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It’s complicated: Canadian Museum of Nature rethinks its relationship status with Enbridge

Museum says it’s ‘revising’ its fundraising policy while former president defends taking fossil fuel money

For Emily Rack, the Canadian Museum of Nature evokes warm memories of visiting on school trips as a kid.

On a rainy Sunday in October, the downtown Ottawa resident and mother of a five-year-old was strolling through the museum’s exhibit on rainforests, reminiscing about how things have changed.

“I’ve never before seen the live animals,” she said, after admiring a two-toed sloth. It made her think about the museum’s evolution, from a place to see art displays of nature scenes to one where owls, snakes and other creatures can also be spotted.

“I grew up in Ottawa, so seeing it change and go through all these different phases has been really interesting,” Rack said.

Rack and others who attended that day, and spoke with The Narwhal, talk about the Museum of Nature as an inspiring place.

Castle-like building with a glass enclosure in front and the words "Victoria Memorial Museum" over the front doors.
Ottawa’s Museum of Nature draws visitors to the marvellous, castle-like Victoria Memorial Museum Building, a national historic site down the street from Parliament Hill.

They bring up the marvellous, castle-like building the museum is housed in, a national historic site down the street from Parliament Hill named the Victoria Memorial Museum Building with modern additions, like a glass enclosure with a huge moon sculpture visible from the street.

They also describe it as a place to find fun and educational exhibits on dinosaurs, birds, bugs, mammals and minerals — and as a place to learn about the impacts of humanity on the natural world.

As one of Canada’s nine national museums, the Museum of Nature receives public funding tied to key government priorities like fighting climate change, and undertakes climate research.

“Our global mission is to save the world for future generations with evidence, knowledge and inspiration,” the museum proclaims on its website.

But critics say this focus on climate science and saving the world hasn’t been reflected in the museum’s decade-long pursuit of fossil fuel money.

A trove of internal documents reviewed by The Narwhal has shed light on how the museum’s leadership spent considerable time and effort soliciting money and other support from Enbridge, a large oil and gas company.

The oil and gas sector is Canada’s largest, and fastest growing, source of the carbon pollution that is contributing to the climate crisis. The extreme weather and rising temperatures that climate change is driving is threatening the health of future generations the museum purports to be on a mission to save.

Meg Beckel, who was president of the museum for 11 years before retiring last year, personally advocated for an ongoing role for the oil and gas industry in the life of the museum, the documents show.

That included the museum asking Enbridge to help pay for Planet Ice: Mysteries of the Ice Ages, a popular exhibit that addressed climate change’s impact on the Arctic, one of many financial and non-financial contributions to the museum that the company ended up making.

In an interview with The Narwhal, Beckel defended her approach, saying she believed in an “open tent” philosophy when it came to donors and sponsors, and that Enbridge was only one of many firms the museum solicited for funding over the years, and not the only controversial one at that.

Beckel said corporate sponsorships helped fill a significant hole in the museum’s operating budget, which is primarily publicly funded. She said the federal government was fully aware of this funding gap, and even encouraged growth in fundraising as a result.

Close up of a grey panel showing the words "Enbridge Inc" and "First Air."
The Museum of Nature’s leadership spent time and effort soliciting money from oil and gas giant Enbridge.

And she argued that, as a national institution, the museum had “an obligation to engage all stakeholders, even if their business is actually damaging to the planet,” because those businesses “are all part of our collective future” on a shared Earth.

With a new president in place since fall 2022, the museum says it’s “revising” its fundraising policy, after a decade of support from the fossil fuel industry. It said it has added a new “principle” to ensure sponsors’ actions and values align with those of the museum, particularly when it comes to conservation.

But the museum is not closing the door on oil and gas sponsorships. While it said there was nothing in the works for the rest of this year, it would not commit to refusing any future funding from Enbridge.

For its part, Enbridge said it’s proud of the many financial ties it forged with the museum, and remains open to working with them in future.

Gina Sutherland, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said the company invested more than $22 million in sponsorships and donations across Canada and the United States last year.

“While not one of our larger sponsorships, we were proud to support several different museum initiatives over the years,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

“Enbridge and the museum shared a belief that partnerships between industry and the scientific community enable action that will result in positive change on key issues related to climate change and sustainability.”

