Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

It’s the dead of winter in Minnesota, and the woman’s footsteps make a distinctive crunching sound as she walks down a snow-covered road.

She and others are conducting an Ojibwe pipe ceremony along the Mississippi River, offering a ground blessing and prayers for the safety and health of people working on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project.

The pipe is loaded with tobacco, and people smudge themselves with burning sage.

The scene – a traditional ceremony considered sacred by Ojibwe – is captured on a video posted on Enbridge’s website as an example of the company’s commitment, respect and connection to Native peoples and the lands affected by the Line 3 project.

“I’m very honored to work with Enbridge,” says the woman, identified in the video only as Diane, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. “They want to do it the right way. They’re looking at our culture, and how to be respectful to the land and the people.”

Enbridge’s use of the video – and the company’s extensive promotion of its programs and efforts to engage the Native community – is an example of a burgeoning business model called corporate social responsibility, experts say.

To some, corporate social responsibility means companies will consider their impact on the local communities, economy and environment and mitigate any potential harm. To detractors, however, corporate social responsibility is all talk and no action, a smokescreen designed to obscure the ongoing historic exploitation of Indigenous lands, peoples and resources – a kinder, gentler form of imperialism.

Enbridge series pipeline - Enbridge logo

Kate Finn, executive director of the nonprofit First Peoples Worldwide, said the corporations largely use their resources to help themselves.

“They’re (Enbridge) not committed to understanding what tribes and tribal governments have to say about a project prior to planning, design and implementation,” Finn, a citizen of the Osage tribe, told Indian Country Today.

“Their approach seems to be to get buy-in without affecting their bottom line.”

Enbridge officials did not comment to Indian Country Today about corporate social responsibility, but said the company works closely with tribal citizens.

“Enbridge is dedicated to protecting tribal cultural resources,” said Juli Kellner, an Enbridge communications specialist. “Our goal is to have robust tribal citizen contributions in our environmental and cultural resources survey efforts.

“This approach helps us to refine our pipeline route alignment, to avoid sensitive cultural and environmental resources, thoughtfully design wetland and waterbody crossings to avoid and minimize impacts, and develop restoration plans that will restore the project right-of-way as close as we can to pre-construction conditions,” she said.

‘Dishonor to our culture’

What isn’t apparent in the video is that Diane was pilloried on social media for supporting the multibillion-dollar Line 3 project, which has divided Natives and non-Natives alike.

Nancy Beaulieu, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, told Indian Country Today she was astonished by the video.

“This is a dishonor to our culture,” she wrote on Facebook. “No tribal elected officials, no spiritual leader, no tribal members in attendance, just ‘Diane’ who says she likes working for Enbridge, and a few other Natives.”

Daniseton Vendiola, of the Swinomish Indian Community, posted similar sentiments.

“This is what you call MEDIA MANIPULATION,” he wrote on Facebook, “where a corporation tries to trick the community into thinking they are inclusive and considerate but are really showboating and exploiting to attain their means.”

There are no official rules for using sacred Ojibwe items such as the pipe. There is no bible or handbook, or official process for sanctioning their perceived misuse.

Through unspoken understanding, however, Ojibwe people are protective of their traditional spirituality and ceremonies. It’s unusual to see a video of an Ojibwe pipe ceremony shared publicly on the internet; many consider it unseemly.

This Enbridge Line 3 worksite is shown on the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota in February 2021. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

More offensive to some, however, was Enbridge’s posting of the video to suggest broad support and buy-in from the Native community. Many Indigenous people in the region and beyond are actively opposed to the project, and camps of protesters, known as water protectors, have formed along the Line 3 route.

The $2.6 billion Line 3 project – the largest in Enbridge history – is part of the company’s Mainline pipeline system, the largest oil pipeline in North America that stretches from Canada into Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.

The original Line 3 corridor was first installed in the 1950s. The latest project is designed to replace 383 miles of existing 32-inch pipeline with 337 miles of 34-inch pipe to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.

Most of the Minnesota segment of the pipeline is routed through treaty lands of the Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, White Earth and Red Lake bands. Under the 1855 and 1863 treaties, Ojibwe have hunting, gathering and fishing rights on the lands.

What happens if tribes say ‘no’

Enbridge embraced the use of corporate social responsibility strategies in 2017 shortly after it purchased a 38 percent ownership of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The pipeline was at the center of the 2016 No Dakota Access Pipeline movement, known as NoDAPL, on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The water protector camps at Standing Rock came to represent the public’s growing awareness of how fossil fuel companies and pipelines contribute to climate change and inequities in Indigenous communities.

In 2017, the Sisters of Charity filed a resolution at Enbridge’s annual shareholders meeting, calling on the company to create a report detailing their processes for identifying and addressing social and environmental risks and their impact on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Although the resolution wasn’t passed, it received the support of about 30 percent of Enbridge shareholders.

Related: 
Enbridge Line 3 work halts temporarily

'Pipe Dream': Enbridge escalates local tensions
Enbridge Line 3 divides Indigenous lands, people

In 2018, Enbridge released a discussion paper, “Indigenous Rights and Relationships in North America Energy Infrastructure,” that addresses concerns expressed by the Sisters of Charity.

