to school till maybe six years later. I was going to look at discrimination in the education system, the high dropout rate of Black youth in the Canadian education system, because I was watching TV in those days, you know a lot of talk shows, American talk shows where people were talking about educational underachievement and high school dropout rates of Black youth and I thought, ‘This is interesting and I can help these youth.’
I applied to the Institute of Education at the University of London, England. Before I applied I had visited for the first time, and I fell in love with it and I thought, ‘How do I get back here so I can stay for more than just a vacation?’ I was hungry for more school. I did my master’s degree there for a year.
When I came back to Toronto I said, ‘I don’t know if this is quite what I want to do.’ I was looking at articles focused on mental health and I said, ‘I want to look at the impact of discrimination on mental health.’
The people at that time who were influencing me, who I was inspired by, were Black feminists. When I was in England, I was looking at articles by people like Hazel Carby, Heidi Safia Mirza, and Amina Mama. At that time, they were the popular Black feminists of the day. In Toronto, I started looking at American Black feminists like bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins.
So, where I am today in terms of environmental academics, it really doesn’t make much sense based on what my PhD was in, and I also did a post-doc where I honed in a little bit more on that topic of the impact of discrimination on the mental health of Black women, where I looked at coping. I was looking for a job; I was never really passionate about being a professor. I thought I would be at Health Canada, by myself, in a room, with data. I was kind of shy. The whole notion of being a professor, in front of a class, for three hours, when you’re shy or introverted, that was a horror to me and I didn’t understand why anybody would want to do that.
But I said, ‘Let me just cancel that out. I say I don’t want to teach as a professor but I haven’t really done it, so I don’t really know.’ And I tried it, for the first time, my first course in sociology at the University of Toronto, and I fell in love right there, at the podium. Shocked myself. I was one of these people who never really liked anything. I never knew what I wanted to do. My mother was always concerned, ‘When are you going to choose what you’re going to do, you never like anything, you’re always bored.’ And I spent a lot of my teenage years, my early twenties, bored, taking jobs, liking those jobs for three months then getting bored again.
When I walked up to that podium, that was the Scarborough campus at the University of Toronto, teaching a race & ethnicity course, I fell in love right there. And my shyness and everything went away, along with my anxieties about speaking in front of people. I can’t say that I’m never nervous now, but not like that. I think it’s because I found something I fell in love with, that spoke to me.
The environmental racism thing came later, and it’s a bit surprising that that has become my big project, the one people know me for, because it’s not what I did my PhD in, it’s not what I did my post-doc in. And I had every expectation when I came to Halifax back in 2008, that I would continue with the work that I did in my PhD. But in 2012, an environmental activist made an appointment with me, and he said, ‘I want you to do this project on environmental racism.’ And I’m like, ‘What is that? I’m involved in psychiatry, and psychiatric systems and how the psychiatric system diagnoses people and the problems with diagnosing people and the problems with labels within psychiatry, and mental illness, and here’s somebody saying environmental racism,’ which I had no interest in. I’d never heard of the term. I never in my life had any interest in environmental issues. I knew nothing about it.
Then he started talking about the fact that it’s something that disproportionately impacts Indigenous communities and African Nova Scotians, that it’s a health issue, that he and other people had been advocating around it for quite a few years.
And I said, ‘Hm, well, it is a health issue. The environmental part I have no expertise in, so I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but I have been working with Indigenous and Black communities, it’s a health issue, it sounds very political, it sounds intriguing, it sounds like if I can get it right I could have real impact on the ground.’ And I think it was the challenge and the fear of doing something on a topic I had never heard about it that intrigued me. And I very hesitantly said to him, ‘Yes I’ll do it.’
It wasn’t a project that was formed. I created the ENRICH project, but he was basically saying, ‘Many of us activists have been active on these issues for some time but I am leaving to go to California and I guess I want to make sure that it’s in somebody’s hands, a professor’s hands, who can get grants and sustain this.’ That was his fear, that he was leaving and the other people, a lot of young people were leaving. There were no jobs. This was 2012. They were going to Calgary and going to other places, people in his age group. Those are the people that tend to be the activists.