Stylized sculptures of ice evoking a glacier with video projections of Arctic scenes on them in a dark room.
The extreme weather and rising temperatures that climate change is driving are threatening the health of future generations the museum purports to be on a mission to save.

Enbridge sponsorship of ‘Planet Ice’ could have created ‘chilling effect’ says physicians group

Visitors to the museum today won’t see the Enbridge name or logo splashed across any galleries.

Yet documents show it was less than four years ago that the museum pressed Enbridge on sponsoring Planet Ice, after an official emailed the company wanting to “hear what priorities Enbridge is focused on, and how we might continue this fabulous partnership.”

“Planet Ice as mentioned is a new, world premiere exhibit on ice and climate,” the museum official wrote in a February 2020 email to Enbridge. They attached a brochure on the exhibit, and noted how “we are working with prospective sponsors now” and there was still an “opportunity to be involved.”

Enbridge signed on as a supporting sponsor of Planet Ice, following years of the company helping to pay for other initiatives. Federal agency Polar Knowledge Canada was the exhibit’s top sponsor while engineering firm Hatch was another supporting sponsor.

A billboard in a city park in summer advertising "Planet Ice" with an animal and a skeleton on it.
The oil and gas sector is the largest and fastest growing source in Canada of the carbon pollution that is contributing to the climate crisis. Photo: internal Museum of Nature document

In return, the company got its logo on a panel at the entrance to the exhibit, as well as on promotional signs, newspaper ads, bike racks, posters, billboards, and online on social media and the exhibit’s web page, according to an internal museum report. A company official also spoke during the museum’s video previews of the exhibit.

Copies of emails show Enbridge then used the opportunity to try to influence the exhibit’s content.

“As discussed, can you let me know if there are any opportunities to share what Enbridge is doing in alternative energy?” an Enbridge official asked the museum, after a discussion of the Planet Ice sponsorship arrangement in October 2020.

“[I] would love to hear ideas from your experience and engagement team on how we might be able to share some messaging with visitors.”

The museum official replied that Planet Ice didn’t have the specific kind of programming that would allow for this kind of marketing, but they encouraged Enbridge to chat further about other sponsorship opportunities.

Enbridge does operate a renewables business, including solar, wind and geothermal power generation. But three of its four self-described “core businesses” involve fossil fuels, like operating crude oil and natural gas pipelines. Enbridge reported almost 14 million tonnes of carbon pollution last year from its direct and indirect operations.

“We know the Ice Age is a really popular and highly engaging topic for families, so we wanted to use it to address the ideas of climate change through a perspective that puts an interesting twist on it,” reads a quote from a 2022 Enbridge press release promoting the exhibit.

“Instead of saying warming is bad, we want people to believe that cold is great.”

Billboard on a city transit bus advertising "Planet Ice" with an animal and a skeleton on it.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment warned Planet Ice could have faced a “chilling effect” because of its oil and gas sponsor. Photo: internal Museum of Nature document

Critics say the museum’s closeness with Enbridge raises questions about whether the museum could have gone further in informing visitors about how one of the exhibit’s sponsors was, in fact, a fossil fuel company. The exhibit had a section directly addressing how the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to climate change, but the museum confirmed this section didn’t mention Enbridge.

“We know how sponsorships work, and institutions will not actively disparage the reputations of their sponsors,” said Leah Temper, an ecological economist and director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment’s “Fossil Fuel Ads Make Us Sick” campaign.

“So there could obviously be a chilling effect about what was included in the exhibit, and how the whole truth is being told.”

The museum and Enbridge both denied the company had any influence over the content of Planet Ice. Museum spokesperson Dan Smythe said no sponsors are allowed to influence the content of any of its exhibits.

“As a sponsor, Enbridge had no influence over the content … a guideline that holds for all individuals and/or organizations that choose to sponsor projects at the Canadian Museum of Nature,” he said.

He said the content for Planet Ice was developed by museum staff working with subject-matter experts in the Yukon government and at several museums in Canada and the United Kingdom.

There were no references to Enbridge in the Planet Ice exhibit other than promotional material, he said.

Asked whether the museum brought on a chilling effect as a result of its relationship with Enbridge, Beckel said as a national museum of natural sciences, “we must engage with all stakeholders, not only those who agree with everything our science tells us.”