In a section entitled “Case for Change,” the paper notes that both the U.S. and Canada have endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that calls for governments to secure “free, prior and informed consent,” or FPIC, from Indigenous peoples in order to develop resources that could impact their rights.

The paper notes, however, that neither the United States nor Canada view the declaration as legally binding.

“Although some have interpreted FPIC as a right to veto a project, the federal governments of both Canada and the U.S. interpret it as a call for a process of meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples,” it states.

And that leaves the company in control, even with efforts at social responsibility, experts say. There are no benchmarks or accountability measures in place.

“In their paper, Enbridge says it’s committed to working with Indigenous peoples but they never say what they’ll do if Indigenous peoples say, ‘No,’” Finn said.

Finn helped author an analysis of Enbridge’s discussion paper for First Peoples Worldwide, a partnership between the University of Colorado Law School and the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Leeds School of Business.

Indeed, Enbridge offers a large portion of its corporate website to highlighting the work it does with Native and non-Native local communities, enlisting several Native employees to offer testimony about the company’s efforts.

Suparna Chatterjee, an associate professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, said social responsibility primarily accrues value for corporations.

“The insidious fact is that although these activities appear to be for the common good, it is corporations that largely benefit,” Chatterjee said.

Andy Hira, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said corporate social responsibility has largely been spurred by efforts to avoid scandal.

“Instead of progress towards decency in labor and environmental standards, we find ourselves in a continuing maelstrom of corporate social irresponsibility,” he wrote in the Conversation.

Rising inequality has contributed to a new age of populism and protest targeting corporations, he said.

Keenly aware of the growing citizen antagonism, Fortune Global 500 firms spend about $20 billion per year on corporate social responsibility activities, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Controlling the public narrative

Enbridge is using similar corporate social responsibility strategies in its Line 5 project, another segment of the Mainline pipeline system.

Enbridge wants to replace and expand Line 5, which runs from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario, through treaty and reservation lands of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and under the Straits of Mackinac.

The Bad River tribe sued the company in 2019, demanding it shut down Line 5 and remove existing lines from the reservation. Negotiations between the tribe and Enbridge are ongoing.

Meanwhile, Enbridge is awaiting clean water permits and an environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before moving forward with the Line 5 project.

In November, Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the termination of Enbridge’s easement lease allowing Line 5 to cross the lakebed under the Straits of Mackinac. Whitmer gave the company until May 12 to stop the flow of oil. Enbridge is appealing the decision in federal court.

Line 5 also passes through the 1836 treaty lands of the five tribes in Michigan that comprise the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority. They include the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Although the five tribes haven’t signed on to any litigation opposing the project, they are currently seeking to intervene in proceedings regarding the pipeline with the Michigan Public Service Commission.

In 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6B spilled more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands oil near Marshall, Michigan, into the Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. The company was fined $61 million to pay for the massive spill, which took years and more than $1 billion to clean up.

What's next

Enbridge recently posted a video on the company’s website about Line 5, announcing it is seeking to engage the five tribes in traditional Anishinaanek peacemaking proceedings that include the use of sacred spiritual items such as the pipe and tobacco.

The video features Native representatives of 7th Legacy Environmental speaking in the Ojibwe language as they describe the peacemaking process.

Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, told Indian Country Today he was taken aback by the video.

“This is cultural appropriation and is offensive,” he posted on Facebook. “Sharing the sentiment of peacekeeping was certainly not part of the litigation defense when Line 6 allowed oil to spill into the Kalamazoo River for 17 hours thereby destroying the local environment and Huron Bands and other Potawatomi territory with damage expected to linger for 100 years.

“As a tribal leader who shares these treaty waters with four other tribal nations, I would appreciate if Enbridge would discontinue sending an Indian scout and bastardizing our traditional ways to manipulate its ulterior motives,” he said.

7th Legacy was founded and is owned by Desmond Berry, former director of the natural resources department of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. A tribal citizen, Berry is long known for his environmental activism. In 2019, he left the job with the tribe to start a consulting business, and Enbridge is one of his clients.

According to an article in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Berry’s actions have angered and upset many tribal members. Bill Rastetter, attorney for the tribe, shared a memorandum with the newspaper.

“Berry’s actions are inconsistent with official positions of the Grand Traverse Band,” the letter stated. “Because he and his associate identify themselves as citizens of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the impression is created that this Tribe supports their efforts. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Neither representatives of 7th Legacy nor the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians responded to requests for comment from Indian Country Today.

But critics say the use of traditional Indigenous spirituality and ways is poor corporate strategy.

“This amounts to an extraction of emotion,” Chatterjee said. “They are monetizing even the inner-most human spheres of life and spirituality, harnessing them for profit.”

Finn notes that two years have passed since Enbridge released its discussion paper, and little, if anything, has changed.

“I still don’t see them taking any meaningful steps in working with tribes,” she said. “They continue with the same old premise that consultation rather than consent is good enough. For as long as they continue along that route, they are incurring extensive social risks and may be incurring human rights violations as well as risks to their operations.”

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