Indigenous power shift

First Nations across Canada are shifting to clean energy

Indigenous communities are leading the way for creative energy mixes in rural locations
Photo: Province of British Columbia

Beaver Lake Cree Nation, or Amisk Sakahikan Nehiyaw, a First Nation located halfway between Edmonton and Fort McMurray in the heart of Alberta’s oil and gas country, installed its first solar power project last month. The 24.5-kilowatt system is just one of the latest initiatives by First Nations in Canada to decrease their carbon footprint and take control of their energy future.

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"This project for me represents the true spirit and intent of Treaty,” Crystal Lameman, Treaty Coordinator for Amisk Sakahikan Nehiyaw, told Ricochet by phone. “‘As long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow’ — this was what guided my renewable energy inquiry and that of defining Indigenous economic, food and energy sovereignty."

With the words “as long as the sun shines” in mind, Lameman, Amisk Sakahikan Nehiyaw, and the local environmental group Keepers of the Athabasca initially set out to build a much smaller six-kilowatt solar energy system. A grant from the provincial government’s Alberta Indigenous Solar Program allowed the First Nation to quadruple the project’s energy output capacity.

Solar panels power (underfunded) schools

An array of solar panels now sit on the roof of Amisk Sakahikan Nehiyaw’s community school. They will help the school reduce its energy costs, which could free up money for education programs. Indigenous education has received considerably less money than non-Indigenous education in Canada. In an interview with a former TD economist last year, the CBC reported that First Nations’ schools received an estimated 30 per cent less money from the federal government than the provinces provide for non-Indigenous schools under their jurisdiction.

Lameman said her elders and community were supportive of the solar project from the start and several young men and women took part in an unpaid training session to learn how to install the system. The on-reserve population of Amisk Sakahikan Nehiyaw is only 400 people.

“I believe that young people are really wanting to change the language and change the landscape of the current economy,” Lameman said. “It is a perfect example of how First Nations people want to be engaged in the economy, but that they want to do it in a sustainable way.”

Amisk Sakahikan Nehiyaw is currently locked in a major lawsuit with the governments of Alberta and Canada over the 19,000 tar sands and other energy projects on their traditional territory. An underground oil blowout from a tar sands project on Amisk Sakahikan Nehiyaw’s territory resulted in bitumen contaminating a lake, muskeg and forest in 2013. Three years later it was still unclear if the bitumen had stopped seeping to the surface.

Lubicon Cree reduce power bills with solar

The Lubicon Cree First Nation is another Alberta First Nation that has switched to solar in recent years. The Lubicon Cree also experienced an environmental disaster before they went ahead with their renewable energy project. A pipeline rupture in 2011 leaked 4.5 million litres of oil into waterways and a forest on their traditional territory. The spill was one of the largest in Alberta’s history.

Four years after the spill, the Lubicon Cree, who identify as Sakaw Nehiyawak (meaning “Northern” or “Bush” Cree in their language), installed a 20.8-kilowatt solar project at their health centre in Little Buffalo. Ten arrays with eight solar panels each stand in the yard of the health centre.

Corrine Gladue, director of the health centre, explained they did not receive a power bill for six months after the system was built, because the panels produced as much electricity as the health centre required.

“We are enjoying the solar panels and solar energy. It really helps the power bill for our health centre,” Gladue told Ricochet. “I think everyone in the community was very excited…People would come into the health centre and sometimes ask, ‘Are those things working for you guys? How does that work?’”

Indigenous health care is yet another area where funding from the federal government has been inadequate. A copy of a Health Canada assessment obtained by NDP MP Charlie Angus under Access to Information legislation earlier this year revealed that First Nations communities have limited access to health professionals and First Nations health centres often lack equipment, leaving some First Nations parents desperate to get treatment for their children and elders.

Indigenous renewable energy projects in development across Canada

Alberta is not the only province in Canada to see a rise in Indigenous-owned clean energy development. An ongoing academic survey initiated by the University of Calgary in 2014 found roughly 300 renewable energy projects. Out of the 194 projects in Indigenous communities, the majority are still in the feasibility study phase. Most of those projects were in British Columbia and Ontario,and 75 involved solar power.

“If you see everything as sacred…not just people, animals and plants, but the elements, the wind, the sun and the ocean and the rivers and the mountains [as] all sacred, not to be exploited but harnessed, that fits in really well with solar and wind,” Andrew Moore, the director of the T’Sou-ke First Nation’s solar project in southern British Columbia, told Ricochet.

“We are not expecting to pay for electricity for the next fifty years at least.”

The T’sou-ke First Nation on southern Vancouver Island became one of the first Indigenous communities in Canada to adopt solar when it unveiled its 75-kilowatt solar project in 2009. Since then, T’sou-ke has been the go-to source for Indigenous communities seeking to get solar projects up and running. Over 2000 visitors, from Indigenous leaders to academics, travel to T’sou-ke to participate in solar energy workshops each year, according to Moore. Even federal and B.C. government officials have stopped in to see T’sou-ke’s solar power system.

“We do a lot of workshops and conferences at T’sou-ke. It is almost like we have a campus,” Moore said. “Eco-tourism came completely out of the blue for us. We had no idea this was going to happen.”

T’sou-ke began its solar journey with community-planning sessions where members of the First Nation were asked to envision what they wanted the community to look like in the future. From these meetings, T’sou-ke developed four goals that would guide the design and implementation of the solar project: energy sovereignty, food sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency, and the restoration of traditional values.

“The chief often says when we have a solar spill here we call it a very nice day,” Moore said. “We are not expecting to pay for electricity for the next fifty years at least.”

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