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Built environments, COVID-19, and environmental injustice : examining the role of settler colonialism and racial capitalism in shaping and transforming eco-social relations in Canada Moollabhai, Aatika

Abstract

This paper builds on the work of critical environmental justice scholars. I argue that the understanding of environmental injustice requires an expansion beyond conceptualizing environmental injustice as toxic pollutants and external environmental harms being inflicted on marginalized and/or racialized peoples by the settler-colonial state and corporations. Built environments include structures that people work, live, and seek protection from harm and must be included as sites of environmental injustice. The state and corporations that operate under the logics of settler colonialism and racial capitalism, transformed and shape eco-social relations that produce racialized physical, spiritual, and mental health outcomes. Focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020, I explore three cases to examine how the built environments interact with the virus to amplify historical and structural inequalities and to demonstrate how virus transmission moves through eco-social relations. I chose these cases as they reflect systemic inequalities that have been present since Canada’s inception. These cases include the hunger strikes led by Indigenous inmates in Saskatchewan prisons, racialized migrant farmworkers in Ontario, and the removal of environmental monitoring requirements by the Alberta Energy Regulator. I trace the major shifts in the environmental justice literature and explore the settler colonialism and racial capitalism literature to support my arguments. I find that the environmental justice literature first viewed the state as an ally rather than a key actor in producing environmental harm through violence. However, viewing injustice as toxic pollutants rather than within built environments remains consistent. Further, settler colonialism and racial capitalism through the dispossession of racialized bodies and land, have significantly restructured eco-social relations, from mutually beneficial connections to one based on hierarchy and exploitation for profit. Moreover, through the construction of civility and differentiated value, property was given to settlers which resulted in them creating built environments that foster healthy lives. Racial capitalism and settler colonialism also created institutionalized/structural racial hierarchies that render racialized people expendable, controllable, and disposable, which has led to exploitation for cheap labour, wagelessness, and mass incarceration. Examining these cases demonstrate how environmental injustice is present within the built environments (living spaces, workspaces, prisons, and reserves).

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