“Each individual, organization and corporation will bring a mixed history with them when they become a donor or sponsor of the museum,” she said.

Patrick McCurdy, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s department of communication who studies fossil fuels and advertising, first requested the package of internal museum documents under freedom of information law in January 2023. McCurdy said he was “genuinely interested in how oil and gas has embedded itself into Canada’s cultural institutions.”

After reviewing the document package, McCurdy said he felt the museum had put itself in a contradictory position. There is an “alarming level of cognitive dissonance,” he argued, between running an institution that says it wants to save the world, and taking money from a company “whose primary business model contributes directly to the climate crisis.”

In Canada, 12 universities have committed to divesting from fossil fuels by 2025, he noted, while in the United Kingdom, the Science Museum has faced resignations and protests over its relationship with Shell, according to a report in The Guardian.

“From my perspective, and considering the climate emergency coupled with biodiversity loss, it’s poor judgment from the museum to seek funds from any oil and gas company,” McCurdy said.

Camille-Mary Sharp, a faculty fellow at New York University’s museum studies program, who researches museums, social justice and the climate crisis, also said museums that take oil and gas money are facing a contradiction.

“Museums in Canada are some of the most progressive institutions when it comes to people working in collections and exhibitions,” she said. “For me, it’s a missed opportunity not to apply those critical frameworks more broadly to other areas of the museum, like funding and governance.”

Castle-like building with a large advertising banner out front that says "Nature Up Close and Personal" in front of giant owl eyes.
The office of Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said national museums are “autonomous” when asked whether she approved of the museum taking oil and gas money.

As nature museum faces funding gaps, heritage minister says it makes its own fundraising decisions

The museum is a federal Crown corporation that reports to Parliament through Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge. The Canadian Heritage department has already come under fire for Enbridge’s previous sponsorship of Winterlude, Ottawa’s winter festival, which the department also oversees.

Winterlude is closely associated with the Rideau Canal skateway, which didn’t open last year for the first time in its history, its solid ice likely a victim of climate change. The physicians group argued it was wrong for companies driving the climate crisis to be promoting winter recreation.

Museum display that says "Under the canopy" with a picture of a Toucan and a flower.
A portion of the government funding the museum receives is not indexed to inflation, which has created a $6-million gap.

Temper said the Museum of Nature’s Planet Ice exhibit was another example of Enbridge sponsoring a cultural event that the company was also “directly threatening” with its operations.

“It’s clear greenwashing, and undermines the credibility and integrity of the museum,” Temper said. “It’s a great deal for the company, because they’re allowed to clean their image for pennies. It’s shocking.”

Financial records show Enbridge made contributions to the museum each fiscal year of the last seven years. The museum’s annual reports show contributions in ranges, and Enbridge’s contributions were typically in the range of $25,000 to $99,999, with one fiscal year, 2018-19, in the higher category of $100,000 to $999,999. That year Enbridge paid $100,000 to be the presenting sponsor of the exhibit “Courage and Passion: Canadian Women in Natural Sciences,” according to a museum report.

Beckel portrayed the museum’s relationship with Enbridge as the result of a standard fundraising technique. She said the museum deliberately went back to the company over the years to try and get more funding because it was more straightforward than finding new sponsors.

“There’s a basic philosophy in sales, where it’s much easier to renew someone rather than to acquire a new customer,” she said. “You’re already working with an organization that believes in your mission, they already understand who you are, and they’re already committed to you.”

Smythe, the museum spokesperson, said the museum is a non-profit organization and relies on a variety of revenue sources to fund its programming and other activities. “Maintaining regular engagement and dialogue with sponsors over time is a best practice in fundraising,” he wrote in an emailed response to questions.

Beckel said the fundraising was necessary because, before the pandemic, the museum typically received around 70 per cent of its revenues from public funding. With a roughly $40-million operating budget, that meant around $10 million had to come from earned revenue, she said. Earned revenue is anything from sponsorships to ticket sales, paid parking or other sources.

“The museum must also fund any extraordinary investments in research, scientific equipment, Indigenous engagement, diversity and inclusion, collections acquisitions, digitization of the collection, gallery development and special exhibits,” she said.

