Tribes, First Nations decry Canada’s support of Line 5 in letter to United Nations

By: - April 7, 2023 3:43 pm

“Heart of the Turtle” international Indigenous gathering in opposition to oil pipelines, Mackinaw City, May 14, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Amid years of legal efforts by Canada to pause litigation against its controversial Line 5 oil pipeline that runs for miles under Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, a coalition of 51 tribal and First Nations has submitted a report to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council (HRC) detailing why Canada should be made to abandon those efforts and listen to input from Indigenous communities affected by Line 5.

“In failing to properly regulate Enbridge’s Line 5 operations, Canada violates its obligation to protect human rights,” the Tuesday letter reads. “More egregiously, Canada’s active interventions to protect Line 5, over our expressed opposition as affected Indigenous communities, and through decision-making processes that exclude us, promote and enable threats to human rights.”

The report was submitted in relation to the fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPC) of Canada, which acts as a mechanism of the HRC to improve human rights situations in countries by hearing periodic scrutiny from other U.N. member states. The 2023 UPR session will take place in mid-November.


The Line 5 oil pipeline, owned and operated by Canadian company Enbridge, runs 645 miles from the tip of Northwest Wisconsin, into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, under the Straits of Mackinac and down through Michigan’s Lower Peninsula before exiting into Canada near Detroit.

Indigenous communities, whose treaty lands and waters would be compromised in the case of a Line 5 spill in the Straits, have been publicly opposed to Enbridge’s operations for many years.

“Canada’s support for Line 5 is part of its pattern of favoring the fossil fuel industry over Indigenous rights. We call on the Canadian Government to abandon its current posture in the Line 5 litigation in U.S. courts, respect and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and prioritize the pursuit of a sustainable future,” the report reads.

An Enbridge spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

The submission was signed 10 of Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes: Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians, Hannahville Indian Community, Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians of Michigan (Gun Lake Tribe), Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

All Indigenous communities in Michigan publicly oppose Line 5.

Whitney Gravelle speaks at “Enbridge eviction” celebration, Conkling Park, Mackinaw City | Laina G. Stebbins

“The rights of Indigenous people, of my people, are rights that should be respected by all sovereigns both domestic and abroad,” said Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “Canada’s support of Line 5 is a disaster in the making for the entire Great Lakes region because an oil spill will poison our fish, harm our sacred sites, contaminate our drinking water — and ultimately destroy our Indigenous way of life

The letter was also submitted by the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, both of which are rooted in northern Wisconsin; and the Anishinabek Nation, a First Nations organization that represents 39 member First Nations in modern day Ontario, Canada.

“The Straits of Mackinac are central to the Anishinaabe creation story, which makes this location sacred from both a cultural and historical perspective in the formation of the Anishinaabe people,” said Chairperson Austin Lowes of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

The Center for International Environmental Law, EarthRights International, Environmental Defence Canada and the Georgetown University Law Center Environmental Law and Justice Clinic additionally signed on to the letter.

“Canada cannot rely on the Pipeline Treaty to flout these human rights obligations,” the letter reads, referring to a 1977 pipeline-related treaty between Canada and the United States that Canadian officials say holds the power to pause Michigan’s litigation against Enbridge.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has been fighting in court to decommission Line 5 since 2019. During the time in which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also opened up a lawsuit against Enbridge, which she ultimately dropped after it was moved to federal court against her wishes, the Canadian government submitted a flurry of letters to the federal judge asking that the Line 5 suit be paused while treaty talks between the two countries continue.

There have been no updates on the negotiations since they were said to have begun in mid-2021, and President Joe Biden has not taken a public stance on Line 5.

In the Tuesday letter to the U.N. council, the Indigenous communities urge Canada to:

  • Withdraw its invocation of the 1977 pipeline treaty and its positions in U.S. litigation opposing decommissioning Line 5.
  • Ensure that affected Indigenous Nations are invited to participate in discussions regarding Line 5’s future, including any negotiations under the Pipeline Treaty, so long as they continue.
  • Interpret all international treaties, including the Pipeline Treaty, consistently with Canada’s human rights obligations.
  • Ensure affected Indigenous Peoples’ FPIC (free, prior and informed
  • consent) before providing support for extractive sector projects, and withdraw support from projects that do not have affected Indigenous Peoples’ FPIC.
  • Ensure that corporations under Canadian jurisdiction do not cause or contribute to foreseeable threats to human rights.


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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.