Marquise Stillwell
Episode 1: Dr. Ingrid Waldron on Democratizing Information, Environmental Racism and Inequality of Health

In this episode, I speak with Toronto-based Social scientist, professor, filmmaker and activist Dr. Ingrid Waldron. Dr. Waldron co-produced the 2019 film There's Something in the Water, based on her book of the same name. She most recently joined the humanities department at McMaster University, and is the new HOPE Chair in Peace and Health, she is also a professor in the university’s Gender and Social Justice program. We spoke about her work on interconnected relationships, and impacts of racial and socioeconomic inequality on health. Most importantly, we discuss Waldron’s push to address these problems through community research, the democratization of information, policy, legislation and activism.

Marquise: Welcome to The Sweet Flypaper. I am Marquise Stillwell.

Neil: And I am Neil Ramsay. 

Marquise: Let's talk about Ingrid Waldron. She is a filmmaker and activist of Nova Scotia. And I think this is really interesting, particularly with you coming from London to here being a part of these communities. Yeah, I think that she on our conversation really speaks to the fact that this can happen anywhere around the world, right? I mean, these challenges around particularly environmental justice issues. It's not just acute in, say, traditional areas of where black people have gathered to see the United States on the coast, but even in places like Nova Scotia. I mean, I'm sure in places like London as well. 

Neil: Absolutely. I mean, you just mentioned and you said like "where traditionally". But when it comes to things like environment, climate change or even disease, they don't just affect traditionally. You know, from traveling as well. You know, you travel vastly throughout the world, which is, I think, one of the greatest educators there is. What we discover is that a lot of these problems or these issues, however you want to label it as such, are universal in themselves. But how they present could be looking quite different and that racism is shown or manifests in different ways. Environmental racism, climates are different places are different, you know, cold versus... 

So for instance, I'm in Miami, right? So when you talk about environmental justice, it's often talking about sea level rise, right? Right. But if you're looking at other places, it could be another conversation. It could be cold, it could be ice, it could be those various things. And I think it's really interesting that Nova Scotia, some of it might be similar because when I maybe not so much now, but when I first got here, the questions... These places are very foreign. Yeah. And the landscapes are very foreign. Unless you've been there, particularly as a person of color, you know, what does it look like and where are they? And they're not always the hubs, as you know, and the stories of places that are traditionally known as having large populations. So just because the population is smaller, so for instance, in the U.K. and England, it's three percent black population. London will be higher because we like cities. Yes. But anyhow, yeah, I think her perspective would be not similar, but in the degree of being maybe a nontraditional in terms of general knowledge or experiences.

Marquise: Yeah, I'm super excited for everyone to hear Ingrid. And so without further ado, Ingrid Waldron. 

Marquise: So it's so wonderful to have you here. And I'm excited to have this conversation. I know that you may say that not too many people outside of Canada know about you, but I would disagree. I think that the work that you're doing is magnificent and these are global issues, seen at local levels. And we really appreciate your work.

So, for people who may not know you, Dr. Ingrid, give us a sense of the work... we're coming at this, somewhat from a design standpoint, but also understanding a lot of the science behind it, as well as the justice around this as well. And so we'd love for you just to give a take on what you believe your work is, and to how you approach it.

Ingrid: I think in general, my work focuses on what we call the social, cultural and environmental determinants of health. So I looked specifically at disparities, particularly health disparities that are kind of social disparities, or social injustices in Black communities, diverse Black communities—be that African Nova Scotians, we have Black Canadians who were born in Canada in other provinces, And we also have of course, immigrant and refugee communities. So I'm interested in diverse Black communities as well as indigenous communities and other communities of color. 

And what we know in the United States and in Canada is that racialized communities, those who are not white, tend to have higher rates of certain illnesses like high blood pressure and starting to see this with COVID as well, they are disproportionately exposed to COVID. Higher rates in many cases of mental illness and suicide, substance dependence, et cetera. So that in general is what I'm interested in looking at. How do some of the social, political, economic, and environmental factors impact on the health and mental health of racialized communities? And how do we address those issues through community based research, creative knowledge sharing and dissemination, policy, legislation, activism and civil disobedience.