“Fundraising is really important. That is why we try to make each sponsorship as engaging as possible, to touch as many individuals as possible and to make continued support more likely. This approach applied to all sponsors, not just Enbridge.”

The government funding the museum receives to cover its land and buildings is not covering the costs, and the gap is now $6 million, according to the museum’s annual report, which describes this situation as “the most pressing issue impacting the museum’s financial stability.”

Blue jellyfish floating in water.
Enbridge has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 from its operations and from the electricity it uses.

The federal government is “fully aware” of the museum’s various funding issues and even “encouraged growth in fundraising” as a result, Beckel said.

The government “encouraged growth in corporate sponsorships, and were fully aware there will always be risks that some people would take exception to corporate sponsorships at all — or particular corporate sponsors,” she said.

The Narwhal sent a list of questions to the office of Minister St-Onge asking whether she approved of the museum taking oil and gas money and whether she is content with oil and gas sponsorship at national museums going forward.

In response, spokesperson David Larose sent a short statement that said the museum independently makes its own fundraising decisions.

“National museums are autonomous Crown corporations that are responsible for their day-to-day operations, including decisions related to sponsorships and revenue generating activities, programming and exhibit content and the management of human and financial resources,” Larose wrote.

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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

The financial reports do show the museum made an attempt to increase corporate sponsorships and other ways of generating its own revenue. In its 2018-19 report, for example, the museum said it had set a goal of increasing self-generated revenues by five per cent annually.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which decimated attendance levels as group tours, school programs and tourists all stayed away and pandemic health restrictions forced the museum to close for roughly a year, followed by a period of reduced capacity to accommodate health protocols.

The museum was able to lean on emergency funding from the 2020 and 2021 federal budgets, but the pandemic is still impacting museum operations. The museum doesn’t expect a return to pre-pandemic levels of attendance until 2026, and projected another $6-million shortfall from earned revenue due to lower attendance levels in 2022-23.

On Nov. 9, the federal government announced plans for spending cuts. The Museum of Nature was one agency that would be affected, according to a report in CBC News, with $64,833 or about 0.2 per cent of its budget set to be frozen.

A whale skeleton on display in a museum exhibit with a Narwhal hanging from the ceiling.
The museum is facing a growing funding gap, including a recent 0.2 per cent freeze in its budget by the federal government, which has encouraged growth in fundraising.

Warnings in 2017 from campaign to drop ‘Big Oil’ as sponsors

The Museum of Nature is not the first national museum to come under fire for developing relationships with the oil and gas industry.

In 2012, the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa was called out for allowing a sponsorship with Imperial Oil, where the company got involved in recommending content changes to an exhibit on energy. The museum told Radio-Canada that it had the last word on content in the exhibit, and Imperial Oil said the museum made all final decisions on exhibit displays and content.

And in 2017, the advocacy group 350.org campaigned for Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History to drop its affiliation with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The country’s largest oil and gas lobby group gave a $400,000 gift to the museum in 2016-17 to support its Canadian History Hall, according to the museum’s annual report from that year.

The documents show how 350.org’s campaign, “Big Oil has no place in our museums,” found its way into the inboxes of officials at the Museum of Nature — presenting them with a stark warning about what their affiliation with Enbridge could mean for the museum’s reputation down the road.

The email was forwarded to museum officials by an individual, whose name is redacted in the documents, with a comment that the Museum of History’s relationship with the oil and gas lobby group was the “same sort of dirty sponsorship” as the Museum of Nature’s relationship with Enbridge, which at the time was sponsoring the museum’s awards program.

A sculpture of the moon hanging from the ceiling in a glass enclosure.
In 2017 the group 350.org campaigned for another Ottawa museum to drop its affiliation with an oil and gas lobby group.

“Our national Museum of Nature also needs to understand that the growing awareness of Canadians will not condone this sort of contradictory and, in my opinion, ultimately unethical behaviour,” they wrote.

Museum officials circulated the email to each other with a simple “FYI.” But the museum did not phase out Enbridge as a sponsor after being alerted to the potential reputational damage.

Amara Possian, Canada Team Lead for 350.org, said the documents show “museum officials ignored concerns raised by the public and instead worked to strengthen their relationship with Enbridge.”

Possian, like other critics, questioned whether the museum should be cultivating relationships in the oil and gas sector, the industry that is the largest emitter of carbon pollution in Canada.

