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Indigenous Leaders: The protester inside the energy industry

Wiikwemkoong's Kaella-Marie Earle seeks to lead Canada's oil and gas sector through an inclusive and renewable energy renaissance
Kaella Marie Earle
Kaella-Marie Earle (Supplied)

If there's one skill Kaella-Marie Earle takes from her days of protesting the energy industry it's that she's very good at getting large groups of people pretty excited.

At 29, the Sudbury-born engineer-in-training with Enbridge Gas is an emerging figure as a budding Indigenous leader who's out to bridge the cultural gap between Canada's Indigenous people and the energy industry.

Based in Chatham in southwestern Ontario, Earle works as a project manager for engineering construction system improvement. The day-to-day duties involve working on transmission and storage expansion of large natural gas pipelines but so is working as a liaison with Indigenous communities.

"We regularly work with with local First Nation communities on our projects." 

Last summer, Earle received the distinct honour of being asked to serve on an inaugural Indigenous Advisory Committee with the Canada Energy Regulator (CER), joining a diverse group of First Nation representatives from communities and organizations across Canada. 

The Crown agency is the federal regulator of pipelines, powerlines, imports and exports of energy products. 

Earle's committee doesn't make decisions on energy projects but meets monthly to assist the CER's board of directors on a variety of topics, many of them Indigenous community-based issues, and discusses how policies can be developed to promote a better understanding and dialogue with First Nation people.

"Our work plan is vast and ambitious and the team is really excited," said Earle. "It's been a massive learning curve."

A priority item for Earle is developing Indigenous cultural competency, meaning addressing and understanding how things are understood differently by First Nations people according to their culture.

"That's really the crux of a lot of the historical issues: the government or previous regulatory bodies not really understanding where Indigenous people are coming from. Really, the way that you understand that better is having a better cultural understanding of those communities."

The fact that she works in the oil and gas industry, and serves as a government advisor, would've been shocking not that long ago to the member of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. 

As a spirited, environmentally conscious post-secondary student, she was more likely to protest her current employer than work for it.

"Three or four years ago I was an anti-pipeline protester for about five years," she laughs. "I've been someone who's very passionate about protecting the land for pretty much my entire life."

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During her formative years, growing up on the reserve on the eastern end of Manitoulin Island, she took the band leadership to task, in a letter to the chief, demanding to know why the reserve didn't have a recycling program. It must have been a persuasive letter because a recycling system was in place a week later.

She points to her Cambrian College and Laurentian University years as being personally transformative in learning about the impact of fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions, and industry's negative legacy on Indigenous communities, while leading a number of Sudbury protests in railing against large oil and gas infrastructure projects.

At the same time, she was undergoing a spiritual reawakening of her Anishnaabek roots in reclaiming her language and cultural identity.

"I think I was really fired up – learning about all these historical oppressions, residential schools, learning about my own family – so I was very angry. Oh my god, it was like all these horrible things bundled up. I needed to protest."

Her world took a decidedly different turn in 2018, during Earle's third year of chemical engineering school at Laurentian. Her professor asked if she'd be interested in a co-op placement, an opportunity she eagerly accepted.

As fate would decide, the employer's name pulled out of the hat was Union Gas, just acquired by Enbridge. Hardly her first choice, but Earle began researching the gas pipeline company in preparation for her interview. She discovered some innovative things they were doing by way of renewable natural gas projects and hydrogen injection to reduce methane emissions.

"I was really surprised a company like this was focusing on something so progressive in energy."

During her interview, she recalls one question which threw her off balance: Where did she see herself in the next five years?

"I remember an answer coming out of my mouth and being surprised because I had no idea where it came from."

She projected herself as a future operational leader at Union Gas who would shepherd them to the promised land of clean energy renewables, while working hand in hand with Indigenous communities – an answer that stunned her interviewer.

"I delivered this State of Union address on how I was going to help lead them in the energy transition," recalls Earle, laughing. "I remember it being really shocking to me. I'm, like, where's this coming from?"

She pinpoints that as her moment of turning over a new leaf on energy.

Her initial fears about the professional environment she was entering were soon put to rest. She found herself embraced by a team of people with an engrained interest in caring for the environment and wanting to do right by Indigenous communities. 

"I was proven so wrong. I was surrounded by people who cared about the land, cared about delivering high-quality work, cared about families and community outreach, and people who cared about developing me as a professional."

Earle finds a cultural renaissance is taking place within the energy and mining sectors to align their policies and practices to the values of society at large.

Industry is facing pressure to change drastically to become net-zero operations before governments eventually regulate them to do so.

That means reaching out to environmental groups and mobilizing groups of people to take tangible action to facilitate change.

"There is common ground," Earle said. "You need different voices at the table to develop innovative ideas to facilitate the change."

Earle said most people don't understand the concept of energy transition, expecting modern society to make the radical leap from petroleum and gas-based energy to renewables overnight.

"It doesn't work," she said. "In the meantime, we need to take care of the infrastructure that supports oil and gas. And we can't stop other developing countries from going through their industrial era. How do we support them in the cleanest, safest way possible? Exporting our resources is how we do that because we do it safer and more environmentally friendly than any other country."

Taking that stance has at times made Earle a target for being an Indigenous person working inside an industry that's been a flashpoint of protest.

"I've gotten a lot of flak from protestors, people calling me a sellout."

But she found solace after a recent conversation with recently retired senator and First Nations lawyer Murray Sinclair. She relayed to him the criticism she had been receiving; "that I wasn't a real Native, and I didn't deserve to practice my own culture, like really cruel things because I work in oil and gas." 

Sinclair mentioned he took his share of criticism during his early days as a lawyer in the 1970s in working directly with the Canadian government – considered an oppressive regime – in seeking to reform the way Ottawa deals with First Nations.

"People called him a sellout and traitor, but he said he said knew that was the place where he needed to work because that's where the work was, that's where the improvement was needed."

When asked how she views her career trajectory, Earle views herself as a changemaker in a role that will facilitate Enbridge's energy transition while generating positive cultural change from within.

"That is what I would like to be for the energy industry. I don't know exactly what that will be like. Maybe that's as an executive leader, maybe that's just staying where I am."

For now, her goal is to professionally develop herself as a technically competent engineer and operational leader, while also encouraging Indigenous people to pursue careers in engineering and promote inclusion.

Based on her experiences, Earle finds that there's plenty of room for Indigenous people to work within the energy sector and she's only too eager to build that movement toward greater inclusion.

"Out of all those years of me protesting and being inside of academia, I don't think I've ever been more accomplished inside the space of inclusion and energy transition than I have just in working with oil and gas, which I never would have thought."

This is one in a series of articles profiling recognized leaders from Indigenous communities across Northern Ontario, who stand out for the contributions they’re making on local, regional, and international levels.