So that's it in totality, but I of course have a very specific focus on environmental racism. That's been my work since 2012 that I would say has gotten the most attention because we are increasingly interested in climate change issues and environmental issues.

I have seen over the past eight years since I've been doing this project that the young people that connect with me, those are the issues that they're most concerned about.

Marquise: Give me a sense of your source, a little bit of where you came from and then how this is applied to the work and your thinking.

Ingrid: Well, I was born in Montreal and did my graduate degree, my PhD, at University of Toronto, and also a Master's Degree in England at the University of London. So I come at this from a very interdisciplinary perspective. Psychology was my first degree and my second degree was in intercultural education, and my PhD was in sociology and equity studies and education.

So, what I try to do is bring all of those disciplines together in order to look at these issues in a holistic way. For example, the mental health and health impacts through education and through sociology, which provides me with that social justice lens.

I'm particularly interested in how people interact with institutions. And I also have a very specific interest now in space and race because it's only in the past few years that I realized that this framework of the racialization of space, or space and race, actually provides me with a really important lens to look at how all types of inequalities impact people and what's going on in there spaces and places where we live, work and play.

So, I have increasingly become much more interested in planning issues, particularly public infrastructure and inequalities that we see in African Nova Scotian communities that tend to be in rural communities. Right? So we have a unique Black community in Nova Scotia that's very different from Toronto and Montreal and Toronto, primarily Caribbean people go to urban centers because they're looking for jobs in Nova Scotia.

What we have is a 300-year old Black community, primarily in rural areas. So that kind of urban/rural divide is interesting to me because in the past, primarily urban spaces, we know when you get to rural spaces, they lack so many things. So when I look at the African Nova Scotian communities, they are lacking sidewalks. They're lacking green space, recreation centers. They have transit issues in terms of, you know, transportation is not as available. Their medical clinics may shut down early, so they have a lot of inequalities on top of being low income, racialized. I've been able to, I would say over the past five years, broaden my lens a bit by incorporating not just health, and not just sociology and education, but also planning and space and gentrification…

Marquise: Yeah. That's why the spatial piece, when I was looking at your work, is very intriguing because I think it's a different way of even interpreting some of the issues that we talk about in regards to gentrification.

Sometimes, at least from my understanding, I would love to get your take on it—sometimes we’re thinking so much about the space, the actual state—the housing, like the street, their block—versus the spatial relationship between the spaces. Right? So the distance between getting from work, back home... spent some time in South Africa, particularly Cape Town, and we think about townships, like Khayelitsha, and getting into Cape Town. It's very difficult. When it comes to transportation. So give me a sense of, from your perspective, this spatial relationship and how you came about with that idea.

Ingrid: Well, I guess I can give you some perspective, just kind of using the North Dnd of Halifax as a case study. Halifax has a historical African Nova Scotian community that has been gentrified and over the past, I guess 10 years since I've been here, I've seen that happen, because when I arrived in Halifax, it was a primarily Black neighborhood. And now it's very rare that I see Black people on the street, just now, lawyers and students, mostly white...and you've got new condos and you've got new businesses and new restaurants that people who are African, Nova Scotian descent would say, “can't afford.”

“Can't afford to dine in those restaurants. Can't find work, and I can't afford to live in those condos,” of course. So, I see space and race in the North End. It illuminates the domino effect of the places and spaces where people live, in terms of what they have access to and don't have access to. So, in the North End, people would say, well, we don't have an organic food store or healthy food stores, we have to go all the way to the South End of Halifax in order to do our grocery shopping. But in order to get there, we need good transportation, but we don't have a bus system that gets us there. I don't feel comfortable going to the South End, because I am surveilled when I go there. So, I like often, I just stay where I am, which is in the North End.

We don't have green space. We don't have clinics that are culturally sensitive. We don't have recreational centers and we don't have wraparound services. Right? So services that will meet their various needs. So in many ways, the North End is a microcosm on this issue of race and place. And we also have to look at it in terms of health, because we know that your postal code determines your health.