Oil and gas producers have had problems containing methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, and cutting methane emissions is essential to tackling climate change.

Enbridge is known for its support for two oil pipelines, Line 3 and Line 5. The company increased the size of 614 kilometres of the Line 3 pipeline, carrying oil from Alberta’s oilsands to Wisconsin, despite some Indigenous communities opposition to the project, which cut through a reservation, treaty lands and the headwaters of the Mississippi River. (The company told Indian Country Today the project was focused on safety and passed multiple approval processes.)

The oil and gas company has also advocated to maintain Line 5, an oil pipeline that takes petroleum products from Western Canada through the United States to refineries in Sarnia, Ont. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has called Line 5 a “ticking time bomb” and ordered it shut down, because it crosses an environmentally sensitive area. The issue has been stuck in court, while the company has applied instead to build a tunnel under to encase the pipeline.

Smythe, the museum spokesperson, said as a public educational and scientific institution, the museum understood that people engaged with exhibits and programs in “different ways.”

“The museum presents factual information, informed by scientific evidence, which is developed and presented by museum staff based on the best available knowledge, and we are proud of the diligence to achieve this,” he wrote.

“The support of sponsors allows the museum to create engaging and informative programs and exhibitions about the importance of the natural world; however, the sponsors have no input over the content.”

A red and purple museum display with the title "The climate is changing" and information on climate change.
The museum says its exhibits present factual information developed by museum staff based on the best available knowledge.

‘I would love to announce Enbridge as our presenting sponsor if the decision has been made’

Enbridge has been involved in funding Museum of Nature activity since at least 2012, according to the documents.

In addition to Planet Ice and Courage and Passion, it also sponsored the museum’s annual awards program, the Nature Inspiration Awards, in 2015, 2016 and 2017, an Indigenous youth internship last year and sent gifts to the museum, or the Museum of Nature Foundation, a separate charitable organization focused on fundraising.

Beyond financial support, an Enbridge executive sat on the museum’s awards program jury and then on the board of the museum’s foundation, while another company executive was appointed by the Harper government as a museum trustee in 2011.

The documents show Beckel and her staff pressed Enbridge to sponsor the exhibit on women and science after the company told the museum its sponsorship of the awards program would not be renewed for a fourth year.

A museum official emailed the company: “Following up from our discussion about avenues to continue our partnership with Enbridge.” They included an information deck about Courage and Passion.

“Happy to discuss further by telephone, or I could prepare a formal proposal for Enbridge’s consideration?” they asked. The company said it would consider the matter.

A museum official then “took the liberty of preparing a sponsorship proposal” and followed up with Enbridge, telling them if they wanted to sponsor the exhibit, the designers would need to know early the following month. They followed up once more before forwarding the email chain to Beckel.

The museum president then emailed someone at the company, whose name is redacted in the documents, for “guidance on how to advance a pitch that was positively received” but “needs a final push within Enbridge.”

“I would love to announce Enbridge as our presenting sponsor if the decision has been made!” Beckel asked again a week later. An official from Enbridge told Beckel that day they had heard “favourable developments” and a decision would be coming soon.

Beckel told The Narwhal she couldn’t recall who the person was at Enbridge who she had asked about “guidance.” She said she sought advice from many different people on how to position a pitch for sponsorship. “Sponsorship is never a slam dunk, and the more people you talk to … the more likely that pitch will land,” she said.

The museum said the exhibit saw approximately 125,000 visitors during its run and noted the Enbridge logo appeared on all promotional material. The company was also allowed to host a reception using gallery space, rent free, among other perks.

On one day in April 2019, the museum penned three separate letters to different Enbridge officials, with handwritten notes in the margins of each letter expressing how grateful the museum was for the company’s support for the women in science exhibit.

“It was so great to work with you and your team,” the museum’s director of advancement wrote to one Enbridge manager.

“Your ongoing support and championship for the museum is so very appreciated,” the director wrote to another company official. “This was an incredible partnership and one we couldn’t have accomplished without your leadership.”

Sculpture of a dinosaur resembling a rhinoceros surrounded by a railing.
An Enbridge executive was seen by the museum’s former leader as an “internal champion” who acted as a company “filter” for sponsorship requests.

