Have you ever wondered why corporations and banks provide sponsorship for so many Indigenous educational, cultural and artistic institutions? Are they really good neighbours? Socially responsible corporate citizens? It seems like everywhere you look, there they are: sponsoring our Indigenous award shows, our schools, our pow wows — the list goes on.
In my own territory in northern Manitoba, we see the presence of Manitoba Hydro in just about every aspect of our community, including sponsorship of school barbecues and Treaty Days celebrations. In Fort Chipewyan, Alta., Syncrude sponsors the local youth centre, where Dene, Cree and Métis youth go to learn and socialize. In northern Saskatchewan, uranium giant Cameco makes sure to report about the millions it spends on initiatives for aboriginal youth.
Typical corporate philanthropy?
And it doesn't just happen in communities that bear the brunt of project development: in Vancouver last year, oilsands giant Suncor Energy donated land that used to be a gas station to the construction of a long-sought-after centre for Indigenous youth. Sure, these same companies sponsor all sorts of non-Indigenous groups and activities too, but Indigenous communities are the ones seeing their lands destroyed by these same corporations.
So how should we characterize all of this? Just regular old corporate philanthropy?
Here's another label: redwashing.
Redwashing is an attempt by a corporation to paint itself as "benevolent" — a good neighbour — through sponsorship schemes for Indigenous education, art and culture. It is the process of covering up the detrimental effects of corporate initiatives with friendly slogans and lump sum donations to Indigenous communities.
The problem here is that we rarely talk about what those communities are giving up by providing social licence to corporations to be able to state that, for example, they are sending our youth to university. Sure, corporations such as Syncrude and Petro Canada/Suncor are some of the largest employers of Indigenous peoples in the country (with Canada's mining companies following in second place), but their ecological footprint on our way of life is not exactly something we should be cheering about.
Indeed, the costs often outweigh the benefits when it comes to corporate sponsorship schemes. In many instances, the cumulative impacts of corporations' ecological footprint — which includes thrusting the costs of cleaning up their mess to local communities — has a long-term, devastating effect on our collective rights and title, our lands, our waters and our health.
Funding annual awards
Much of this corporate redwashing happens through Indspire, a charitable organization dedicated to promoting and financing education for Indigenous youth. Indspire's highly visible national awards are funded by Canada's biggest oil and gas, pipeline, timber,and mining corporations, as well as the banks that finance them.
One of those banks is the Royal Bank of Canada, one of the biggest financiers of Canada's fossil fuel sector, including the Alberta oilsands. These are the same oilsands that Indigenous communities in the area — many of which experience astronomical cancer rates in comparison to the rest of the Canadian population — have been protesting for years.
When it comes to corporate redwashing, the problem isn't just with the companies that sponsor our cultural institutions, while simultaneously contaminating our lands and waters; the problem is also with the thought leaders in our community who let this happen.
Last April, during a debate on divestment at the University of Winnipeg, the Honorable Justice Murray Sinclair of Peguis First Nation, a Trudeau-appointed member of Canada's Senate, condemned what he referred to as social movements' "absolutist agenda against the fossil fuel industry," stating that "nowhere in our traditions does it say that we should not develop our natural resources."
What Sinclair neglected to mention was that the natural resource sector in Canada is responsible for some of the most egregious violations of Indigenous peoples in the country and across Mother Earth. Instead of defending this industry, Senator Sinclair should stand with communities across the planet being ravaged by climate change.
Later this month, Sinclair will receive a lifetime achievement award from Indspire — under the banner of companies like Teck Mining and TransCanada — for his activism in the Indigenous community, which included serving as commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On that night, I encourage Senator Sinclair and the rest of our cherished thought leaders to stand and speak out, on stage, in solidarity with water protectors from the front lines.
I challenge you to call out the corporate sponsors of that special evening for the destructive role they play in our homelands. I challenge you to speak for the people who are being harmed, to speak in defence of water, climate, the sacredness of Mother Earth, the cosmos and especially for our children yet unborn. I challenge you to lift up and assert our rights and title to our lands. Speak out, even if your voice shakes. Future generations are depending on you.