- Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege, and Environmental Racism in Canada by Michael Mascarenhas
In Where the Waters Divide, Michael Mascarenhas argues that the water challenges facing First Nations are an instance of environmental racism. This racism, he argues, reflects the historically unequal state of funding, infrastructure, and management of First Nations’ drinking water and sanitation systems. Further, argues Mascarenhas, neoliberal reforms of the last two decades allow inequalities to persist in governance and regulatory mentalities that cloak racism in the garb of “common sense” public policy.
Mascarenhas works from geography, sociology, and other critical social sciences to frame and support fieldwork conducted in Ontario. One of the key goals of the book is “to illustrate how neoliberalism is a form of racism without racists” (p. 5). Mascarenhas defines neoliberalism as a threefold process of deregulation, privatization, and reduction of state interference in self-regulating markets. These processes do not operate neutrally and, when applied to the case of First Nations in Canada, demonstrate how racism persists in new governance mentalities. Such is the case, argues Mascarenhas, in policies that seek enhanced “efficiency” while ordering governance within an institutional framework beset by a history of “white privilege.”
Chapter 2 provides a history of white privilege— “unearned race advantage and conferred dominance” (p. 11)—through a general account of institutional relations between First Nations and the Canadian state. The focus of the book, however, is Ontario. And it does not reference accounts of First Nations, water issues, and statecraft elsewhere in Canada, such as in the west or Quebec (e.g., Desbiens 2004; Matsui 2009). This focus limits the book’s engagement with recent literature on the struggles for First Nations’ water rights (e.g., Phare 2009) and with alternate accounts of environmental racism, water, and First Nations in Canada (e.g., Gaard 2001).
Chapter 3 outlines the “common-sense” devolution of neoliberal environmental policies with respect to funding for Ontario’s rural municipalities. According to Mascarenhas, this shift pushed rural municipalities toward public-private partnerships as tax burdens shifted from federal revenue sources to local property taxes, and placed higher fiscal burdens on smaller communities. Building thematically, Chapter 4 examines “neoliberal nature”—the prioritization of the economy over other dimensions of sustainability such as the environment or social justice. It looks at the case of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation and the development of the St. Lawrence River. Mascarenhas argues that, because Akwesasne ways of life depend on fishing and hunting, pollution that affects these practices constitutes racial oppression. He urges us to consider how the cumulative effects of environmental practices harm the individual and communal health of First Nations.
The fiscal auditing that accompanies neoliberal reforms is, for Mascarenhas, the next step in reproducing racial inequality. Chapter 5 cites Indian and Northern Affairs Canada as the agency most responsible for the governance failure of First Nations’ [End Page 354] drinking water. The chapter takes its leave from the Walkerton Inquiry, which reported that two distinct systems require special consideration to prevent similar calamities in the future: “small water systems and systems found on First Nations reserves” (p. 93). This chapter uses qualitative data from interviews and policy analysis to show the marked differences between First Nations’ water treatment facilities and those of other rural communities. The analysis highlights how a combination of existing inequalities, upstream pollution by larger urban centres, and accounting procedures can reinforce racist interpretations of governance failures. For instance, regulatory non-compliance can be viewed as evidence that First Nations’ water governance is failing even though standardized accounting systems are not sensitive to local contexts or institutional histories. Mascarenhas calls this “racism without racists.”
Chapter 6 examines the site of a sewage treatment plant near London, Ontario. According to Mascarenhas, this plant is an “exemplary case” (p. 110) of how restructured water services combine with white privilege through the repeal of land-use planning requirements and closed forums for public participation. He uses the case to show how the “morality of the marketplace” is also a...