Enbridge wanted to keep a gift in honour of its executive out of the public eye

In October 2011, Enbridge executive Byron Neiles, who is now executive vice-president and chief administrative officer at the company, was appointed by the then-Conservative government to the Museum of Nature’s board of trustees. Neiles wound up sitting as a museum trustee for seven years until he was replaced in 2018.

In addition to governing the museum as part of the board, Neiles made donations himself. He’s listed in the “annual giving” category from 2011 to 2018, according to an internal document from the museum. The donation amounts are unlisted.

Neiles donated the honourarium he received for being a trustee back to the museum, Enbridge confirmed.

Beckel described Neiles to The Narwhal as the museum’s “internal champion” at Enbridge. She said he was the “filter” for sponsorship requests at Enbridge from the museum, although she noted each request was still considered by an internal team at the company before it went forward.

“Once Byron Neiles joined the board, support from Enbridge became a way for Byron to galvanize support for the museum, in addition to giving back his board retainers,” Beckel told The Narwhal.

Grey slate with the words "Natural Resources Canada," "Byron Neiles" and others.
Enbridge executive Byron Neiles was appointed by the then-Conservative government to the Museum of Nature’s board of trustees.

The museum spokesperson said Neiles and other trustees operated as a governance board, but they were “not involved in the day-to-day operations of the museum” and as such, did not “influence exhibition content or sponsorship decisions.”

Sutherland, the Enbridge spokesperson, said Neiles “has not been in contact with the museum for several years,” in response to questions from The Narwhal about his relationship with the museum and whether he was still in contact with museum officials.

The Narwhal also reached out to Neiles directly over LinkedIn but did not receive a response before publication.

In any case, the Enbridge executive’s presence as a museum trustee was important enough that, after he left, the company sent the museum’s charitable foundation a gift in October 2018 “in honour of Byron Neiles’ years of service.” The dollar amount is redacted in the documents but the gift was in the $25,000 to $99,000 donor category.

“The Canadian Museum of Nature Foundation is very grateful to Enbridge for investing in Canada’s natural future,” reads a letter acknowledging the gift.

In return, Enbridge got its name on the “donor wall” in the museum, as well as access, complimentary parking, invitations to VIP receptions, tours and dinners and recognition in the museum’s annual report and on its website.

Enbridge “does not wish to have any formal public announcement or sharing of this gift,” the letter noted.

It was not the only gift the company gave the museum. Six years earlier, Enbridge had covered the cost of an internal study. The dollar amount and the type of study isn’t mentioned in the documents, but Beckel wrote a letter to an Enbridge official in January 2013 thanking them for arranging the gift.

And in 2015, an Enbridge official offered a third gift of $15,000 to “offset the cost of a second in-person board of trustees meeting.”

An Earth sculpture hanging from the ceiling inside a tall building.
A museum official offered to help Enbridge “tell your story of commitment to environmental sustainability in Canada.”

‘We need Alberta and the oil and gas sector involved!’

One of the most direct examples of the museum using flattering language to draw in Enbridge was an email in 2016 from a corporate advancement officer at the museum.

The email came after Enbridge had sponsored the museum’s awards program the year prior.

“I really appreciate you making time for me, and the museum, as I know that these are times of great restraint for your industry, and I feel quite privileged that you have continued dialogue with us,” the museum official wrote.

“I know there is much more that I can do to connect Enbridge more intimately with the Nature Inspiration brand, and I propose a few ways that we could do so in 2016.”

A skeleton of a large animal or dinosaur hanging from the ceiling.
In 2020, the museum’s president wrote that she wanted to “re-engage with Enbridge in a meaningful way beyond (in addition to!) sponsorship.”

The official’s top pitch was for an Enbridge executive to sit on the awards jury. They also proposed other ideas, such as Enbridge writing a message in a print brochure, a company official addressing guests and getting the company logo onto some swag.

“These are just a few of the ideas I have for deepening the museum’s relationship with Enbridge and to helping to tell your story of commitment to environmental sustainability in Canada — there is no better organization to align these values, than with the Canadian Museum of Nature, our national natural history and natural sciences museum,” the museum official wrote.

In 2016, Enbridge was again the presenting sponsor for the Nature Inspiration Awards. This time, an Enbridge executive was on the jury that pared down the awards applications to a shortlist, and then selected the winner.

