Immigrant Participation and Environmental Justice in Toronto’s Non-Profit Sector

PhD Research Project 2015-2017 – Madelaine Cahuas

There is a resurgent interest in the potential of the non-profit sector to address the challenges of growing social and environmental inequity through citizen participation (Trudeau, 2012; Ilcan & Basok, 2004). In Ontario, the non-profit sector has grown faster than the total Canadian economy, employing one million people and engaging five million volunteers in countless community development projects (ONN, 2011). Over the last three decades, ethno-specific and immigrant non-profits have emerged in Toronto as a response to the lack of culturally appropriate services for racialized people (Landolt et al., 2011; Bannerji, 2000). These organizations continue to be important sites of mutual support to advance social and environmental justice (Carter et al., 2014; Veronis, 2010; Ginieniewicz & Schugurensky, 2007), but face significant challenges like neoliberal cooptation and at times (re)produce inequitable power hierarchies (INCITE!, 2007; Mitchell, 2001). My study will grapple with these different perspectives by exploring the tensions and contradictions local actors face when working towards social and environmental justice in and beyond the non-profit sector serving Latin American communities.

Latin Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in Toronto (City of Toronto, 2011) with an established network of community organizations (Veronis, 2012), but there appears to be continued challenges in addressing the concerns of marginalized Latin American women (Landolt & Goldring, 2009). In addition, Latin Americans report exclusion from environmental decision-making (Gibson-Wood & Wakefield, 2012) and municipal politics in Toronto (MNLCT, 2015). Therefore, it is important to understand how Latin American community members, especially women, are navigating these barriers and creating alternative ways of shaping political life in the city.

Drawing on environmental justice theories (Haluza-Delay et al., 2009; Peña, 2003; Pulido, 2002), feminist and anti-colonial frameworks (McKittrick, 2006; Pendleton Jiménez, 2006; Razack, 2002) my study will explore the following questions:

  1. How are Latin American communities in Toronto organizing around social and environmental justice issues within and beyond the non-profit sector?
  2. What kinds of ideas, values and practices operate among local actors concerning equity, the environment and women’s participation and how are they incorporated in organizational work (e.g. agenda-setting, membership, decision-making and action)?
  3. How are matters related to equity and the environment negotiated, and how do these negotiations connect with legacies of colonial violence in Latin America, settler colonialism in Canada and anti-colonial resistance across the Americas?
  4. What are the challenges, limitations and opportunities local actors face when organizing around equity and environmental justice issues?
  5. What lessons can be learned from the experiences and contributions of Latin American women in order to advance Latin American women’s participation and environmental justice activism in Canada?

I will explore these questions through interviews and testimonios with non-profit actors (volunteers, activists, board members, public figures), focus groups, participant observation and discourse analysis. Through my analysis l aim to highlight the ways that Latin American women imagine and create alternative geographies (knowledges, spaces, landscapes). This research aims to build on, and add nuance to, debates on immigrant political incorporation and environmental justice in Canada. Lastly, this study aims to contribute to dialogue and action on how to further promote equity and women’s participation in non-profit organizations serving Latin American communities and at the municipal level.


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