I remember the discomfort of testifying in 2017 and 2018 to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regarding Enbridge’s Line 3 oil sands pipeline. I was an expert witness speaking about the harmful effects of extractive industries in regards to sex trafficking and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR).
The pipeline employees snickered during one such testimony as I talked about these atrocities. After my testimony, I walked out of the room and burst into tears. To this day, I do not understand their behavior or the fact that the project manager could state under oath that he was unaware that his industry was linked to the issues I spoke about.
I told the PUC, and all listening, about the connection among sex trafficking, MMIR issues, and the oil industry. I cited specific cases and proof of the connections and felt we had made a clear case that this pipeline should not be allowed. We also talked about destruction of natural resources, lack of treaty rights being upheld, the lack of long-term jobs that would come from the pipeline, and more. Yet the permits were allowed to proceed.
Two years ago, I stood as a newly elected Cloquet city council member and asked that we refuse a donation from Enbridge. I had brought in two experts on the issue of sex trafficking to educate the council on this issue. The experts from Breaking Free made the link between extractive industries and sex trafficking. That night, the majority of the council voted to turn down the donation. Two weeks later, however, the city council overturned that decision, leaving only the mayor and myself still in opposition. The donation was accepted.
That brings us to February of this year. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, in partnership with the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office and Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking Task Force, arrested seven individuals in Northern Minnesota who were attempting to purchase sex with minor girls. Three have been linked to pipeline work, including two that were working on Line 3. These men had prior arrests for domestic violence and drunk driving, and previous behaviors of buying sex. Advocates and activists found these connections.
I did not feel vindicated that my testimony was proven correct but a deep sadness that what was foretold has come to be. Those who bought sex from minors were husbands, fathers of daughters, people respected in their communities. As a mother of three daughters, two of whom are in their teens, the feelings of fear and dread for their safety chokes me. I also work with survivors, and I am haunted by the pain in their eyes.
The Violence Intervention Project (VIP) of Thief River Falls has reported an increase in assaults of women by pipeline workers. The VIP has asked the PUC for a reimbursement of $47,000 for services to help victims.
I know some youth working as servers in restaurants that have been moved into the kitchen to protect them from new patrons. I also know people whose daughters have reported sexual harassment incidents at a local gas station and one of the hotel restaurants.
Although issues like this become public knowledge, there are those who are not concerned. It does not matter to them that the oil will not be used by our state or even in the U.S. It does not matter that this pipeline infringes on tribal rights. It does not matter that Minnesota, with over 10,000 lakes and a watershed that feeds Lake Superior and contains the Laurentian Divide — which feeds both Minnesota and Canadian waters — would be devastated by a leak. It does not matter that our women and children are targeted by predators.
What matters to some, men and women alike, is that money is extracted because we need oil.
We cannot step away from the fossil fuel industry overnight, but we can work toward renewable energy.
We also have strong local leadership. The Cloquet Chief of Police has taken action regarding sex trafficking and sexual assault. Upon request, our city has three officers trained in investigating trafficking, assault, and harassment issues. The police department has joined forces with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) Sex Trafficking Task Force so that officers are better trained at recognizing the signs of trafficking and partnering on investigations. Having law enforcement take these issues seriously, listening to the concern of citizens, can have a tremendous impact.
We are working on community education. The city council unanimously supported the police chief in his request to increase investigative abilities around sex trafficking and to partner with the BCA. The police chief supported and participated in a community prayer walk related to MMIR issues. It is important to engage in solutions with police departments, community advocates, and state agencies to combat these issues.
Legislative components can become the real game changer, however. Felony charges for buyers and a reduction in plea bargains for anyone participating in the buying or selling of another human being are areas that need to be addressed.
We want to see accountability for judges and district attorneys who continue to make plea bargains or fail to fully prosecute offenders.
We stand with unified voices, in some cases literally fighting for the lives of our families and the next seven generations.
Laws need to change and change quickly. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force has issued mandates in hopes of combating the assaults on us as tribal people.
We need to hold sex buyers accountable. We need to stop making plea deals with sex traffickers. While we wait to take this action, the numbers of victims are growing.
Sheila Lamb (she/her) is a board member of MN350, a city council member, a sexual assault advocate, and works with trafficked and at-risk youth. She is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault who uses her platform to address racial, social, and environmental justice issues in order to leave the world a better place.