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‘I feel wronged’: Shelburne’s black community angered by town deputy mayor’s comments on ‘environmental racism’ issue

Louis Delisle one of the founding members of SEED is mad at deputy mayor's comments
Louis Delisle one of the founding members of SEED is mad at deputy mayor's comments

A Shelburne resident and black advocate is asking for a town deputy mayor to step down after he accused her of "playing the race card" in a public forum on Facebook.

Louise Delisle is a member of the South End Environmental Injustice Society (SEED), a group which believes a dump that operated in the south end of Shelburne caused devastating health effects in the black population.

From 1949 until 1990, industrial, residential and - at times - medical waste for eastern Shelburne County was brought to the dump. It was eventually used as a transfer station until it was shut down for good in December 2016.

The SEED group believes the location of the dump is a part of a bigger problem that can be seen on a national level.

The term "environmental racism," coined by groups like SEED, is used to describe the disproportionate location of toxic facilities to racial minority communities.

“If you do any research you will find communities across North America where dumps or landfills are located in black or native communities,” said Delisle.

“Groups of people exposed to something that kills them through no fault of their own."

The south end of Shelburne was a predominately black and poor working community located within the town, says Delisle, and fits the profile perfectly.

'A community of widows'

In the early years, burning would constantly take place at the dump, blowing smoke and ashes throughout the community.

“People would get dressed up to go to a dance, and when they got there, they would have to shake off the ash before going in," Delisle remembers.

Only two men of the original families that lived adjacent to the site are alive today - the rest have died prematurely of cancer, Delisle says.

“The men in our community are dying,” said Delisle, who lost her own father and brother to cancer.

“We are becoming a community of widows.”

Delisle said the community was vibrant before it was hit with cancer.

“Our people tend to gravitate together because of both social and cultural reasons,” she said.  “We were one big family.  If you had something and another didn’t you shared it…no one went hungry.”

Over time, a lot of the community was split apart due to the dump.

Delisle and others in the neighbourhood remember people dressed in hazmat suits coming to dump "who knows what."

SEED was formed to answer the question of why the community had such high cancer rates, and the group is urgently searching for answers. Delisle can't help but question if the high cancer rates are due to the community’s proximity to the dump and the possibilities of contaminants in the air, soil or water.

 

One step forward....

Rick Davis, deputy mayor for the Town of Shelburne

In December 2016, the Town of Shelburne agreed to close the dump to all materials after SEED members made a presentation to council. Delisle said it seemed the town was working well with the SEED group. That's why it came as shock, she said, when Coun. Rick Davis posted in the public Facebook discussion group Shelburne Exchange on April 22.

“There appears to be implications that white people were purposely targeting black people, or somehow forcing them to live by a dump, or that the dump was put there because that’s where black people lived,” he wrote in his post, which has since been removed. “The reality is, that many black people relied on that dump for a living, because they, unlike many others I suppose, were the only ones that would deal with the removal of town trash. The people, regardless of colour, provided that service, and that was their livelihood.”

He went on to say he didn’t believe the black community should be seeking compensation.

“I think it’s time to stop trying to find fault, and push blame.  I think it's time to stop playing the racism card.  It’s old.”

Mayor Karen Mattatall says Davis’ comments in no way reflect the town's position.

“This is something that he chose to do on his own and in no way was speaking for or on behalf of the town,” said Mattatall.

Despite this, the town’s business did get brought up in Davis’ post.

“I think I will be making a motion at council to rescind our ruling to close the yard waste portion of the dump as it is truly ridiculous,” he said.  “Leaves, limbs and sticks are likely the best things you could put in that place to bring it back to a better state.”

Whether or not Davis will make a motion at an upcoming town council meeting remains unknown.  Mattatall says nothing has been brought forward for the agenda at this time.

Davis declined to comment further when contacted.

'I feel wronged'

For Delisle, the comments are unacceptable.

“I’ve been dealing with racism and discrimination all of my life,” said Delisle.

Louise Delisle holds up a photo of her father and brother who both passed away from cancer prematurely.

SEED, she says, has been working hard with the town to get the site closed permanently.

“When it gets thrown back in your face from someone you voted for and in a trusted position, it is a slap in the face a hundred fold,” she said. “We finally got the dump closed and for him to say he would push to open it again. That is what the black community is upset about.”

She feels deeply disappointed in Davis’ comments.

“I feel wronged,” she said.

The next day, Davis posted an apology on his own Facebook page.

“Last night, I made some comments here which obviously were misdirected, insensitive and divisive. That was not my intention. To anyone who took offense at my ramblings I offer my sincerest apology,” wrote Davis.

But Delisle is not having it.

“An apology is not enough,” she said.  “Because his remarks were vindictive, hurtful and racist…I think he needs to step down. Someone with more compassion to the entire community should take his place. This is not just my voice - this is what this community wants.”

And the community is tired of staying quiet.

“His words have brought out feelings in people that have been buried a long time,” said Delisle. “But came out like a monster…this is just the beginning.”

Not on the agenda

While the town does have a media policy in place that encompasses social media, there is little the town can do with an elected official.

“The town is proactive on its policy but it is stopped by legislation,” said Dylan Heide, chief administrative officer.

Effectively, said Mattatall, the town's hands are tied.

“The public is the only one that can say whether they want a councillor to continue in that capacity,” said Mattatall.

Nothing is on the next town council agenda yet to discuss the issue of Davis’ social media remarks. Mattatall said this could change before the next council meeting on May 3, but only if three councillors or the mayor make a request to put it on the agenda.

The other option is if a resident requested, in writing, that the topic is added to the agenda.

“The value there is that the councillor can hear others' opinions,” she said.  “The councillor is required to hear but not required to respond.”

Cancer cause still unknown

Heide said at this time there is no evidence yet about any possible contaminations at the dump that could be responsible for the high cancer rates.  No in-depth tests or studies about cancer have been done to properly look at the data.

Despite this, he said the town takes the matter seriously.

“The town is very concerned,” he said.  “It is important that every resident has access to clean water.”

The town has expressed a willingness to search for answers for the SEED group through water tests, Heide added.

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