And that’s how I got into this. It’s just the weirdest thing, you know, it’s like it chose me. Why? I’m not an environmental scientist, I don’t have a degree in this area, but it feels up until this day, everything that has happened, the Netflix documentary, all these things don’t make any sense to me, coming to somebody who has no expertise in this area. It feels like it chose me. I did not choose this.
The only thing that interested me about it was, ‘Okay, it’s a health issue. So I’m going to treat it like everything else.’
CB: Can you tell me about the genesis of the ENRICH Project?
IW: I thought, ‘Well, this should be community-based if I’m to learn from these communities.’ That much I learned in my academic career, that when you work with these communities it should primarily be qualitative, don’t start with quantitative. I felt it should be community engaged and I thought, ‘I’ve got to meet these communities.’ I was still kind of new to Halifax and Nova Scotia. While I’d been working with the Black community, African Nova Scotians, I didn’t really know them well. The Mi’kmaq community, I didn’t really know them at all. So I thought the natural next step was meet them with loosely developed questions or objectives, but have them tell me what they think I should be doing, what I should focus on, what my questions should be. Typically academics, they’ve got everything ready, they’ve got the questions down, they’ve got the objectives ready, so I thought ‘I’m going to do it differently. I’m going to be open, and ask them what they want me to do.’
In 2013 I started this series of workshops, where I went down to Mi’kmaq and African-Nova Scotian communities. These were regional workshops. I had built a team–including the activist before he left, other activists, community leaders, health organizations, and environmental nongovernmental organizations. I got a grant from the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation in May 2012. We had a meeting and we all decided the step would be to have these regional meetings in Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian communities. We drove down to those communities, we met with people, I got to know them. The way I got into their community was hiring someone from within their community, instead of me doing everything–they could have said easily, ‘Who’s Ingrid Waldron, we don’t know her. Why should we have her in our community?’ So I identified people who had deep relationships in the community and hired them and paid them to organize these regional meetings.
In 2014 we had this convergence workshop. We brought everybody together. Everything really started from there in terms of meeting people and after those workshops, looking at research.
CB: It’s both research and something that practically affects peoples’ lives. A real praxis.
IW: People might be shocked to know that I just kept going along. I’m not saying I didn’t plan, but I didn’t know what I was doing as I was doing it. So I know what you mean by praxis, but I have to honestly say it’s only a few years ago that I sit back and say, ‘This makes sense.’ The path that I was on and the things that I am doing make sense. And I realized that it made sense when I was preparing for lectures, or talks that I was giving in Halifax, and I saw it all on paper. But as I was doing it, I was just putting one foot in front of the other.
But also listening to criticism! Over the years, as I say in the book too, I also listened to criticism from team members who had a lot to say about what I did wrong. I had to humble myself too, which is not easy. I had to learn from those mistakes. Maybe I was being guided but didn’t know it. I just kept going. Sometimes the way the next step came to me is that people would come to my office and make suggestions. That’s what I would say the ENRICH Project is about. That’s why it’s been successful because I have been open to people.
At that time I said, ‘Ingrid Waldron, you are going to make a commitment to not saying no to everyone.’ People would email me or call me and say, ‘Oh I just attended your event, loved it, would love to speak to you about a project.’ And I would say, ‘Yep, let’s make an appointment.’ They would come to my office and take me down a different path. And I would be open to it. I think that is the blessing. I never said no. I knew that if I had gaps in, say, knowledge of water testing, that this guy has it, and that’s what a team is about.
A man attended an event and he said, ‘Wonderful wonderful but have you ever thought of giving the Indigenous and Black people something tangible, like a win. I think they should test their water.’ He’s a hydrogeologist. He said, ‘Let’s put together a team, and we’ll do it at no cost.’
That water testing project led to a nongovernmental organization that I cofounded, which is called Rural Water Watch, and they continue to conduct water testing projects. They did it in Shelburne, they did it in Lincolnville, and it’s been really successful.
