Opinion: Don’t let fossil-fuel companies sponsor Winterlude

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The very polluters who are damaging the climate have a long history of backing such events to divert attention from their own negative behaviours.

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For anyone who grew up or spent time in Ottawa, the Rideau Canal is more than just the world’s biggest skating rink. The beloved skateway has been the place of first skates, romantic dates and hard-won hockey games between friends. Canadians from all walks of life have laced up to glide across the canal’s ice.

But as Canada’s climate warms, these fond memories are harder to come by. The Rideau Canal Skateway failed to open last year and this year’s initial opening lasted just four days. Now ice lovers are asking: Will we be able to skate the canal at all during Winterlude?

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Given the importance of, well, winter, to Winterlude, it’s a great paradox that one of this iconic festival’s longest-running sponsors is Enbridge Gas. Enbridge is Canada’s largest distributor of fossil-fuel gas, used to heat homes and water and generate electricity. But its product — marketed as “natural” gas — is in fact primarily methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

There’s a grim irony in large polluters such as Enbridge sponsoring winter events. Quite simply, their emissions lead to an increase in global temperatures — dire news for the snow and ice events such as Winterlude rely on.

When the skateway remained shut last year, we believed it was high time for the beloved Ottawa festival to drop Enbridge Gas as a corporate sponsor. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) launched a call for the Department of Canadian Heritage, the festival organizer, to do just that. There was much public support.

We had a moment of hope when Winterlude 2024 was announced online and Enbridge appeared nowhere. CAPE sent multiple messages to Canadian Heritage over the course of weeks to try to confirm the status of Enbridge as a sponsor, and got no response. Sadly, as Winterlude signage hit the streets of Ottawa earlier this week, Enbridge’s logo — and that of its Quebec wing, Gazifère — were included prominently as sponsors.

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Unfortunately, Enbridge’s Winterlude sponsorship is not an anomaly. There’s a long history of companies sponsoring events and festivals as a way to divert attention from their negative behaviours and gain public support: a.k.a. “sportswashing.” A report from early last year found a minimum of 107 sponsorship deals between winter sporting events and large emitters around the world, including fossil-fuel companies, car manufacturers and others.

For example, Enbridge is listed as a sponsor for the River Lights Winter Festival in Amherstburg, Ont. In 2019, ATCO Energy was the sponsor of the Canada Winter Games. Petro-Canada — owned by Suncor Energy —  is listed as a sponsor of the Canadian Olympic Committee. The International Ice Hockey Federation and Hockey Canada also have Esso (ExxonMobil) as a sponsor for the World Juniors, a sponsorship which Save Pond Hockey, Swedish organization Badvertising and CAPE are working to stop.

In sum, the fossil-fuel companies most responsible for the health and environmental harms of climate change and pollution are using community events as billboards to promote their interests. And all this for a pittance compared to the massive profits they’re making. Meanwhile, the harms they’re pushing on Canadian communities are countless: from rising asthma rates to smoke-clogged skies to deaths from extreme heat.

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When it comes to tobacco sponsorship of sport, the federal government took the position almost 40 years ago that “the sponsorship of amateur sport should not be used as a vehicle for promoting a product which is a major health risk for Canadian youth and the population in general.”

That’s why we’re outraged to see the Enbridge logo displayed alongside Winterlude’s iconic snowflake on posters across the city. The fact that Winterlude will be contaminated by fossil-fuel companies’ “sportswashing” is a disgrace. We call on Canadian Heritage to institute policies barring fossil-fuel companies from sponsoring their events. The health of Canadians, the climate, and our winters depend on it.

Family physician Sehjal Bhargava is co-chair of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE)’s Ontario chapter. Leah Temper is economic and health policy program director at CAPE. Steven Baynes is executive director and co-founder of Save Pond Hockey.

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