These issues I just described: access to healthy, nutritious foods, access to reliable transportation, access to good health care, access to green space. These are built environment issues that are health issues, right? And we can see health issues as internal, genetic, biological issues...but from that social determinant of health framework, we know that transit is a health issue, that income is a health issue, that access to grocery stores is a health issue, but it's a domino effect.

If you don't have the income, then you can't access the transportation and then you can access the healthy food. So these issues are interrelated, and determinants of health that have real impacts on wellbeing in that community.

Marquise: Right. And you know, what's also interesting in listening to... is also the mental health aspect. And Michelle Obama got some flack years ago when she said this was the first time she ever felt American, right, that she was so proud. There was a moment that she was really proud of. And a lot of people didn't understand what she was saying, but as a Black American, I get it, because I don't always see my face represented.

And the changing neighborhoods... When you talk about gentrification, it's not just about losing housing, losing jobs, losing the ability to afford... It's also that mental health side, that when you walk into spaces that are no longer familiar, you don't see your face and you don't feel safe. Talk a little bit about that from the Canadian side. And what does it mean to be Canadian? Do you consider yourself Canadian?

Ingrid: I consider myself to be a Black Canadian because I was born in Montreal. However, my Western Indian heritage is very strong. My parents are from Trinidad and I think a lot of Black Canadians would say that in my age range, I think the younger Black Canadians in their twenties will feel perhaps a little bit more Black Canadian than I would, but I often refer back to my West Indian heritage. If somebody asks me about myself, I always kind of hard back to the West Indian heritage as I feel that there’s much more flavor. [Laughter]

Marquise: Yeah. Do you think there's a divide within generation when it comes to aspects of that as it pertains to mental health and how they see themselves?

Ingrid: Yes. You know, I find that black Canadians and African Nova Scotians are using the term “intergenerational trauma” a lot, which is often used in the United States as well. And I think that has a lot to do with where you are born. I think for example, of African Nova Scotians who have been here for 300 years, they've seen the kind of ongoing oppression handed down in their community for over 300 years... and that has present day impacts in the community that has to do with the fact that they don't see themselves in the systems here, but yeah, they fare worse, I would say in the social structures here, than other black Canadians in other provinces. 

There's a particular kind of oppression that they face that I would say that other Black Canadians and other provinces don't face, and that has everything to do with the fact that they've been excluded from various social systems, they don't see themselves represented, they're constantly fighting to have healthcare professionals that look like them, and that's certainly the case with other Black Canadians and other provinces, but not to the extent that I see it here. So they've made small strides, I think, over the years in Nova Scotia, because it's such a persistent form of inequality here that I don't think I've seen anywhere else. I think not seeing yourself represented.

And I would say that that's a concern that African Americans have, but the African American culture is so strong, right? All over the world.

Marquise: Yeah. It’s interesting to hear that. Yeah, in some ways, I guess, outside ...I guess, for me, I do see some of the fragments... you know, we think of cities like Detroit, Memphis, other cities where we've lost a lot of that…The power structure within, you know, not having any representation, whether it's, you know, at the government level, not seeing Black doctors and Black teachers anymore. So those are some of the things that have really disrupted our neighborhoods and what it feels like here, to be dealing with those things, which I've felt there's some similarities there, but I hear you. 

I think that because you see a lot of African Americans on TV, some people are shocked to hear that we still represent 12, 13% of the population. I go, Oh, I thought there was 20, 30%. And I don't know...what is the percentage of Canada?

Ingrid: That’s a good question...I don't even know! 

Marquise: I would guess I would assume that it's probably lower. 

Ingrid: Oh, it’s significantly lower, yes. In Halifax, the Black population is 2% of the population. 

Marquise: Wow. So how, when it comes to when you question your government, I know that you've been a part of some legislation changes...that government has acknowledged, you know... was it the C-230 bill? What are you hearing for the way forward? Do you feel like there is a positive way forward in introducing these bills and other legislative changes?