CB: The organization led to a book, which led to an excellent documentary featuring Elliot Page. While ENRICH seems to focus on working with and empowering communities to document what is happening to them and speak out, those media reached a much wider audience. Can you talk about the importance of communicating and educating people about what is happening in Black and Indigenous communities in terms of toxicity?
IW: Once again, no forethought. The Chair of my department at one point said, ‘Ingrid, you’re really good at knowledge mobilizing.’ And I slightly took offence and I thought, ‘Is that all I’m good at?’ I saw that as less important. Knowledge mobilizing, which we all want to do but most academics don’t take seriously, I thought that was not as important. I guess she saw something. I was always interested in creative things, even from my gentrification project in the north end–that was my big project before ENRICH–I hired Pink Dog Productions on Hollis Street to do a 30-minute video on gentrification in the North End. So I’ve always been interested in film.
When I look back a few years ago, at my talks–I typically write out my talks–I start to see this theme that I had a multimedia aspect of the ENRICH project that I wasn’t seeing as I was doing these things. I’d leave that part for the end. I talked about, ‘I share knowledge in this way, I share knowledge through the ENRICH map, I share knowledge through the Africville Story map, I share knowledge through my book and journal articles, through the Netflix documentary, through an interactive pdf handbook that I had somebody to for me. And I started to see it all laid out in a document. Now when I develop a talk I have a section on the creative ways and multimedia approaches that I use to share knowledge. I always feel that when I talk about that part, the audience is extremely interested.
All I can say is, no forethought, things coming to me. The Netflix documentary came to me, Elliott Page I wouldn’t say came to me but kind of through my twitter. ENRICH, I would say I didn’t chase it, the activists came to me in the first place, I didn’t want it. Elliott Page obviously didn’t chase me but was posting on Twitter about me. The book isn’t really something I was wanting to do at that time. I was looking to get out a few journal articles because I didn’t have very many and that’s what I was focused on. This is why I kind of believe that it was meant to be for whatever reason.
CB: It’s a lot of serendipity.
IW: That’s the word.
CB: I think you’re right it seems like it was meant to be.
IW: On a topic I knew nothing about. The environment.
CB: It needed a champion and I guess you were it.
IW: I think part of it is I’m very persistent. I see this like a puzzle. I felt like, ‘Okay there are wins now. Alton Gas cancelled. You see the wins. But while I was doing it I felt like this was such a tough topic. People have been advocating against this issue for years and it feels like I can’t crack this nut. I felt like I had to stick with it because I needed to find a piece of the puzzle. It was frustrating to me. I felt of course there’s no solution to this very complex issue but I felt like I had to find that solution and until I did, I had to keep persisting. That’s what Nova Scotians see in me, more than anything else. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, how many degrees you have. I stuck with the issue. I see people start, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, start these projects or organizations and then they forget about it and are gone. There’s no stick-with-it-ness. That’s just a part of my character. I’m persistent, I’m consistent, I want to see the end. I need to find a solution.
CB: It’s incredible re-watching the documentary now and realizing that all three of the communities featured have won victories–a new town well for Shelburne with help from Page, Boat Harbour shut down, Alton gas project cancelled. The Davids beat the Goliaths. What have you learned from these communities about fighting environmental racism?
IW: I thought about that when the closure of the mill happened. Wow [it had been open] since 1967. And then the Supreme Court win in 2020 with Alton Gas was kind of a first step. Shelburne had their dump close in 2016 before the movie, and now the well gifted by Elliott Page and they’re going to have that installed soon. And Alton Gas cancelled in October of last year. So what does it all mean? Well, it means a lot of things. I think the ongoing legacy of resistance: marches, gofundme pages, all the things we do to resist an issue, to fund resistance, campaigns et cetera, I think that’s important and I honour the communities that have done that over the years, way before I came to Nova Scotia. They’ve been doing that for decades. The persistence once again, persistence and consistency of Indigenous and Black communities over the decades that have resulted in these wins.
