Arts funding, greenwashing and the Enbridge pipeline

Protests voicing opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project are quickly expanding.

Public hearings on the controversial tar sands oil transport route -- attracting hundreds of participants on the first day and igniting incendiary statements by Conservative politicians -- provide evidence that political battles over the Northern Gateway will come to shape contemporary debates on environmental justice in Canada.

Stretching from Alberta across northern British Columbia and into the ecologically sensitive coastal port of Kitimat, the pipeline will cross indigenous lands and territories that speak to Canada's colonial reality.

In building a broader context for the Northern Gateway battle, stepping beyond recent headlines is important. In that vein, what are the relations between Enbridge corporation and funding for the arts in Canada? Can financial support from a company pushing to rapidly expand tar sands extraction and construct a hotly contested oil pipeline on indigenous lands be considered ethical?

Enbridge is currently the presenting partner of "Our Story, The Canadian Aboriginal Writing & Arts Challenge," a project supported by Canada's Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, described officially as the "most recognizable essay writing competition in Canada for Aboriginal youth."

At a time when Enbridge pushes the Northern Gateway project, despite widespread public opposition to the pipeline by a majority of First Nations in B.C., difficult questions surround political motivations for the decision to fund an arts project celebrating indigenous voices.

Is Enbridge using culture as a political shield?

In light of the Obama administration decision to axe the Keystone XL pipeline proposal following major grassroots protests in the U.S., closer scrutiny of the Northern Gateway project is quickly unfolding.

A public renunciation of support by the Gitxsan Nation, coming just weeks after Enbridge announced a deal with the Gitxsan, strikes a major moral blow to the project.

The news of the Gitxsan's opposition to the pipeline comes after weeks of grassroots protests outside the Gitxsan First Nation treaty office in northwestern B.C., and as local indigenous activists and supporters publicly rejected pronouncements by Gitxsan negotiators on signing a "partnership" agreement with Enbridge on the deeply controversial $5.5 billion pipeline.

How often do Enbridge officials point to corporate support for the Our Story program in negotiations with First Nations communities as a way to illustrate their positive intentions or respect for indigenous culture?

Can a company, one so heavily invested in working with the Conservative government to push a highly unpopular and environmentally dangerous tar sands oil pipeline, be trusted as a patron of indigenous arts in Canada?

"Enbridge's effort is clearly an attempt to foster goodwill and co-operation among Indigenous peoples and blunt opposition to their highly destructive pipeline plans," outlines indigenous artist Gord Hill, of the Kwaka'wakw nation.

Clearly, the massive projected profits of the Northern Gateway, projected in countless millions, make Enbridge's support for the Our Story project amount to relative pennies.

As Canada's Conservative government moves to cut public funding for the arts in tandem with billions in corporate tax cuts to companies like Enbridge, community art projects and institutions now are pushed to secure alternative sources of funds.

Enbridge support for Our Story illustrate crass possibilities for corporations to power-play oppressed communities using arts funding. An oil spill in the port of Kitimat, the ecologically delicate spot where tankers are projected to pick up tar sands oil for shipment, would amount to a profound injustice toward the First Nations history, culture and life along the coastline. Such a spill would be a tragedy that relatively minimal funding to a native art and writing contest can in no way compare.

This article was first published in Art Threat.

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