Ingrid: I think there's a way forward, I think what's kind of different between Canada and the United States, as you probably know, that we have this kind of reticence to admit to racism here, right? To the States...and we say, they're racist, we're not. Right? So there's a denial of racism in Canada that I know in some pockets in the United States, that's the case as well, nut not to this extent in Canada, we pretend, or I should say, others pretend that doesn't exist here, because they see images from the United States and then they compare themselves to the United States. 

We very much have subtle forms of racism, systemic racism in Canada. So the denial of racism in Canada actually makes it much more difficult than I would say, in the United States, to have some of these issues, addressed... systemic inequalities. With respect to the bill that was put forward on environmental racism, it was put forward initially in 2015, as Bill 111 and never got passed into law, it did go to second reading. And now this iteration is a federal bill. The first bill in 2015 was a provincial bill. This is a federal bill for all of Canada. It was introduced this year, and the politician who I developed that bill with, is very hopeful that it would go to second reading and eventually become legislation. 

Marquise: Can you explain, can you give us a little bit more, what that bill was in it, that you were hoping to see? 

Ingrid: It's an environmental racism bill that is asking the government, in Canada to address cases of environmental racism across Canada, particularly as it impacts indigenous communities and other racialized communities, we have kind of a pattern of putting polluting industries, or pipelines, through indigenous communities in Canada, across Canada. And it would ask the government to set up a tribunal in order to look at that, to address the issue. To consider issues around reparations. To consider the health impacts, to consider payment, well, reparations as part of that, but making sure that some of these communities have financial compensation from the losses...

So it's a pretty complete bill that would ask the government to consider these issues in a way that it didn't in the past and to center the voices of communities that are most impacted, which tends not to happen. So we decided that racism having an environmental racism bill rather than simply an environmental justice bill, but pointing specifically to racism illuminates the fact—the reality—that racialized communities are more harmed by environmental racism.

Marquise: Would this start to unpack policies around placement, of say biohazardous contamination, dump trash, that the hope that there's new legislation around how they allow that to happen?

Ingrid: Yes, for decades, we've seen a spatial patterning of landfills, pulp and paper mills, waste dumps of all kinds in primarily Black and indigenous communities.

So when I think of space and race, once again, I say that these are communities that have been selected for the placement of those toxic sites. Why? Because those are communities that don't matter—they have no value. So this would actually pinpoint the notion that this is a reality on the ground and it's an outcome of policy, right?

It doesn't just happen. It's something that is written into policy, environmental policy. So yeah, it would ask the government to actually interrogate the kinds of policies that they're developing, because the people who get to write policy are people from a particular category: they are white members of the middle class, and they're creating policy through their lens and through their framework.

And what I never say is that, I think, in every case, it's purposeful that people are sitting around planning to hurt people, but what I would say is that when you are writing policy from your own—white, your Western lens—sometimes you don't understand or you don't get how those policies are harmful.

Marquise: Yeah, no. I mean, the lens is powerful, which really does go right into the question around the film, and There's Something In The Water—a very powerful film—I think that it really lays forth two aspects that I really enjoyed, is obviously the issue of the environment, but also the other part of the work that you do around women, and really highlighting the power and the importance of women in communities. Talk a little bit about how the film came about. I know it's part of a book, but give us a sense of how it came about and the impact that it's had thus far.

Ingrid: In 2018, my book, There's Something In The Water was released. I did the typical book launches book promotions, and I'm thinking that that was it, you know, at the end of 2018. And then one morning, I woke up and I went to my Twitter page and I noticed somebody by the name of Ellen Page was following me, but it didn't connect. So I went about my business two weeks later, I go back to my Twitter page and I see my book being promoted. And that Twitter page had a lot of action on it! And that page... I wasn't really that active. I was like, what's going on here?! I traced it back up to that Ellen page. And I'm like, that can’t be the Ellen Page from X-Men. Why would she be following me? Like, I had no idea she was an activist. So I said I DM’d her on Twitter, and I thanked her and she said, “I just want to use my platform to support your book, to support your research and to support the women. I don't know how I can help you, but I'd like to do so.” 