If anyone undermines the power of the media … then they shouldn’t. Because media is powerful. The Toronto International Film Festival screening of the film got to people around the world. But Netflix got to even more people. And when you create awareness, to a broad audience, that mobilizes people. There are people who don’t know about this issue, want to know about the issue, and don’t know how to act. Once they know about the issue, they’re mobilized. After it started streaming on Netflix I started hearing from people around the world saying, ‘I didn’t know this was happening in Canada.’ I heard from people in Nova Scotia: ‘I live in Nova Scotia and I didn’t know this was happening in Nova Scotia. What can I do?’
After the screening at the film festival I had three people in Toronto approach me on the street. ‘I just saw the film … here’s what I want to do. I want to give Shelburne some money for a new well.’
When I returned to Halifax, I had an email from a man in Scarborough, Ontario, who sent me an email at midnight saying, ‘I just saw the [documentary], how can I help Shelburne?’
Raising awareness [through] the bill [proposed by] Lenore Zann, her persistence. I’ve been surrounded by persistent people, who are consistent. Of course my research, of course the ENRICH project, the events that I do–I do these events because I want to raise awareness. I did so many events when I was in Nova Scotia I can’t tell you. All of that, led to this, to these wins.
CB: People really connect to the stories in the media, that’s how we get so many of our stories. That’s a very powerful part of what you do.
IW: I get so many journalists calling me, I’ve done so many interviews. … I say it’s because I tell stories. I’ve learned over time. I didn’t know too much about journalists before the ENRICH project, but now that I do, I know that journalists like stories. They like to kind of hear from the academic a bit, maybe we can throw in a few statistics, but ultimately what they would say to me is, ‘Ingrid can you connect me to Dorene Bernard?’ They want to hear from me but they know I am not the affected member of the community. The ENRICH program tells stories from the community that people want to know about. The numbers are in [Bernard’s] narrative.
CB: The work I’ve asked about so far was focused in Nova Scotia. You recently took a new opportunity in McMaster’s Global Peace and Social Justice program. I wonder how living in different parts of Canada has influenced your perspectives on environmental racism across this country? What similarities and differences do you see in the treatment of Black and Indigenous communities in different parts of the country?
IW: It’s national. It’s playing out in very similar ways. I need to be here longer to be certain about that statement. I’m making connections to the communities here.
The Black community [in Ontario] is slightly different. I feel like the Black community here has a broader perhaps concept of environmental racism than the Black community in Nova Scotia, where the focus is more on pollution and contamination. What I’ve seen in Ontario is the Black communities here will say that anti-Black police violence is environmental racism. It’s interesting. They’re much more interested in engaging with urban planning issues, housing, and they say that that’s environmental racism. I think it’s a really interesting concept to broaden environmental racism beyond pollution and contamination and to say, well, anything that happens in our places and spaces, in our environment, is environmental racism if it’s discriminatory. I’m just concerned that it would water down what is environmental racism traditionally. I feel like the Black community here, unlike the Black community in Nova Scotia, they want to talk about environmental racism as anti-Black policing, public infrastructure, lack of green space, housing, transit, which is what, if you look at my book, I engage in that discussion of race and place. I like it.
CB: What’s next on your horizon? Any new books we can look forward to?
IW: Yeah I’m very excited because this new writing project takes me back to my doctoral and post-doctoral work, which is mental-health risks. I wrote a book proposal on racial trauma and the impact of racial trauma on the mental health of Black populations. I probably wrote it back in 2019 and then covid hit and slowed me down. But I submitted it to Emerald Publishing in the UK. They accepted it. They also want me to include the UK in that.
Starting in February I’m writing this book on, not just racial trauma and the mental-health impacts of trauma on Black people in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, but also the way in which the profession of psychiatry has represented Black people within diagnostic categories, and labels, and how they have provided services to Black people. So I’m going to take on the profession of psychiatry, and critique it. The plan is to finish that by the end of 2023.
CB: Sounds fascinating, including that broad focus on communities in three countries. Anything you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask?
IW: I’m planning a big international conference in Halifax October 6-8, 2022, with my former colleagues at Dalhousie, to talk about how can we address the mental health disparities in Black Nova Scotians. So I’ll be back in Halifax then.