The documents also show Beckel was personally involved in drawing in the oil and gas sector.

In January 2020, Beckel emailed Neiles with a proposal on “how to reconnect the museum with Enbridge.” She suggested one of the company’s executives should sit on the board of the museum’s charitable foundation.

“I would love to re-engage with Enbridge in a meaningful way beyond (in addition to!) sponsorship. We need Alberta and the oil and gas sector involved!” she wrote.

Poster made by Enbridge advertising the Nature Inspiration Awards Gala.
The museum would take flack about using any sponsorship money, whether it was from the oil and gas industry or other sectors, said its former president. Photo: internal Museum of Nature documents

Two days later Beckel emailed Neiles again with a similar request: “Byron, is there a senior female leader within Enbridge who you think might be interested in joining our foundation board as a director,” she wondered.

“We need women, we need Alberta and we need oil and gas sector representation and reach.”

Beckel is now self-employed as the founder and principal at Octopus Thinking Advisory Services. She’s also serving on the steering committee for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Commission on Education and Communication, as well as the board of the Canadian Canoe Museum.

She said Enbridge was only one of several companies the Museum of Nature reached out to, representing a wide range of different types of natural resources, from renewables to mining to forestry.

Beckel said the museum would take flack about using any sponsorship money, whether it was from the oil and gas industry, big banks, mining companies or clothing manufacturers. She said the museum leadership even debated if they should charge admission fees.

Colourful triangle pattern on the walls of a hallway with images of the Arctic overtop.
Enbridge says it supports the Canadian economy’s transition “to a lower emissions future” but also wants a government strategy to export liquefied natural gas.

She defended her comment about involving “Alberta and the oil and gas sector” by arguing that, since the oil and gas sector is a significant part of the economy of one of the provinces of Canada, as a national museum, the Museum of Nature shouldn’t shy away from reaching out.

“As a national institution, we do have an obligation to engage all individuals, organizations and corporations that have a stake in the future of this country. And personally, as a professional, and as a leader, I believe in an open tent when it comes to donors and sponsors,” she said.

“We have an obligation to engage all stakeholders, even if their business is actually damaging to the planet. But you know, we’re on a functioning planet. And so we are all in this together, and we can’t be overly precious. I recognize there will always be a debate about whether or not national science museums should take money from oil and gas, or mining, or the financial services that enable them. And that debate will always be there, and so be it. But they are all part of our collective future.”

Beckel also argued the oil and gas sector is making investments in renewable energy and the sector is “very much part of the energy future for the country.” She said sponsorships like the ones with Enbridge help get companies in the oil and gas sector “in the room” where they can have “meaningful and challenging conversations about a sustainable natural future.”

Asked what kind of challenging conversations the museum had with Enbridge about fossil fuels and climate change, Beckel said Neiles’ presence on the board of trustees meant he was “very much part of these conversations” about everyone’s role in the sustainability of the planet.

“They were often very intense and serious conversations, because everybody was on the board because they really cared about the mission. And they recognize that we all have a part to play. And I was thankful that people were open to those conversations.”

Closeup of an eagle's head.
This year, the museum added a “principle” that the “actions, values and mission” of the organizations and individuals it partners with must be in line with the museum, particularly in the way of conservation.

Museum says it’s reviewing its sponsorship and donor policies

On that rainy October Sunday in Ottawa, Robert Gummow was visiting the museum for the first time and admiring its soaring atrium.

The 83–year-old from Whitby, Ont., said the museum was important to him because “it reinforces one’s connection with nature, and the importance of nature.”

He said he liked an interactive display where visitors could write messages on sticky notes about what they’ve done to save the environment. Gummow said he wrote that he had recently bought an electric vehicle and installed a heat pump.

He’s also calculated how much emissions he’s avoided as a result of those lifestyle changes.

A man wearing glasses in a Lee Valley ballcap and puffy jacket.
Museum visitor Robert Gummow said he enjoyed an exhibit display that asks visitors what they’ve done for the environment.

“Lots of people don’t know, but one litre of gasoline produces two and a half kilograms of carbon dioxide,” said Gummow. (The precise figure is 2.3 kilograms, according to Natural Resources Canada.)

“I don’t understand why that isn’t up front in big letters in some places.”