Marquise: Where is she from? Is she from…?

Ingrid: She’s from Nova Scotia! But she’s living in New York now. She was just making that transition from California to New York when I spoke with her. And then she has a friend here, who's a restaurant owner, and she said, Ingrid, I've known Ellen for 15 years, would you like me to put you in touch with her by phone? And I said, yes. This is the end of 2018 Christmas week. So I said, of course! So we have a three way phone call, probably December 23rd of 2018. We bandied about a few ideas, I was particularly frustrated. I said to myself, I've got a celebrity with over 2 million people following on Twitter. And I don't even know how to leverage this. I didn't know how she can help. 

I said to myself, she lives in New York, like, how could she help in terms of civil disobedience and mobilizing? And then I said to myself, hmm. Her Twitter page is powerful, because a lot of people follow her. So if I tweet out a GoFundMe page for the indigenous women who are raising money for legal fees, can you imagine what that would do? You know, that would be great! That's what I was thinking initially.

Then we have a second phone call in January of 2019, now with the indigenous women on the phone call, Ellen and her co-director Ian said, maybe we can just do some short clips, video clips that we can post it on Twitter. We thought that was great...everybody was screaming! And that was actually all that we had planned. It wasn’t until Ellen came up in April of 2019, and I went to her mom's home, and I looked at the clips and I'm looking at women crying in the film, and I'm thinking, I don't think 10 minutes clips on Twitter...

Marquise: Is enough? Right.

Ingrid: That was when I was like, go big or go home. Like I said, do we want to make an impact around environmental racism or not? If we do, then I think there should be a full-fledged film. And then Ian said, because he knows more about film than I do, he said , yes, 70 minutes. And I said, we need to take it to TIFF, the Sundance Film Festival. So they said, you know what? Yeah, you're right. And they said, TIFF is the most important film festival, everybody from around the world, everybody's going to get to see this. 

They're going to learn about Nova Scotia, Canada. And if we truly want to inspire people and to make some type of change in some way, we need to focus on TIFF. And Cameron Bailey, who was the head of TIFF told us when the deadline is, we barely made it.

Marquise: Yeah, I know. It's tough. I mean, we do films and that was a fast turn. I don't know how you were able to turn it that fast! 

Ingrid: I was speaking to somebody recently, and he told me, I should have known this... He said, actually, if you're just a regular filmmaker, a nobody... you don't get in anymore because big stars are...But it's the reality, right? Because you're looking to make money, but Ellen's name obviously helped, right? It was a fast turnaround, and he said, you guys got it in! And that when that was in, probably July, and there was a mad rush at that point to finish this film. People have said, if there's any critique on this film, people have said, it's very raw... because it wasn't made for TIFF! 

Marquise: Right, right.

Ingrid: Until the last minute. So I thought about the actually very good reaction—fantastic reaction, a few climates that said it's so raw. The amount of emails and Instagram posts and Twitter posts from people all over the world saying to me, I'm so inspired by this film, I'm so inspired by the women in this film, has been overwhelming. 

Marquise: Wow. What's been the impact? I mean, it's been just such a short amount of time. Have you seen, you know... ‘cause I know we, I, a friend of mine, we also released a film. We were supposed to be on the road as well, and then COVID happened. So I'm assuming as well, like you haven't been able to get out and promote and do the screenings. So what have you been able to do and how have you been pushing the film? 

Ingrid: Well, we did, because we did Toronto International Film Festival in September last year, we did the Atlantic Film Festival, which is a film festival in Halifax, we were invited to Vancouver, but we didn't go. We did film festivals in Ontario, and we did the Halifax Black FIlm Festival, and this is a new film festival here in Halifax. So we did it and we got a lot of promotion and Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, Time magazine... like the promoter was a blitz, because of Ellen...so we didn't really need to do any more. And then we got to Netflix.

