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What matters at Canada’s winter events: fossil fuel sponsors — or ice?

Ottawa’s second Winterlude without the Rideau Canal Skateway is its 27th sponsored by Enbridge Gas. Festivals from B.C. to Quebec accept money from fossil fuel companies whose products imperil winter itself

As the snowman Bonhomme Carnaval frolics in front of the logo of natural gas company Énergir in Quebec City this week, it’s unlikely Carnaval de Québec revellers are thinking about the wildfire smoke that choked the province’s air much of last summer. 

There are more than a hundred mid-winter wildfires currently burning in B.C., where the town of Fernie is gearing up for sledding, skiing and other snow-focused activities at Griz Days, sponsored by NWP Coal, mining company Teck Resources and methane gas giant TC Energy

In Minnedosa, Man., where spring floods and summer droughts are both annual worries, oilsands behemoth Cenovus is sponsoring the annual Rock the Lake and Skate the Lake curling and hockey tournaments. Along with Canadian Natural Resources Limited, which produces oil and gas in Canada, the U.K. and Africa, Cenovus also sponsors Winterfest in Lloydminster: two years ago, a massive cloud of methane was detected above the city, which straddles the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

And in the nation’s capital, for the second year in a row, the Rideau Canal Skateway is closed as Winterlude begins. As water pooled on the thin ice in Ottawa, it was hard to tell if the Department of Canadian Heritage was accepting money from Enbridge Gas for this year’s festival. On Jan. 29, three days before the party started, the department would say only that it was “finalizing discussions with partners and sponsors for this year’s event.” 

But while the federal department demurred, Enbridge didn’t. “Enbridge Gas is pleased to continue to be a sponsor of Winterlude this year as we have annually for more than 20 years,” a spokesperson wrote to The Narwhal. “We’re proud to support community-building events like this through donations, sponsorships and employee volunteerism, and give back to the vibrant communities where we live, work and operate.” By the evening before the launch of the festival, at least one sign on Sparks Street featured the company’s logo.

The role of fossil fuels in global warming is undeniable. On a web page titled “Scientific Consensus,” NASA lists 18 scientific bodies in the U.S. and beyond that agree “human activities (primarily the human burning of fossil fuels) have warmed Earth’s surface and its ocean basins, which in turn have continued to impact Earth’s climate. This is based on over a century of scientific evidence forming the structural backbone of today’s civilization.” Most of the year, the emissions-fuelled climate crisis brings an increase in scary things, including storms, floods, heatwaves and last summer’s unprecedented wildfires.

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In winter, global warming means loss — especially this year, when the El Niño weather system has teamed up with climate change to make this one of the least snowy seasons many people in Canada can remember. Yet across the country and the globe, fossil fuel companies’ logos are plastered across events and activities that their products imperil. It seems odd to prioritize these festivals’ budgets or their sponsors’ feelings over ice, skating, snow, sledding and cold weather — in other words, winter itself. 

Protestors march in downtown Vancouver protest the 2010 winter Olympics.
Among the issues that drew protestors to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics was sponsorship by PetroCanada. Photo: Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

Canadian Heritage accepts Enbridge money for Winterlude and beyond

Fossil fuel sponsorship of winter events isn’t happening without resistance. For years, the Finnish-led Save Pond Hockey campaign has tried to get the IIHF World Junior Championship to stop accepting money from Esso, owned by oil giant ExxonMobil. Last year, the European think-tank New Weather Institute documented 107 instances of fossil fuel companies, carmakers or airlines sponsoring winter sporting events, organizations or athletes in its report “The Snow Thieves,” zeroing in on sponsorship of the world’s biggest cross-country skiing race in Sweden.

At home, PetroCanada’s Olympic sponsorship has raised ire since at least the 2010 Vancouver winter games. But opposition to polluters’ money at Canada’s local events is still rare. Winterlude drew wide attention only recently — last year, to be precise, the first winter in over half a century when the canal didn’t open for skating at all. Ecology Ottawa held a vigil for the skateway, which is central to Ottawa’s identity as a place where cold weather is celebrated. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment circulated a petition demanding Canadian Heritage refuse sponsorship from Enbridge, the largest distributor of methane-heavy natural gas in the country. 

