Tribes worry Line 5 tunnel construction could bring sex trafficking, violence to Native communities

By: - March 7, 2021 6:31 am

Indigenous water protectors at the Mackinac Bridge | Holly T. Bird

Updated, 3:12 p.m., 3/7/21

When oil and gas companies employ hundreds of out-of-town, typically male workers to work on pipeline projects, an uptick in that area’s rates of sexual violence and sex trafficking usually follows.

That’s becoming a concern for Michigan’s Indigenous people, who cite Canadian oil company Enbridge’s impending Line 5 pipeline tunnel project in the Mackinac Straits as a reason to worry for their already-vulnerable tribal communities nearby.

The correlation between extractive industry construction like pipeline projects and sex trafficking is well-documented. Temporary housing communities for the labor force building the pipelines, often called “man camps,” result in a temporary population boom in often-rural areas. These create a strain on the area’s social infrastructure and can stretch police services thin if crimes occur.

There’s also a lot of documentation of Native women and children experiencing disproportionately high rates of violence, kidnappings and murder.

According to research from the National Institute for Justice, Native American women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average. About 84% experience some form of violence in their lifetimes. 

In Michigan, about 25.5% of all murders of Native Americans go unreported to the FBI. There is no state or national database of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The combination of these realities results in hotbeds of violence for Indigenous populations when an oil construction project comes to town — like one will in the Straits of Mackinac once Enbridge begins work on its Line 5 replacement pipeline. And members of nearby tribes are raising concerns.

“I can see that happening to us, no doubt. I think it’s already happening here in northern Michigan,” said Stacey Ettawageshik, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB) and lead advocate for the tribe’s Survivor Outreach Services.

“As far as sex trafficking goes, as Indigenous people we are way more at risk than the general population. And although we don’t make up a lot of the population here … there are definitely high rates of violence, sexual violence, especially against Native women,” Ettawageshik said.

Last month, Minnesota law enforcement conducted a sex trafficking sting operation that ended with the arrest of seven men, two of which were working as contractors for Enbridge on the company’s controversial Line 3 replacement project. As with Line 5, that project is also in extremely close proximity to numerous Native American tribes.

“That is a huge concern of ours,” said Holly T. Bird, a Traverse City-based Pueblo/Yaqui/Apache attorney and longtime Indigenous activist. Bird was appointed last year to the federal Task Force on Research on Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women known as the Section 904 task force.*

Oil and water: Resistance, construction intensify on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline

“Everywhere that these man camps — whether it’s building tunnels or pipelines, or managing those pipelines — have been set up, there has been an uptick in violence, death, and kidnapping of our [Native] women, and even young men and children in the area,” Bird said.

Bird said that prosecuting those who commit crimes against Indigenous people is also extremely difficult and fraught with jurisdictional issues. Not only does state law enforcement tend to neglect the issue, she said, but coordinating the cases between a sovereign tribal nation, state/federal law enforcement and a non-Native court system creates a complex web that leads to few consequences for offenders.

Thanks to a 1978 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, tribal courts also are prevented from charging non-Natives with crimes unless specifically authorized by Congress.

“It’s been a huge problem ongoing in Indian Country forever,” Bird said. “So many of these crimes against women and children and men have gone unprosecuted because of that.”

Michigan’s nearly 70-year-old Line 5 oil pipeline has been the focus of fierce environmental and Indigenous opposition for more than a decade. The dual pipeline snakes for about four miles under the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac — waters which are protected by treaty rights for nearby tribes in both peninsulas.

Shortly before former Gov. Rick Snyder left office, the Republican negotiated a 2018 deal with Enbridge to keep oil flowing through the Straits with a new, tunnel-encased replacement pipeline. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel are both locked in legal battles with Enbridge to shut down the existing pipeline by May, but Whitmer’s predecessor attempted to ensure via legislation that the new administration can do very little to prevent a new Line 5 replacement from being built.

As for that tunnel project, Enbridge has secured permits from one of three regulatory bodies it needs approval from to begin construction. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) granted permits to the company in January; the green light is still needed from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“I absolutely do believe that it’ll have an effect on our women and children,” Bird said of the Line 5 tunnel construction. “We’re next to international border waters, which makes us even more vulnerable. … That, given with the fact that crimes in Indian country are completely underreported, both in law enforcement and in the media, you know, it makes us very vulnerable.”

As for the two Enbridge contractors arrested last month while working on Line 3, Enbridge said it terminated the workers “immediately” once the arrests came to light, according to the company.

New: Tribal members urge EGLE to deny or delay Line 5 permits after archeological finds

But the primary sex trafficking awareness training the workers had received reportedly consisted of a 20-minute training video.

“I think we can do a lot better than that,” Ettawageshik said. “… Of course, with anything, you can’t prevent it 100%, but we got to do a better job.”

“Even if the workers could hear some of the family stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women, to hear them talk about it, and just the anguish,” Ettawageshik said. “Some people are still missing. We have no idea where they are and what happened to them. And so, maybe hearing from the families [that] it’s serious.”

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy did not say specifically what the company plans to do to prevent similar incidents and violence during Line 5 tunnel construction, or whether that would involve stepping up training for workers.

“Enbridge has zero tolerance for all illegal and exploitive behavior. Such behaviors from anyone associated with our projects will not be tolerated and are immediate grounds for dismissal,” Duffy said.

Ettawageshik also noted that she hopes the state of Michigan will develop a plan to have law enforcement monitor the construction closely and take any incidents seriously. She emphasized that any such plan must have ample input from Michigan’s tribal communities.

Enbridge secures 1 of 3 permits needed for Line 5 tunnel, angering enviros

A spokesperson for Attorney General Dana Nessel declined to comment.

“As far as I’m concerned, any dealings with Enbridge by the state of Michigan are dealing with someone with unclean hands,” Bird told the Advance, adding that she “violently oppose[s]” the Line 5 tunnel because it violates treaty rights.

The three native communities closest to the Line 5 area are the LTBB, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians tribe, Bay Mills Indian Community. The latter two are located in the Upper Peninsula.

“A lot of our tribal citizens live in Emmet County, Cheboygan County, Charlevoix County, Mackinac [County], so we’re all very close. The proximity [to Line 5] is scary,” Ettawageshik said.

Fossil fuel companies locating their operations in or near Native communities “has been a recurring theme in our history with both Canada and the United States,” Bird said, pointing to Line 3 as well as uranium mines in Navajo lands. “We believe it’s a huge contributor to our missing, murdered Indigenous women.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Holly Bird is a member of the Task Force on Research on Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.