In terms of the impact, beyond just the fact that it inspires people...I truly feel, partly that the fact that all of a sudden the mill that was pumping wastewater into Boat Harbor since 1967, it closed at the end of 2019...the mill has to close. This is a mill that has been pumping wastewater into the indigenous community of Pictou Landing First Nations since 1967. Why all of a sudden? Did he see the film? Why all of a sudden did he announce last year, just before Christmas, that the Mill would close? So that's one major achievement. When you think about the fact that you saw Louise Delisle in Shelburne in the film, the African Nova Scotian woman, Ellen was kind enough to pay for the well...she was talking about the well in the film. 

And we didn't release that information in the film, but Ellen agreed to pay for a well in the South of Shelburne, which is the Black community, as they have never been then on town water, which is part of inequality beyond environmental racism: the fact that the Black community is on a well water is more likely to be contaminated, and the white community gets to enjoy municipal water is just a blatant form of inequality.

But Ellen said to me, when she actually was filming in April, she said, Ingrid, you know what? I think I'm going to pay for the well and I sat down and you've done enough, you've you? I said, no, don't do what you said. And I'm going to pay for a while. I had to keep that under wraps from the community, but then they found out, of course. And then it was all in the press here because I wanted it to be in the press because I thought she's so kind, and she's paying for it. What is it... over $23,000 for that well, and then she's paying for the annual maintenance! So that's another achievement.

Marquise: Awesome. Congratulations. 

Ingrid: And then, the indigenous community of Shubenacadie got their appeal approved by the judge in April of this year, they have always said that proper consultations have not been done with them. That Alton Gas is planning to put a brine discharge pipeline in the Shubenacadie river. Nobody consulted with us, how dare you come into our community and not consult with us first? 

So all of a sudden this year, you know, they were approved...their appeal was approved by the judge, and now the judge has ordered the province of Nova Scotia, and the company Alton Gas, to go back and do proper consultation… Those are three major achievements that all of a sudden happened. So I'm not saying it's all about the film, because the communities have been mobilizing and I don't want to take away from that.

Marquise: Absolutely. But they need that, you need platform. You need a way, which is why I'm so thankful for you to join us, having a platform and having a place to speak is really important. And speak your truth and not be edited, which is what I felt...the film did a great job of just allowing the women to speak and have their voice. I liked that it wasn't over edited, it was raw. Because these are all issues and we need a platform that allows that to happen. So congratulations, such a great date. What's next for you? Now that you're this international activist? [Laughter]

Ingrid: I liked producing, you know, she allowed me to co-produce the film and I liked looking at cuts and giving my real... I love that. So, I’m producing another film from Toronto based filmmakers right here that we're hoping... and I'm also doing this art festival here and how fast an annual arts festival called Nocturne, doing it online.

And I'm curating a project on environmental racism that would bring together the women that you saw in the film I bring together multimedia. So audio, video, photographs, art, and bring together performers, dancers, musicians, to tell the story of environmental racism in Nova Scotia. So I'm very excited because I always like to use creative and innovative media.

Marquise: Oh that’s amazing. Will it be online? In the archive as well? Since it's coming up pretty quickly. 

Ingrid: Yes. It's October 14th. The promo hasn't really been out as yet, but right now there is a Facebook page called Nocturne and sign up for the Facebook Page, but we're going to promote self promoting in September.

Marquise: Amazing, amazing. Well, Dr. Ingrid Waldron, thank you so much. This has been amazing. I love your work, you definitely have a name for yourself globally. Now, whether you know that or not, again, these are global issues and being Black is to be global. And whether every corner of this world, you have seen how we've had to deal with these challenges, which is why I was excited to see your work, because it’s universal, I could connect to it. 

Ingrid: I want to say to you that I really admire what you do. I have Google’d you, watched your interviews on YouTube, your websites. You are so curious! Your interests, this company you have...

Marquise: Openbox. Yeah. 

Ingrid: You mix planning with design! So I really want to tell you that I admire your work and I have not seen anything like it. 

Marquise: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. And I have to get up, hopefully once you allow Americans back into your country... I have to come up and grab a coffee with you. I'd love to do that. [Ingrid: Yes.] Awesome. Well, thank you so much for spending time with us. And, um, I hope to talk with you soon. 

Ingrid: Thanks for having me.