“These sorts of sponsorships really, really continue to normalize the fossil fuel economy,” the association’s health and economic policy program director, Leah Temper, said. She believes the department’s hesitation to discuss this year’s sponsorship is likely tied to last year’s unwanted attention. Winterlude was just part of it: as The Narwhal reported in November, Ottawa’s Museum of Nature, which is also overseen by Canadian Heritage, has accepted Enbridge money as well. The scientific institution even asked the gas giant to help pay for Planet Ice: Mysteries of the Ice Ages, an exhibit addressing climate change’s impact on the Arctic. 

In its email to The Narwhal, Enbridge Gas didn’t answer a question about whether it had discussed last year’s Winterlude protests with the Heritage Department. Instead, it noted the company “provides heat and energy to three of every four homes in Ottawa, as well as to vital businesses and institutions like Parliament Hill and hospitals ….” 

“Enbridge Gas is one of Canada’s largest renewable energy companies with over 5,300 [megawatts] of renewable generation. We are working to add low-carbon gases such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen to our networks, and are committed to helping Ottawans improve the energy efficiency of their homes and businesses,” the statement continued. 

Temper believes the federal department is reluctant to resist a revenue stream it’s relied on since 1997. But if the Justin Trudeau government wants Canadians to believe in its climate commitments, it has to “show leadership,” she said.

Bonhomme Carnaval raises his leg and celebrates at the annual Quebec Winter Carnival snow bath in Quebec City in 2023.
Carnaval de Québec is sponsored by natural gas company Énergir. Photo: Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press

“Fossil fuel greenwashing is actually delaying and obstructing the very policies that they’re trying to put in place to have a just transition away from a fossil fuel economy, which we know we have to do,” she said. Dropping Enbridge “would be one way to send a strong message.” 

By now, every company has some sort of “sustainability pledge,” including all of Canada’s fossil fuel producers. But promises for the future must be weighed against today’s emissions, as well as other environmental infractions. 

Both Enbridge and Énergir are pledging bigger moves into low-emission and renewable energy — and both Enbridge and Énergir have tried to delay or water down rules to get new buildings off of methane-heavy natural gas. Cenovus belongs to the Pathways Alliance, a group of companies whose net-zero plans rely on unproven carbon capture technology, not reducing or phasing out oilsands extraction. Teck’s most recent Sustainability Report details its efforts to plant trees and clean up air and water around its Elk Valley coal mines near Fernie: which is to say, touting itself for addressing the deforestation and pollution its operations caused. And TC Energy’s renewable energy proposal in Ontario doesn’t negate the local and global effects of the liquefied gas it plans to ship overseas via a new pipeline in B.C. 

Upper Fording River selenium Teck Resources coal mining
High levels of selenium, which can be harmful to wildlife, have been measured in the Upper Fording River downstream from a Teck Resources mine near Fernie, B.C., where the company is sponsoring Griz Days this winter. Photo: Jayce Hawkins / The Narwhal

There’s no avoiding that the oil and gas sector is Canada’s largest — and fastest growing — source of the emissions contributing to the climate crisis. Snowflakes around logos on a festival banner don’t change that, especially when there’s no actual snow to play with.  

“We just want to make sure Winterlude is sustainable regardless of what Mother Nature gives us. We want to be able to go forward,” Melanie Brault, director of capital celebrations at Canadian Heritage, told the Ottawa Citizen, touting this year’s ice-free activities, including dance performances and a light show.

But winter festivals don’t make sense without cold, ice and snow. Perhaps the party shouldn’t go on if winter itself is disappearing.  

Updated Feb. 1, 2024, at 1 p.m. ET: This article was updated to correct the year that Enbridge Gas began sponsoring Winterlude. It was 1997, not 2007.

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