At Least 4 Oil Pipeline Workers Linked to Sex Trafficking in Minnesota

Indigenous water protectors, experts, and officials have been warning about the links between violence against women and pipelines for years. Now, they worry there'll be more.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
July 28, 2021, 4:51pm
Line 3 protester holds a sign urging people to protect Indigenous women from the pipeline project
A Line 3 pipeline protester holds a sign calling for Indigenous woman to be protected and treaty rights respected. St. Paul, MN. January 29, 2021. (Photo by Tim Evans/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

At least four workers hired to build Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline expansion have been arrested this year during human trafficking stings in Minnesota. 

Last month, a multi-agency trafficking raid resulted in six arrests, including two Enbridge workers who were later fired. The arrests followed a separate trafficking sting in February that resulted in the arrests of two more Enbridge workers, among others. They were also fired.

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“I am not at all surprised… There was no doubt that this would happen,” said Minnesota Senator Mary Kunesh, a member of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and whose mother’s family is Standing Rock Lakota. “It would have been great if they could prove us wrong but obviously right off the bat we saw it all happen.”

In late June, six men, two of whom were Enbridge workers, responded to a posting on a sex advertisement site. Authorities arrested the suspects after they turned up at an arranged meeting place for “a commercial sex crime,” a Department of Public Safety Office of Justice Programs statement says.

Enbridge spokesperson Michael Barnes told VICE World News the company “has zero tolerance for illegal and exploitive behavior. Such actions from anyone associated with this project will not be tolerated and are immediate grounds for dismissal.” 

Enbridge has joined forces with contractors and unions to condemn sex trafficking, Barnes said. 

In the U.S. and Canada, multiple reports have found that influxes of industry workers, often from out of state or province, create population boons that are associated with spikes of violent crimes targeting nearby communities, especially Indigenous communities and peoples. The crimes, often committed by transient, non-Indigenous workers, are difficult to prosecute in part because tribes don’t have that authority. 

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In North Dakota, for example, the oil boom resulted in skyrocketing violent sexual assaults and other crimes targeting Indigenous women in the Fort Berthold Reservation. Unlawful sexual contact in and around the region increased by nearly 45 percent between 2006 and 2012, whereas areas untouched by the boom experienced a nearly 7 percent decline. Aggravated assault, stranger violence, and domestic abuse also soared.

“I did have someone say to me, ‘Oh, you think all pipe layers are pedophiles and abusers.’ I said, ‘No, that's not the case,’” Kunesh said. “Bring 1,000 or 4,000 men into a small location where they have nothing to do when they're not at work, they have plenty of money, and there’s always going to be predators and bad actors.”

To get state permits for Line 3, Enbridge had to create a trafficking prevention plan in collaboration with tribes and government officials. Since construction started in late 2020, more than 11,000 workers have taken human trafficking awareness training, developed by a leading human trafficking expert in Minnesota in coordination with the Tribes Against Sex Trafficking Task Force, the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Barnes said. Workers are also encouraged to report suspected cases of trafficking, he added. 

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Taysha Martineau, the founder of the Line 3 resistance camp Camp Migizi, and enrolled member of the Fond du Lac tribe, said they’ve seen and been a part of the training and it’s not good enough. 

“I honestly believe that all of the special classes these workers need to take aren't teaching them anything,” Martineau said.

Worse, they said, law enforcement is aware of the relationship between pipelines and violence against women, yet continues to criminalize water protectors. More than 500 Indigenous water protectors who are against Line 3 construction have been arrested.

Indigenous women are significantly more likely than white women to be victims of violent and sexual abuse. In the U.S., one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime—a rate 2.5 times higher than white women. In Minnesota, Indigenous people make up 1 percent of the population, while 9 percent of all murdered women and girls from 2010 to 2019 were Indigenous. 

“We’re taught the statistic ‘one in three’ and for communities along the route it's terrifying,” Martineau said. “We’re telling women not to go out alone, to wear certain clothes, and be home by a certain time.” 

“I have three beautiful Indigenous daughters and because of that statistic, I wonder which one: Which one will be targeted? Which one won't make it home?” Martineau said.

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Martineau founded Gitchigumi Scouts, a group that seeks to minimize the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The team patrols areas along the Line 3 pipeline route in Minnesota and searches for missing women. When they receive reports of unsafe Indigenous women—in a bar or restaurant, for example—a group member will drive out, keep an eye on the situation, and make sure the women get home safe.

“We get those calls all along the pipeline route,” Martineau said, adding the team is receiving about two calls per week. 

Kunesh said she learned of the latest two pipeline workers who were arrested during the final meeting of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force. The task force, created in 2019 by unanimous and bipartisan support from state legislators, published 20 recommendations, including targeted trafficking prevention in areas where oil and mining camps are located, and tribal jurisdiction over crimes against Indigenous women and girls. 

According to Kunesh, more people need to realize that pipelines and other extractive industries don’t just disrupt environments and ecosystems—they also have devastating social and political implications. 

“Ultimately, we would like Enbridge to pack up and go home. Leave our communities alone,” Kunesh said. 

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