Enbridge, who manages Ontario’s heat pump program, is well aware of these sorts of reductions.

The company said in a recent submission to Parliament it supports the Canadian economy’s transition “to a lower-emissions future” and the need to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and has funded some emissions-reduction technologies. When the company signed on to the heat pump program, Enbridge expressed hope it would lead to lower natural gas use.

Its submission, however, also pushes the government to develop a strategy to export liquefied natural gas, a fossil fuel. A report from InfluenceMap, a United Kingdom-based energy think-tank that tracks oil and gas influence, notes Enbridge “appear(s) to engage positively on some areas of the energy transition while opposing others.” The company supports some decarbonization policies, InfluenceMap wrote, “alongside more negative advocacy for a continued role for fossil fuels in the energy mix.”

The path of energy transition is far from straight, especially for an oil and gas company, and the museum too appears to be reconsidering its place in a world increasingly aware of the climate emergency.

The documents show the museum’s guidelines for the acceptance of gifts and sponsorships allowed it to proceed with oil and gas sponsors on a “case by case basis.”

An undated guidelines document says the museum can proceed with sponsors in the “mining, oil and gas, banking and insurance” sectors if there are “sufficient potential benefits and sufficient examples of responsible practices.”

In another document outlining a development and fundraising policy dated August 2005, the museum said it reviews potential sponsors to ensure they fit with the museum’s values and ethics code.

That policy said an organization’s “recent performance is most significant,” and its “past performance could be mitigated by recent commitment to, and action on, positive change.”

Smythe, the museum spokesperson, told The Narwhal that, while Enbridge had indeed cleared the museum’s guidelines for sponsorships at the time, “this is an evolving process.”

Since late 2022, the museum has been “revising its policies, guidelines, and principles for advancement and fundraising,” Smythe wrote in an emailed response to questions.

He said the fundraising policy had been “due for review” and one had started in 2022 after Beckel retired.

Castle-like building with a green grass-like area in front of it.
The museum’s past guidelines for sponsorships have allowed it to take Enbridge money. The museum now says sponsorship “is an evolving process.”

As of this year, the museum has added a “principle” that the “actions, values and mission” of the organizations and individuals it partners with “align with those of the museum, particularly with respect to the conservation and protection of nature – without compromising our reputation as a trusted source of information.”

Asked if Enbridge would meet the museum’s current policies, he said the museum would still review any proposals.

“A determination of whether Enbridge would meet the revised policy and guidelines is not available at this time,” he said. “The review of the advancement policy is ongoing and requires time to be duly completed and implemented.”

Enbridge has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 from its operations and from the electricity it uses, and has “linked progress on our annual emission reduction goals to compensation for all executives and employees,” Sutherland, with Enbridge, said.

The company has made “more than $8 billion in renewable energy” investments since 2002 and expects to invest $4 billion in “renewables and low-carbon solutions” through 2025.

“When it comes to new projects or growth opportunities, we will not make any new investments unless it’s on a path to achieving that goal,” she said. “We’re taking our emission reduction targets seriously and approaching this challenge from all angles — modernizing our existing infrastructure and investing in low carbon solutions.”

Back on the museum grounds, Paul Gilbert was looking at one of the museum’s current exhibits, “Owls Rendez-Vous,” where live owls and an eagle are perched in a wooden outdoor display.

Man in a grey hat and blue sweater.
Paul Gilbert said he designed one of the museum’s exhibits in the 1970s. He said energy companies need to demonstrate they’re moving toward sustainability in order to tie in with an organization like the museum.

Gilbert said he spent time in Ottawa as a young child, and then came back to the city in 1975 — when he designed one of the exhibits, the original hall of animal life.

He called Enbridge “a little ahead of the curve” in terms of energy companies that have an awareness of their climate impact. But at the same time, he said, companies need to demonstrate that they’re making a difference.

“Corporate sponsors need to have an environmental policy of some sort. So I wouldn’t think an oil company would be a good idea, unless they can convince me they’re in the process of converting themselves to alternative energy,” Gilbert said.

“I think if you’re a corporate sponsor for a place like this, you have to come out and say something and actually stand behind it — I don’t want to hear platitudes, I want to hear performance. But there’s no reason why corporations can’t do that.”

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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